JERUSALEM—Two just-released documents, apparently written in haste, unintentionally reveal quite a few details that both Israel and the United States would have preferred to keep hidden about a remarkable diplomatic eruption here.
For the first time in its history, Israel denied entry to two members of the United States Congress—and this at the instigation of U.S. President Donald Trump, who tweeted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would look “weak” if he let them in.
But first a bit of background: After Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn) announced their intention to visit Israel, its ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, issued a statement July 19 saying that "out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel."
What went wrong?
Statement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
No country in the world respects America and the American Congress more than the State of Israel.
The Daily Beast: Netanyahu fears the sort of blowback he received on Thursday from GOP Senator Marco Rubio, who Tweeted that the Israeli leader is playing into his opponents’ hands. The decision “is a mistake,” said Rubio. “Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state.”
Netanyahu, who studied in the United States in the '70s, and whose mother was American, knows it is unprecedented and almost inconceivable that Israel would deny entry to any duly elected members of the United States Congress.
As a free and vibrant democracy, Israel is open to critics and criticism, with one exception: Israeli law prohibits the entry into Israel of those who call for and work to impose boycotts on Israel, as do other democracies that prohibit the entry of people who seek to harm the country.
In 2017, Israel passed a controversial law allowing it to deny entry to any supporters of BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.
In fact, in the past the U.S. did this to an Israeli member of Knesset, as well as to other public figures from around the world.
Netanyahu refers to Israeli parliamentarian Michael Ben Ari, who he (inconveniently) brought into his coalition last May in a desperate and ultimately failed attempt to form a government. In 2012, the United States refused to issue Ben Ari an entry visa on the grounds that he belonged to a “terrorist organization,” the Jewish supremacist group Kach, founded by American-Israeli rabbi Meir Kahane and banned both in Israel and in the United States. Is Netanyahu implying Tlaib and Omar are members of a terrorist organization?
Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar are leading activists in promoting the legislation of boycotts against Israel in the American Congress. Only a few days ago, we received their itinerary for their visit in Israel, which revealed that they planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel’s legitimacy. For instance: they listed the destination of their trip as Palestine and not Israel, and unlike all Democratic and Republican members of Congress who have visited Israel, they did not request to meet any Israeli officials, either from the government or the opposition.
They also did not request to meet any Palestinian officials. With one exception, the itinerary focuses on activist and civil society group. (See more below.)
A week ago, Israel warmly welcomed some 70 Democratic and Republican members of Congress, who expressed broad bipartisan support for Israel, which was also demonstrated a month ago in a resounding bipartisan vote against BDS in Congress.
Indeed. Making this diplomatic muck-up even worse, Netanyahu is concerned that some of these legislators, among them 41 Democrats— a meeting he flaunted—could reveal what they heard during the visit: that he was contemplating capitulating to Trump’s demands.
Having failed to form a government, Netanyahu is in the final stretch of a tough re-match for re-election, with the vote on September 17. His alliance with Trump has played a major role in his party’s electoral campaign, which recently covered its seven-floor headquarters in Tel Aviv with a poster showing Netanyahu and Trump shaking hands. Trump’s Thursday tweet trolling Netanyahu for “showing great weakness” by allowing Tlaib and Omar to visit was widely mocked in Israel.
However, the itinerary of the two congresswomen reveals that the sole purpose of their visit is to harm Israel and increase incitement against it.
Israel is in fact unmentioned in the itinerary announcing a “U.S. Congressional Delegation to Palestine,” which is not recognized as a state by the United States and by Israel.
In addition, the organization that is funding their trip is Miftah, which is an avid supporter of BDS, and among whose members are those who have expressed support for terrorism against Israel.
Miftah refers to itself as the “Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy.” Netanyahu did not provide any evidence linking it to terror.
Therefore, the minister of interior has decided not to allow their visit, and I, as prime minister, support his decision.
Oops. An Interior Ministry official told The Daily Beast the ministry had no knowledge of the approval or subsequent denial of the congresswomen’s visit. An official in the Ministry for Strategic Affairs said “any decision regarding members of Congress is made personally by the prime minister.”
Nonetheless, if Congresswoman Tlaib submits a humanitarian request to visit her relatives, the minister of interior has announced that he will consider her request on the condition that she pledges not to act to promote boycotts against Israel during her visit.
A personal dig at Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants to the United States, who has previously visited the West Bank town of Beit Ur al Fuqa, which is occupied by Israel, but where her grandmother still lives. Netanyahu provides no explanation for why Tlaib should have to request a humanitarian exemption for a return visit.
Statement of Ambassador David Friedman with regard to the decision of the Government of Israel to deny entry to delegation led by Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar
August 15, 2019
The United States supports and respects the decision of the Government of Israel to deny entry to the Tlaib/Omar Delegation.
Even Rep. Omar, whose planned visit to Palestine was scrapped, noted that Netanyahu acted “under pressure from President Trump.”
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is not free speech. Rather, it is no less than economic warfare designed to delegitimize and ultimately destroy the Jewish State. Israel properly has enacted laws to bar entry of BDS activists under the circumstances present here, and it has every right to protect its borders against those activists in the same manner as it would bar entrants with more conventional weapons.
Is Friedman accusing American legislators of declaring war on Israel?
Initially, Israel had indicated that it would accept the Tlaib/Omar Delegation, and use their visit as an opportunity to engage with and educate the delegation members with regard to Israel’s vibrant and robust democracy, its religious tolerance and its ethnic diversity.
Initially, the U.S. Embassy indicated it was fine with the visit. In the single exception to the activism-oriented trip Tlaib and Omar planned, a leaked itinerary reveals a meeting with U.S. embassy officials in Jerusalem. When asked by The Daily Beast, an American embassy official declined to comment, adding “no comment is not a denial.”
Unfortunately, the itinerary of the Tlaib/Omar Delegation leaves no room for that opportunity. In contrast to the nearly 70 freshmen members of Congress who just recently completed, or who are currently pursuing, a balanced visit to Israel that includes meetings with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Tlaib/Omar Delegation has limited its exposure to tours organized by the most strident of BDS activists. This trip, pure and simple, is nothing more than an effort to fuel the BDS engine that Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar so vigorously support.
Tlaib and Omar may have hoped to advance BDS through this visit. But for now, Trump rebooted the anti-Tlaib and Omar antagonism popular with his base by throwing close ally Netanyahu under the bus. Netanyahu now has to explain the humiliating flip-flop to his own electorate.
Like the United States, Israel is a nation of laws. We support Israel’s application of its laws in this case.
As Friedman knows, this extraordinary breach of protocol—an American president demanding a close ally deny entry to American legislators—had nothing to do with any law.