Analysis: Why Was the Ban of U.S. Congresswomen Issued?

President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, May, 2017. (Reuters/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo)

As the firestorm over Israel’s decision to refuse entry to two pro-BDS congresswomen continued on Thursday, the question of how the decision was made came irresistibly to the fore.

Only the day before, a bipartisan delegation of members of the House of Representatives had congratulated Israel on its willingness to allow in Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, despite their record of animus toward Israel and the Jewish community in general.

They argued that anyone who comes to learn about the realities of life in Israel cannot but be favorably impressed by the religious tolerance and the democratic freedom. They cited Israel’s ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer’s recent statement that out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the bilateral friendship, they would be permitted to visit.

The reversal on Thursday shocked many of Israel’s friends and provided further ammunition for Israel’s enemies.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who led the 41 Democrats currently visiting the country, was beside himself, calling Thursday’s decision “outrageous.”

“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,'” Hoyer said. “That representation was not true,” he was quoted by Politico as saying.

Hoyer did not address the reason for the Israeli reversal, but others did.

For example, Ilhan Omar, who blamed U.S. President Donald Trump and took the opportunity for a tirade against him and Netanyahu, as usual framing the issue in terms of anti-Muslim bigotry:

“It is an affront that Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu, under pressure from President Trump, would deny entry to representatives of the US government. Trump’s Muslim ban is what Israel is implementing, this time against two duly elected Members of Congress. Denying entry into Israel not only limits our ability to learn from Israelis, but also to enter the Palestinian territories. Sadly, this is not a surprise given the public position of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has consistently resisted peace efforts, restricted the freedom of movement of Palestinians, limited public knowledge of the brutal realities of the occupation and aligned himself with Islamophobes like Donald Trump.”

An analysis by Raphael Ahren in The Times of Israel asserted that “the reasons for Israel’s sudden about-face plainly originated in the White House.”

The circumstantial evidence he adduced for it certainly seemed compelling.

Ahren observed that an hour and a half after Trump tweeted that “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit,” Interior Minister Rabbi Arye Deri’s spokesman issued a a statement officially confirming the ban on Omar and Tlaib.

Senior Israeli officials from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on down had a different explanation for the change of mind. It was because the real reason for their visit had only gradually emerged.

“Several days ago, we received [Omar and Tlaib’s] trip itinerary,” Netanyahu’s statement said, “which clarified that they planned a visit whose sole purpose was to support boycotts and deny Israel’s legitimacy. For example, they called their destination ‘Palestine’ and not ‘Israel,’ and unlike all Democratic and Republican members of Congress before them, they did not seek any meeting with any Israeli official, whether government or opposition.”

Clearly, the Israelis had their reservations about the visit from the outset; it would have been naïve to take at face value Omar’s statement that she wanted to go to Israel to learn more about the situation, a fact-finding trip. Dermer had said the reason for allowing them in was only out of respect for the U.S.

The reasons given on for refusing them entry on Thursday—that they intended to exploit the trip for anti-Israel propaganda—already existed a week ago.

The best one can say is that under pressure from the White House on Thursday, that reason became strong enough to justify a reversal.

But it was truly a no-win situation. Staying firm against the president’s wishes would have damaged the Trump-Netanyahu relationship. It would also have given Tlaib and Omar their opportunity to use the trip to bash Israel.

On the other hand, by bowing to Trump, they incurred the wrath of the Democrats, including some genuinely pro-Israel, handing the Muslim congresswomen a diplomatic victory.

Netanyahu had to weigh the grim alternatives. He chose to stick with President Donald Trump, “the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House.”