In blaming Trump for Tlaib-Omar ban, American pro-Israel 'liberals' are trying to whitewash the occupation

In blaming Trump for Tlaib-Omar ban, American pro-Israel 'liberals' are trying to whitewash the occupation
Comment: After Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar were barred from visiting Israel, US politicians condemned the ban but praised Israel's 'democracy', whitewashing occupation and deflecting blame, writes Dr. Tamara Kharroub
7 min read
19 Aug, 2019
Right-wing politicians are whitewashing Israeli's occupation of Palestine [Twitter]

US Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar were slated to arrive in Israel and occupied Palestine this weekend, in a visit designed as an alternative to the usual pro-Israel AIPAC/AIEF trip that members of congress go on every year.

The initial response from Israel was communicated by its Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer who said in a WhatsApp message sent to reporters that "out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel".

However, it appears that Prime Minister Netanyahu caved to Trump after reports and a tweet by President Trump opposing the decision and accusing Israel of weakness.

"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," Trump said. "Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!"

On cue, Prime Minister Netanyahu reversed the decision and announced barring Representatives Tlaib and Omar from entering Israel and Palestine. The two members of congress, who happen to be two Muslim women one of whom is of Palestinian descent, are also supporters of the BDS movement. 

Discriminating against Palestinians and Muslims by the government of Israel is neither new nor surprising, but the extent and circumstances of this move reaching elected members of the US congress set a precedent.

Reactions from the American political establishment reveal a calculated attempt to maintain a strong pro-Israel image through whitewashing the Israeli occupation

While this incident holds significant implications for US interests and contradicts democratic values, the reactions from the American political establishment reveal a calculated attempt to maintain a strong pro-Israel image while whitewashing the Israeli occupation.

The decision was likely a result of political maneuvering by Netanyahu, as his chances of winning the upcoming elections in September hinge to a great extent on his relationship with President Trump.

Trump has repeatedly come to Netanyahu's aid before the elections with moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognising the occupied Syrian Golan Heights as Israeli territory.

Trump is also playing politics ahead of his own critical election in 2020, trying to further divide the Democratic Party over Israel as well as excite and maintain his right-wing and evangelical voter base. 

It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu's about-face under private and public pressure from Trump might weaken his image among his voters, and whether Trump's lobbying of a foreign government against American elected officials crossed a line for American voters.

What is clear is that this global right-wing coalition of national illiberal authoritarian politician is only growing and emboldening one-another.

Promoting a foreign agenda

Breaking with democratic tradition and values, President Donald Trump enlisted a foreign power to target his political opponents, publicly urging Israel to deny them entry and thus asserting that the freedom of movement and travel of these elected US government officials ought to be restricted merely based on their political views.

Yet with waves of denunciations and outrage on social media, little has been directed at Israel's policies of racism, discrimination, and oppression.

On the contrary, much of the discussion in the US policy establishment has been consumed with the impact on Israel's presumably otherwise stellar image and on the important US-Israel relationship.

The political leadership and members of congress in both parties have weighed in, with Republicans primarily defending Trump and Netanyahu.

Most Democrats have issued statements opposing the decision, but made it a point to focus on Trump and avoid blaming Netanyahu or Israel, while emphasising their disagreements with Reps. Tlaib and Omar and highlighting the greatness of Israel's democracy.

Many have also stressed the dangers of this move by Trump as it hurts the US-Israel alliance and makes support for Israel a partisan issue in the United States. Washington is known for this type of rhetoric when it comes to policies toward Israel, and especially ahead of the 2020 elections. Once again, US politicians are going out of their way to ensure their public defence of Israel.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman continued his defence of Israeli policies, saying "Initially, Israel 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".

He compared BDS to "conventional weapons" and contrasted the "the itinerary of the Tlaib/Omar Delegation" that "leaves no room for that opportunity" with the "balanced visit" of the well-known staunchly pro-Israel AIPAC itinerary.

Over 70 members of congress joined the AIPAC-sponsored pro-Israel trip this year, reportedly the largest delegation in history.

Last month, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan resolution condemning the BDS movement, in a direct blow to the US constitution and freedom of opinion.

In this respect, members of congress who support resolutions condemning boycotts of Israel should also hold part of the responsibility in endorsing Israeli criminalisation of peaceful boycotts and activism.

There remains very little questioning of the president's public advocacy and lobbying of a foreign government against elected members of his own government, which far more importantly hurts US interests.

Discrimination and curtailing freedom based on political views or origin also contradicts US values and should be acknowledged as such, not because they hurt Israel's image.

Exposing the reality of the occupation

Despite these attempt and despite US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman's insistence that there's no occupation, the basic fact that only Israel can grant permission to the congresswomen to enter the Palestinian Territories is a clear evidence of occupation; absolute Israeli control and domination over the Palestinians.

In 2017, the Israeli parliament passed a law that denies entry to foreign nationals who publicly support the BDS movement, in a similar fashion and following Trump's Muslim ban - which was found unconstitutional.

This policy and banning the two members of congress solely based on their political views only serve to expose the reality of the Israeli occupation and its systematic policies of discrimination and oppression.

In much of the media coverage and official statements, references to Israel as a democracy were abundant.

But what democratic principles support censoring elected congressional members of an allied country over their non-violent political opinions, disrespecting freedom of expression, and policing thought?

Especially when that "democracy" allows free entry to leaders accused of human rights violations and war crimes, and those embracing known neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic groups?

Despite the chorus of US politicians praising Israel's democracy, this decision by Israel to deny entry illustrates the very reality that the two congresswomen wanted to see and that Palestinians experience on a daily basis multi-fold.

Israel has long been systematically profiling people of Palestinian and Muslim origins, and Palestinians under occupation are regularly denied their right to freedom of movement and political expression and participation. Yet, this highlights only one small aspect of the Israeli occupation.

Although this decision is unlikely to be met with a political response, and despite all the Israeli efforts of whitewashing, silencing, banning, bullying, and even killing journalists and activists, the reality of the occupation cannot be hidden from the people of conscience around the world.

Dr. Tamara Kharroub is a Senior Analyst and Assistant Executive Director at Arab Center Washington DC.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.