Anyone paying attention to the politics of Israel-Palestine could sense this was coming. It was was only a matter of time before a prominent American politician was blocked from entering Israel on political grounds, and now that moment has arrived. After being goaded by Trump, the Israeli government announced on Thursday that they would deny Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib entry to the country.
This move didn’t come out of nowhere. The Israeli government passed a law in 2017 barring supporters of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement from entering the country. After Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who have expressed support for the BDS movement at various points, entered office, the question loomed about whether Israel would refuse to let them in.
That this was even a question reflects the extent to which the Israeli government has designated opposition to its policies as not just illegitimate but also illegal. And though it did seem that Netanyahu initially wanted to avoid creating a diplomatic spectacle—Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer said in July that Representatives Omar and Tlaib would be permitted entry—a combination of pressure from President Donald Trump and domestic political considerations appear to have led him to decide otherwise.
For Trump, who tweeted that allowing Omar and Tlaib in would be “a show of great weakness” by Israel and that the two Democratic congresswomen “hate Israel & all Jewish people,” this is part of his 2020 re-election strategy.
Trump and the Republicans have made it explicit that they intend to continue demonizing Omar and Tlaib with the goal of tarnishing the Democratic Party’s image and peeling away Jewish voters. In this instance, that strategy, always unlikely to succeed, appears to have backfired. Not only have Democratic politicians across the board condemned the Israeli government’s decision, but so has the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, as well as some Republicans, including Marco Rubio. It seems Netanyahu may not have anticipated the breadth of the backlash, and it is still possible that he might reverse the decision.
However, for Netanyahu, also facing a difficult re-election campaign and multiple corruption investigations, denying entry to Representatives Omar and Tlaib is an opportunity to refocus attention away from his own scandals and shortcomings and to strike his favorite pose as “protector of Israel” against its external enemies. Several members of Netanyahu’s current cabinet are under criminal investigations as well, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that the decision to bar Omar and Tlaib came on the same day as the announcement of possible graft charges against Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who signed off on the denial of entry decision. In Israel, as elsewhere, ethnocracy and kleptocracy go hand-in-hand.
Throughout the hallways of US officialdom and among the mainstream pundits, many have reacted to the barring of Omar and Tlaib with outrage and shock. But there is nothing exceptional about the Israeli government’s decision, which should be an object lesson about contemporary Israel for those who either haven’t been paying attention or have preferred to avert their eyes from the reality on the ground.
Israel criminalized not only support for the BDS movement but also boycotts of settlements years ago. Netanyahu and his successive administrations have turned human rights NGOs into villains. “Leftist” has become an epithet, used interchangeably or alongside “traitor”; Arabs, Muslims, and, especially, Palestinians are considered first and foremost enemies and treated as such.
The designation of two progressive, Muslim American Congresswomen—one of whom is black, the other Palestinian—who support BDS as threats is entirely consistent with the Israeli government’s delegitimation of dissent and its routine use of the rhetoric of security to justify punitive measures and violence against populations it deems undeserving of basic rights: Palestinians, African asylum seekers, and even Ethiopian-Israeli citizens. By attempting to enter Israel-Palestine on their own, without the imprimatur of the pro-Israel establishment, Omar and Tlaib demanded to be treated as equal to their right-wing peers. The Israeli government refused to do so.
But there is more to Omar and Tlaib’s denial of entry than that. Tlaib is Palestinian; her parents were born in Palestine, and her grandmother still lives there. That Israel could bar her unilaterally from visiting her family’s home—despite her status as a member of Congress—reflects the gross injustice of Israel’s border regime and should dispel any residual illusions that what exists in Israel-Palestine is anything other than a one-state regime with a hierarchy of rights and privileged based on ethno-religious identity. And, sadly, Tlaib’s situation here is not exceptional either. Israel routinely denies Palestinians living in the diaspora the chance even to visit their families and ancestral homes while Jews from anywhere in the world can become Israeli citizens with full rights. If the pro-Israel right had hoped that the decision to bar Omar and Tlaib would shield Israel from threats to its legitimacy, the practical effect could very well be the opposite.
It is clear, from their widespread condemnation of the decision, that the pro-Israel establishment would have much preferred if Omar and Tlaib’s visit to Israel had passed without incident—that they would have liked to have avoided Israel appearing so obviously in the wrong. But the tactically savvy pro-Israel groups, those that fret about keeping support for Israel a bipartisan issue, no longer possess the same power they once did. Today, the Trump administration’s Mideast policy is determined by an alliance of the religious, pro-settler Jewish right and Christian evangelicals.
Such an alliance has little need for bipartisanship, which for the Jewish right entails compromises — like lip service to two-state solution — that they are unwilling to make. Instead, for this newly empowered Jewish right, the entire land of Israel is God’s exclusive gift to the Jewish people, the conflict is a zero-sum struggle that only one side can win, and any criticism of Israel is illegitimate and antisemitic. U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman is a representative of this ideological tendency and has played a major role in shaping the Trump administration’s position. In a statement regarding the decision to bar Omar and Tlaib, Friedman called BDS “no less than economic warfare” designed to “ultimately destroy the Jewish state.”
The great irony of all this, of course, is that the Israeli government and the pro-Israel right have given the flagging BDS movement the gift of free publicity and renewed relevance. Supporters of BDS argue that Israel must face consequences for its systematic denial of Palestinians’ basic rights and that external pressure is required to democratize the current undemocratic one-state reality in Israel-Palestine. It was already hard to argue otherwise; now, it will be a little bit harder.