Citing a law against “boycott activities,” Israel said Thursday that it would block Democratic U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan from making a private visit to the Israel-occupied West Bank. Both congresswomen are Muslims who have been critical of Israel’s influence in Washington, not always in the most diplomatic ways, and both have supported Palestinians and the “BDS” movement proposing boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
The Associated Press reported that the congresswomen “had planned to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank on a tour organized by a Palestinian organization aimed at highlighting the plight of the Palestinians.” In a statement released after the announcement, Omar said that “denying entry into Israel not only limits our ability to learn from Israelis, but also to enter the Palestinian territories.”
The decision is easy enough to understand politically. Benjamin Netanyahu, now the longest-serving of any Israeli prime minister, wants to extend his leadership, but the effort is requiring more elections than he’d hoped. (The first, in April, failed to produce a result sufficient for him to form a coalition government; the next try is Sept. 17.) He’s made himself an ally of President Donald Trump and probably felt he had less to lose by snubbing Democrats than by angering the president, who has found the congresswomen to be convenient political targets.
Indeed, shortly before the announcement Trump could be witnessed on Twitter leading the cheer:
“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. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”
Yet, beyond the circus politics, Israel’s move is an affront to the hope of serious governance.
First, Omar is the duly elected representative of the Fifth Congressional District. Whether or not you thought her the best candidate — I did not — she was selected by an 18-point margin in the Democratic primary in 2018 and by a 56-point margin in the general election. If she’s getting shut out, so are the people of her district.
Second, any visit to the region can broaden the context in which the congresswoman (a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, as she points out in her statement) understands the world’s issues. It would rely on her taking in everything she sees with an critical eye and a curious mind — as her constituents would expect — but for that, she needs to be given the opportunity.
Omar’s supporters might argue that her views on foreign affairs are already nuanced. In case you missed it — although it’s hard to see how, given the attention paid by readers near and far to anything related to the congresswoman — here’s a passage from a commentary she wrote for the Washington Post in March (and reprinted by the Star Tribune) explaining the values she brings to global affairs:
“Valuing human rights also means applying the same standards to our friends and our enemies. We do not have the credibility to support those fighting for human rights in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua if we do not also support those fighting for human rights in Honduras, Guatemala and Brazil. Our criticisms of oppression and regional instability caused by Iran are not legitimate if we do not hold Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to the same standards. …
“This vision also applies to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. …
“I support a two-state solution, with internationally recognized borders, which allows for both Israelis and Palestinians to have their own sanctuaries and self-determination. This has been official bipartisan U.S. policy across two decades and has been supported by each of the most recent Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as well as the consensus of the Israeli security establishment. As Jim Mattis, who later was President Donald Trump’s defense secretary, said in 2011, “The current situation between those two peoples is unsustainable.”
“Working toward peace in the region also means holding everyone involved accountable for actions that undermine the path to peace — because without justice, there can never be a lasting peace. When I criticize certain Israeli government actions in Gaza or settlements in the West Bank, it is because I believe these actions not only threaten the possibility of peace in the region — they also threaten the United States’ own national security interests.”
Read Omar’s full commentary here.