Tlaib-Omar congressional trip to Palestine is a nightmare for Netanyahu

Tlaib-Omar congressional trip to Palestine is a nightmare for Netanyahu
6 min read
19 Jul, 2019
Comment: Whether or not Netanyahu allows the trip, it will open a debate around BDS and unacceptable Israeli policies, and will cause Israel significant diplomatic damage, writes Rami Khouri.
Netanyahu will decide whether to prevent the Congresswomen entry under Israel's 2017 boycott law [Getty]]
The planned visit in coming weeks to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and Israel by US House of Representatives members Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib promises to unleash a serious and badly needed public debate in the US and Israel on politically disputed issues at the heart of the century-old Israel-Palestine conflict.

This is because both representatives support the BDS movement - Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions - that advocates non-violent pressure on Israel until it treats Palestinians fairly and according to international law, whether those Palestinians are citizens inside Israel, live under Israeli occupation, or are refugees in exile.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely make the decision on whether or not to allow the two American officials to enter Israel, given existing Israeli law that bars BDS-supporters from entering.

Numerous American and other foreign supporters of BDS - mostly civil society activists - have been refused entry to Israel in recent years. The delicate decision on these two elected officials, though, would be left to Netanyahu, rather than to lower level foreign ministry officials.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry in recent years has prioritised the global battle against BDS. It rightly recognises the dangers of Israel being increasingly perceived globally as practicing Apartheid-like policies against Palestinians that require boycotts, divestment, and sanctions as an appropriate peaceful political response.

The BDS movement has steadily won supporters around the world, all of whom typically say they recognise Israel's right to live in peace and security within its 1967 borders, but they reject Israel's discriminatory, often violent and inhuman, treatment of Palestinians.
The public scrutiny the Tlaib-Omar visit brings to this issue scares Israelis and their right-wing government
Omar and Tlaib confirmed their visit plans and explained their purpose as providing American freshmen legislators a more complete and even-handed view of Israeli-Palestinian realities than is the case with the traditional visit organised by the powerful pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The visit is consequential because it brings to centre stage three critical contested issues that are rarely discussed in public in the US and Israel, but that deserve more attention because they form the heart of the conflict and related US -Israeli ties.  

The first issue is the core nature of the Palestine-Israeli conflict.

Palestinians say it is about their expulsion, occupation, colonisation, and discrimination by Israel, which treats Palestinians as people with inferior rights to Israelis and Jews anywhere in the world; Israelis claim the conflict is due to the Arabs' refusal to live in peace with it, necessitating its constant use of military force or annexation and colonisation of Arab lands in self-defense. 

Read more: Using Israel to justify his racist attacks, Trump sets a dangerous precedent

The second issue is about the nature of Israeli political influence in the American political system, especially in the Congress and White House, but also in state legislatures and even a few city councils.

Critics of Israel say the Israel lobby abuses its proven ability to influence legislation in its favour by promoting laws to prohibit BDS advocacy in the US, arguing that such pro-Israel zealotry by American legislators leads to unconstitutional discrimination against America citizens.

The third issue that will now receive much more public scrutiny - to Israel's chagrin - is whether laws to prohibit BDS support in the United States are unconstitutional, because they go against the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression.

These three contests have been addressed to a very limited extent in recent years in assorted public, private, and even official forums in the United States; the Omar-Tlaib visit will quickly escalate their public visibility to a magnitude they have never experienced before.

This occurs at a time when two legislative initiatives on precisely this issue - whether Americans should be allowed to advocate for peaceful political boycotts of Israel or other targets - work their way through the House of Representatives.

On Tuesday, Tlaib, Omar and legendary US civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis introduced a House resolution that did not mention Israel, Palestine or BDS by name; it recalled civil rights and anti-Apartheid campaigns, and affirmed that, "all Americans have the right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad, as protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution."   

The next day, the House Foreign Affairs Committee agreed to advance a non-binding resolution that condemns boycotts for Palestinian rights, which is expected to go to the full House for a vote next week.

Whether Netanyahu allows or prohibits their visit, Israel will sustain considerable diplomatic damage

Its advocates claim that BDS-like boycotts are anti-Semitic and discriminate against Israel and Jews; its opponents, including the respected American Civil Liberties Union and other human rights organisations, say it would stifle activism and reinforce and legitimise other legislative attacks on constitutionally protected speech, including numerous anti-BDS laws or executive decisions. The US  Senate passed similar anti-boycott legislation last February.

Republican legislators have also tried unsuccessfully since April to attach anti-boycott and anti-BDS language to measures that would normally be passed by the Congress.

Read more: Palestinian, Muslim, woman - American. Inside Rashida Tlaib's historic run for Congress

All of them failed. The main reason, it seems - which is why the public scrutiny the Tlaib-Omar visit brings to this issue scares Israelis and their right-wing government - is that the few times that such anti-BDS moves have been challenged in US courts have resulted in the courts striking them down as unconstitutional.

The few times that anti-BDS moves have been challenged in US courts, they have been struck down as unconstitutional

This makes it extremely awkward for extremist Israelis and their American advocates to argue that Israel deserves full American support due to the convergence of US and Israeli values, while US courts repeatedly throw out anti-BDS legislation as unconstitutional and, indeed, un-American.

A total of 27 US states have passed legislation aiming to criminalise and prohibit BDS advocacy.

Federal judges in three of them - Arizona, Texas and Kansas - have blocked those laws because they infringe on American citizens' First Amendment rights to express their political views freely and peacefully.

Judges have also thrown out Israeli-inspired anti-BDS laws because they were too vague, or placed unconstitutional conditions on American public and private sector employees.

Federal Judge Robert Pitman, who ruled in the Texas case in April, noted that BDS advocates who express their views on a public issue rest on "the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values."

He said that he could not allow the application of a law that intends, "not to combat discrimination on the basis of national origin, but to silence speech with which Texas disagrees."

The Tlaib-Omar visit to Israel and Palestine is a nightmare for Netanyahu and his rightwing government, because whether he allows or prohibits their visit, Israel will sustain considerable diplomatic damage.

In either case, Americans and the world in the coming months will more openly discuss both Israel's harsh policies towards the Palestinians and the world's appropriate responses to them - including boycotts, divestment, and sanctions - thanks to the courage of two American Congresswomen who continue to clarify how genuine democracy and constitutionalism can improve the lives of ordinary men and women in the US and around the world.

Rami G. Khouri is a journalism professor and public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and an internationally syndicated columnist.

Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri

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.