Barring Members Of Congress From Israel-Palestine

In a sudden reversal, the Israeli government decided on Thursday to bar two members of Congress—Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN)—from

Photo tweeted by MPower Change

entering Israel. This means that they also cannot enter the West Bank, which was where they intended to spend bulk of their time in Israel-Palestine. After announcing the ban on the two congresswomen, Israel said that Tlaib could visit her family in the West Bank if she agreed “not to participate in any BDS activities.”

The decision to bar entry to the congresswomen met with widespread condemnation in the United States, including by groups that normally march in lockstep with Israel. AIPAC, for example, said they disagree with Tlaib and Omar, of course, but “We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.” The American Jewish Committee said that “AJC believes that, out of two less-than-ideal options, neither of which was risk-free, Israel did not choose wisely by reversing its original decision [to allow Tlaib and Omar in].”

These were typical reactions from the center-right of the pro-Israel community in the U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), one of the most devoted Israel supporters in Congress, typified much of the congressional response, saying “No democratic society should fear an open debate. Many strong supporters of Israel will be deeply disappointed in this decision, which the Israeli government should reverse.”

Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the House Majority Leader who just returned from leading a congressional delegation of dozens of members to Israel and who is as lock-step a pro-Israel voice as any Democrat, said, “The decision of the Israeli government to deny entry to Israel by two Members of Congress is outrageous, regardless of their itinerary or their views. This action is contrary to the statement and assurances to me by Israel’s ambassador to the United States 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.’ That representation was not true.”

What was so interesting about these responses, beyond the unusual tone of rebuke for Israel, is the seemingly deliberate decision not to blame President Donald Trump. After all, Israel had made it quite clear that they intended to admit Tlaib and Omar, and then reversed its decision quickly after a tweet from Trump, which read: “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel and all Jewish people, and there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.” Read more at LobeLog

Congress Opposes Non-Violent Support For Palestinian Rights

This has not been a good week for Democrats, especially those who wish to cast their party as the progressive alternative to the Trump-McConnell regime. As the feckless party leadership continued to avoid taking any action against Donald Trump for his numerous crimes—which go well beyond the Russia questions—they managed to find time to pass a bill opposing the right of U.S. citizens to use economic leverage to press for change in Israel-Palestine.

H. Res. 246, a nameless bill which declares the House of Representatives’ opposition to the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, passed with 398 in favor and only 17 (16 Democrats and one Republican) representatives voting against it. The bill was considerably weaker than the sort of legislation the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) had hoped to pass to criminalize BDS at the federal level. Those efforts ran afoul of free speech concerns among a wide variety of Congress members.

In the end, H. Res. 246 addressed those concerns sufficiently to attract the support of comparatively moderate Jewish groups such as J Street, Ameinu, Partners for Progressive Israel, the National Council of Jewish Women, and Reconstructing Judaism. But fundamental issues remained, and if we were having a rational discussion about BDS and U.S. policy toward Israel-Palestine in general, those issues would have been more of an obstacle. Read more at LobeLog

U.S. Aid To Israel: What You Need To Know

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has drawn some criticism from the left for avoiding the topic of Israel-Palestine. It’s actually a wise decision on her part. It was obvious during her campaign that she is not well-versed on the issue. N ew members of Congress ought to avoid this dangerous minefield of an issue unless they are very clear about what they want to say and how they want to say it.

But AOC may be learning. Earlier this week, she was asked if she favored reducing aid to Israel and she replied that it is “…certainly on the table. I think it’s something that can be discussed.”

Reducing aid to Israel is perhaps the highest voltage third rail in Beltway politics. But in a marker of how much things have changed in Washington—as well as how far they still have to go—the reactions to AOC’s statement have been far less animated than usual. The Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) issued a condescending but relatively mild statement, telling AOC to consult with three mainstream Democratic leaders—all prominent Jewish members with strong pro-Israel records—on the “correct” U.S. policy. “US-Israel ties must supersede politics,” the statement concluded. Surprisingly, the JDCA did not condemn AOC’s statement, despite its tired implication that support for Israel must be unconditional, unquestioned, and independent of any considerations except what is best for Israel. Read more at LobeLog

AIPAC: The Essential Profile

This week, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its annual policy meeting, and this one was quite different from many that came before it. For years, AIPAC conferences celebrated strong bipartisan support for Israel and for the unqualified U.S. support of Israel. But in 2019, that unity is very clearly fraying.

