By Alex Traiman
(JNS) Israel set off a firestorm this week in announcing that U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) would not receive entry visas for their self-stated visit to “Palestine.”
Just two weeks earlier, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer—a trusted adviser with a direct line to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—had stated 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.”
And it was just days ago that 72 representatives from both parties toured Israel on delegations specifically designed for freshman members of Congress. Yet Tlaib and Omar refused to attend, joining calls to #skipthetrip, which was organized on behalf of the representatives by the American Israeli Education Foundation (AIEF), a division of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Instead, Tlaib and Omar scheduled a different trip sponsored by Miftah, an organization that promotes boycotts and delegitimization of Israel. The itinerary did not include any coordination with Israel’s foreign ministry or formal requests to meet any Israeli officials.
When Israeli government officials learned of the itinerary, they announced that the two anti-Israel representatives would not receive entry visas for a trip, in accordance with a 2017 law that permits the country to ban promoters of boycotts from entering the country, which was clearly scheduled specifically for the purpose of strengthening their anti-Israel narrative.
Opponents of the decision, including other members of Congress and members of the American Jewish communal establishment, came out in full force to deride the Israeli government’s enforcement of its law.
Many said the decision was a sign of weakness on the part of Israel’s democracy, while others said the decision would hurt Israel’s image abroad.
Additionally, opponents of the decision have said that it would do irreparable harm to the U.S.-Israel relationship. In a statement, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations noted that in a phone call on the reversal with Dermer, “Concerns were expressed by numerous leaders about the implications of the decision and how it is perceived, while acknowledging the extreme anti-Israel rhetoric and actions of the congresswomen.”
Yet U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman countered those claims, implying that the enforcement of its law would not harm relations, stating that “the United States supports and respects the decision of the Government of Israel to deny entry to the Tlaib/Omar Delegation.” He went on to state that “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.”
Just hours before Israel made the announcement to bar the two congresswomen, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that “it would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.”
In making the decision, Israel sent a strong message to Omar and Tlaib, and other BDS supporters: If you promote boycotts of Israel, then Israel boycotts you. If you delegitimize Israel as a sovereign entity and make anti-Semitic claims, then Israel does not give legitimacy to your positions, even (and especially) as members of the government of a close ally like the United States.
Whether one agrees with Israel’s decision or not, it was made from a position of strength, not weakness. Israel’s democracy has proven time and again that it can withstand any criticism, whether from grassroots activists to nation-state leaders.
The special relationship between Israel and the United States is based on shared values and mutual respect. For those members of Congress who continue to express those shared values and show respect towards the Jewish nation as a power and a positive force, they will always be invited and welcomed with open arms.
Unfortunately, progressive members of the Democratic Party are introducing a new set of political values and seemingly working to deride the Israeli government. This stark distancing from Israel, which has embedded itself within the party long before Omar and Tlaib were elected, threatens the U.S. relationship with Israel much more than the government’s reaction to a provocative itinerary meant to further delegitimize the Jewish state.
And whether the decision was the correct move—either from the point of Israel’s complicated public relations or from the purview of maintaining Israel’s long-term bond with the Democratic Party—it is well within its sovereign right as a strong and free nation to decide either to let the two enter or to #skiptheirtrip.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate.