In refusing to go to Israel, Rashida Tlaib has squandered her moral victory
The visit to her grandmother could have been an historic trip, which could have been recorded, immortalised and publicised to show Palestinian life under occupation
At first glance, the brouhaha over efforts by the first two American Muslim congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, to visit the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, looks like a comedy of errors.
But behind this absurdist farce lies a sinister domestic political struggle, in which its author, US President Donald Trump has demonstrated his formidable political skills.
Ms Tlaib and Ms Omar were invited by Palestinian and Israeli NGOs to visit several occupied cities, including Ramallah, Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. They are critics of the occupation and supporters of the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.
The Israeli government reluctantly agreed that “out of respect” for Congress and Israel’s relations with the US, they would be allowed into the occupied territories. But Mr Trump’s keen predatory instincts scented political blood.
In an extraordinary move, the US president urged a foreign country to bar lawmakers for his own nation from entering its territory, thus manufacturing a crisis to the detriment of all parties, except himself.
Mr Trump and his allies have been trying to turn support for Israel, traditionally a bipartisan consensus, into a partisan wedge by driving US policy towards the annexationist Israeli right.
He is trying to appeal to his evangelical Christian base and win over largely Democratic Jewish Americans, while casting Republicans as genuinely pro-Israel and Democrats as hostile or even anti-Semitic.
To that effect he tweeted that Israel would “show great weakness” by allowing the congresswomen into the occupied territories, adding that they “hate Israel and all Jewish people and there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds”.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing a massive struggle to cling to power and to stay out of prison over corruption investigations, felt bound to obey his benefactor, reversed course and banned the lawmakers.
The depth of the crisis for Israeli-American relations this produced is hard to overstate. The entire Democratic Party, which is supported by most Jewish Americans, erupted in outrage.
Even Jewish American organisations like the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and the American Jewish Committee, which almost never criticise Israel, issued complaints.
Pro-Israel American commentators were virtually unanimous in concluding, correctly, that Mr Netanyahu had allowed his loyalty to Mr Trump to severely damage Israel’s standing and greatly bolster the campaign to transform support for Israel into a Republican wedge issue.
Banning Ms Tlaib was particularly ironic, given that Mr Trump had suggested she, Ms Omar and two other Democratic representatives should “go back” to their countries of origin. Although born in Michigan, Ms Tlaib is a Palestinian and the Israeli government conceded that she might be granted a permit to visit her 90-year-old grandmother in the West Bank on “humanitarian” grounds, provided she agreed not to advocate boycotts against Israel during the trip.
Thus far, the affair was a total fiasco for Israel and the first major political triumph by newly elected Democratic critics of Israel.
Ms Tlaib could have done nothing and secured a huge win. But, understandably, she took Israel up on its offer and requested permission to visit her grandmother, agreeing to the onerous terms.
Perhaps hoping to establish a precedent to force other visitors to the occupied territories to also forswear criticism, Israel agreed. Despite the restrictions, Ms Tlaib had won again and was poised to make a poignant visit to elderly relatives enduring decades of hostile occupation.
But the congresswoman then managed to snatch at least a partial defeat from the jaws of a massive victory.
After coming under enormous pressure from fellow Democratic leftists and Palestinian activists, implausibly citing the potential model Israel might establish by her agreement to such terms, she suddenly changed her mind, saying she would not accept Israel’s censorious conditions.
This not only squandered a potentially historic trip, which could have been recorded, immortalised and publicised, documenting Palestinian life under occupation; it also allowed Israel to pose as the spurned reasonable party and paint Ms Tlaib as a frustrated would-be grandstander.
Yet few Americans see Israel as the victim given that, at the behest of a highly partisan president, it banned two Democratic congresswomen because of their political views. The damage was enormous and will play out over years.
Mr Trump, as ever, could not resist a final low blow, tweeting that the “only winner” in this affair was Ms Tlaib’s grandmother, who would not have to endure seeing her.
Sadly, none of his supporters are likely to notice or care that he just insulted an elderly lady struggling under occupation and gloated over his successful effort to prevent her seeing her granddaughter because she is one of his critics.
But Mr Trump is wrong. In reality, he is the only winner in this utter fiasco.
Israel is severely damaged among Democrats. Mr Netanyahu looks like a coward and a thug. Ms Tlaib seems confused at best and opportunistic at worst. Jewish Americans are further alienated from Israel. And Palestinians gained nothing and missed a major opportunity for Americans to learn about their plight.
Meanwhile, lounging at his golf club in New Jersey this weekend, Mr Trump is undoubtedly smugly surveying the wreckage.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Updated: August 18, 2019 05:46 PM