Where once there had been a significant number of foreign policy realists in the Republican Party who felt that the U.S. approach needed to be more even-handed, the GOP these days is passionately and overwhelmingly supportive of Israel and displays little if any concern about the lives of Palestinians. Democrats, on the other hand, are displeased with the Trump administration’s approach to the regional issues, feeling it has endangered and possibly doomed a two-state solution to the conflict.

But the Republican-Democrat divide is not the only area of division on Israel and Palestine. Within the Democratic party, a schism is widening between those who insist on supporting the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu—which includes the powerful centrist leadership of the party such as Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Eliot Engel, and Hakeem Jeffries— and the more progressive wing, led proudly by women like Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Betty McCollum, and others, who want to open a debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East and orient it more toward universal human rights.

But AIPAC is not just the venue to display these growing cracks in the bipartisan consensus that have made it even more difficult for the United States to play a productive role in resolving this devastating conflict. It is also a major player in the policy process, especially in Congress, as well as a source of intense debate and controversy over the question of why the United States behaves as it does in the region.

At this year’s conference, Ilhan Omar was attacked by members of Congress from both parties as well as by members of AIPAC and by the vice president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel. The reason for these attacks was that Omar had the temerity to call out and challenge AIPAC’s destructive influence, its role in directing the campaign funds of pro-Israel political actions committees (something AIPAC itself is not, despite its confusing name), and its efforts to establish the boundaries of discourse in Washington. Read more at LobeLog

Ilhan Omar: Anatomy Of A Smear

Attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) are escalating. The big splash over the weekend came when a poster appeared in a display case at the West Virginia state capitol during Republican Party Day. It was an image of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center ablaze after the 9/11 attacks. Superimposed in front of them was a picture of Omar, with the meme “’Never Forget’ – you said…I am the proof…you have forgotten.”

After the wave of outrage rolled through social media, the West Virginia GOP issued a statement disavowing the poster, saying someone had hung it up without their knowledge and calling it hate speech. But the GOP stopped short of condemning it, only saying that the party “do not support it.” Since the poster was in a display case in the capitol, it is difficult to believe that those arranging the event were unaware of the poster until after it became a national controversy.

Either way, this attack from the right followed on the heels of the latest criticism of Omar from largely liberal and centrist quarters. Almost on cue, the West Virginia controversy—with its blatant, indisputably hateful message—gave those centrist and liberal critics the perfect cover, as they could comfortably, if cynically, condemn the Republican attack on Omar while once again spuriously accusing her of anti-Semitism. Read more at LobeLog

Policing Democrats For Israel

On Wednesday, after days of cajoling and political arm-twisting from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jewish Home party agreed to enter into coalition with an extremist party, Otzma Yehudit, or “Jewish Power.” As the name implies, Otzma Yehudit is an explicitly racist party, comfortably akin to the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. It is led by former members of Kach, the party founded by avowed racist Meir Kahane that the Knesset banned in 1988.

The open embrace of such a blatantly racist party elicited anger and dismay from a wide range of Israelis and their supporters, while critics noted that this was the logical result of Israel’s years of rightward drift and Netanyahu’s open embrace in recent years of authoritarians and authoritarianism. That increasing authoritarianism is certainly a major factor in Israel’s severely diminished standing in the United States among liberals, progressives, younger voters, and, crucially, Democrats.

The growing debate among Democrats has been an increasingly hot topic since the 2016 presidential election. It presents a particular problem for Democratic leaders who identify closely with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and similar groups that work to pressure elected officials to support Israeli policies. The decline in Israel’s appeal to Democrats is directly related to the wider awareness of the country’s increasingly authoritarian nature, its treatment of Palestinians, and its reluctance to take substantive steps toward peace. Pro-Israel liberals face a fundamental paradox trying to reconcile Israel’s illiberalism with their political values.

Republicans have a simpler task. There is much less sympathy for things like human rights, international law, and for Arabs in general among their voters. Lobbying and campaign financing are not as crucial for Republicans to secure lock-step support of Israel, as that support is there based on their faith, their view of security, and their view of race and culture.

On the Democratic side, the effort to secure unconditional support for Israel depends much more on spin, marketing, and money. That is the basis on which a new pro-Israel group, the so-called Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), operates. Read more at LobeLog

Radio Appearances Discussing Rep. Ilhan Omar

I did two radio spots this week which my readers might find interesting. Both were devoted largely, but not entirely, to discussion of Ilhan Omar’s tweets and the outrageous backlash to them. My piece on the matter is at LobeLog, at this link.

Yesterday, I spoke with Ian Masters on KPFK in Los Angeles. You can hear that segment at this page.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Eugene Puryear and Sean Blackmon about Rep. Omar, Israeli elections, and a little on Iran. You can listen to that at this link.