In deference to the wishes of the United States government, Israel has barred two members of the U.S. Congress from entering its borders. Or at least that’s how Thursday’s bizarre developments in American-Israeli relations appear to have played out.
Democratic congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib had been poised to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Hebron as part of a trip ostensibly aimed at raising global awareness of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and strengthening American progressives’ ties to Palestinian civil society. Omar and Tlaib are both supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, also known as BDS, which calls on the global community to cut off economic ties with Israel until it ends its occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. Many within the movement also favor a “one-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict, which would unify the region under a single, binational government (Omar herself supports a two-state solution).
Israel regards BDS as an anti-Semitic movement and a threat to its existence, and passed a law in 2017 forbidding the campaign’s adherents from entering the country. Meanwhile, the Israeli government’s allies in the U.S. have pushed (unconstitutional) laws that would make it a crime for Americans to exercise their freedom of expression by refusing to do business with Israeli firms for political reasons. Nevertheless, as of last month, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer insisted that the Jewish State would make an exception for Omar and Tlaib “out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.” The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — a stalwart ally of the Israeli government on Capitol Hill, and vehement critic of Omar and Tlaib — shared this position.
And it isn’t hard to see why. Two pro-BDS congresswomen conducting a series of press events in the Palestinian territories might generate some displeasing headlines for Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. But it would hardly qualify as a major news headline. By contrast, one of America’s closest allies blocking two U.S. officials from stepping foot on its soil — one of whom has a grandmother in the West Bank — is the stuff that cable-news top stories are made of. And Israel has no interest in putting a spotlight on its illiberal laws, or Omar and Tlaib’s advocacy for BDS. Both congresswomen currently enjoy more widespread popularity and goodwill among American progressives than the movement to boycott Israel does. Thus, anything that increases awareness of their views on Israel — let alone makes them appear more sympathetic — is a huge gift to BDS’s recruitment efforts.
But if Israel has no interest in turning Omar and Tlaib’s support for BDS into prime-time cable-news fodder, Donald Trump does. The American president has made it abundantly clear that he sees all publicity for “the squad” of left-wing nonwhite congresswomen as good publicity for the Republican Party. Omar and Tlaib may be popular with progressive activists, but they are not necessarily the Democrats’ ideal messengers to the white, culturally conservative Rust Belt swing voters who wield such disproportionate influence in the Electoral College. For this reason, Trump and Fox News have worked tirelessly to make “the squad” the face of the Democratic Party (even when doing so involves making white nationalism the face of the GOP).
One hesitates to assign any strategic logic or forethought to the contents of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. But it seems likely that the president knew what signals he was boosting Thursday when he tweeted, “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. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!” Shortly thereafter, the Israeli government confirmed that it would not allow Omar and Tlaib to visit.
Officially, the Trump administration’s lobbying had no influence on this decision. On Thursday afternoon, Netanyahu’s office said in a series of tweets that it chose to bar the congresswomen after an examination of their itinerary “revealed that they planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel’s legitimacy.” This account is hard to believe, given that the government received said itinerary days ago, and only blocked the visit after Trump’s public intervention. But if Israel’s official reasoning is genuine, then its government is run by fools.
For hours on Thursday, the number-one trending topic on U.S. Twitter was Israel; the most prominent hashtag, “#BoycottIsrael.” This is extraordinary. As a digital journalist who has written on Israel-Palestine from time to time over the past five years, I can tell you that coverage of the conflict typically attracts relatively limited reader interest in this country. It takes a strong, U.S.-centric news hook to compel American news consumers to pay events overseas much mind. Together, Trump and Netanyahu provided BDS supporters a hook so juicy, the latter’s preferred topic has become a major social-media conversation.
That is no small win for both the BDS movement and supporters of Palestinian rights more broadly. To the extent that there is a path for allies of Palestinian liberation to end America’s complicity with the Israeli occupation, it involves turning reflexive support for the Jewish State into a partisan issue — and turning support for a more adversarial posture toward the Israeli government into an article of progressive faith. Netanyahu has been aiding that project for a while now, by broadcasting his contempt for Barack Obama and sympathy for the Republican Party. And the prime minister’s allies in the Knesset have made the task of radicalizing American liberals on Israel easier by pushing to replace de facto apartheid rule in the West Bank with the de jure variety. None of this has been enough for mainstream Democrats to embrace the idea of making U.S. aid to Israel contingent on an end to settlement expansion, let alone to persuade the average Democrat to boycott Israel’s products. But it has opened up space for Bernie Sanders to champion the former. And there are some signs that public opinion in blue America is (very) slowly turning more hostile to the Israeli government. One 2014 poll found half of all Democrats under 30 voicing support for punishing Israeli settlement expansion with economic sanctions. The vast majority of that age bracket also preferred the United States to remain neutral in the Israel-Palestine conflict; among those who wanted America to pick a side, most wished for their government to support the Palestinians, a stance shared by no other age group in either party.
Some part of this shift can be attributed to demographics. Young Democrats are less white than their co-partisans, and Hispanics and African-Americans evince more sympathy for the Palestinian plight than the general population. In fact, 44 percent of Hispanic-Americans — of all ages and political parties — supported sanctioning Israel over its settlement activity in 2014.
It’s hard to imagine a better way of hardening young, nonwhite Democrats’ skepticism toward Israel than prohibiting two of America’s most prominent nonwhite Democratic politicians from visiting the country. Which is to say: On Thursday, Trump and Bibi did more to aid the BDS movement (and less radical allies of the Palestinian cause) than Omar and Tlaib’s trip ever could.