With predictable insouciance, President Donald Trump cheered on the Israeli government’s decision to bar entry to Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib due to their advocacy for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement—reversing its previous pledge to allow them into Israel out of respect for the U.S. Congress. The president let fly on Twitter, stating that allowing Omar and Tlaib into Israel would “show great weakness.”
Trump’s formulation, however, has things precisely backwards. Not only is keeping Omar and Tlaib out a terrible policy decision as it pertains to U.S.-Israel relations, it demonstrates the very weakness that Trump decries.
The bedrock of Israel’s security doctrine is its close ties with the United States, sustained through bipartisan support. Not only does Israel receives billions of dollars in annual security assistance from Congress, it benefits from statements of support such as the recently-passed House Resolution 246, opposing the BDS movement as denying Israel’s legitimacy.
In light of this dynamic, keeping sitting members of Congress from visiting Israel is incredibly shortsighted, no matter their views.
Omar and Tlaib are literally elected representatives of the American government and the American people. Telling them that they are unwelcome in Israel is not simply sending a statement to two individuals. When Israel initially announced that it would allow them entry out of respect for Congress, it captured why keeping them out sends a statement to Congress writ large. It unnecessarily pokes a finger in Congress’s eye, precisely because these are not just two random people. It is difficult to envision any other American ally or any other democracy that would bar sitting members of Congress from their shores.
The optics are even worse considering that this decision comes only a few days after House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, while visiting Jerusalem, jointly affirmed Israel’s decision to allow Omar and Tlaib to enter the country. This reversal sets a terrible precedent, and will only ensure that the incident will be raised during every future Congressional debate about assistance to Israel, whether in the form of security aid, diplomatic backing, or mutual defense treaties.
Most obviously, this will further open the rift between Israel and the Democratic Party. Trump has been adept at exploiting the tension between progressive activists, who are inherently distrustful of Israel, and national Democratic politicians, who are not. Trump and Congressional Republicans have repeatedly tried to portray Omar and Tlaib as representative of Democratic views on Israel writ large, despite the fact that they are clear outliers. When Democrats defend attacks on the two Congresswomen, Trump uses those defenses as alleged proof that Democrats are anti-Israel.
The next steps in this drama following Israel’s decision are tragically predictable; Democrats, including every presidential contender, will condemn Israel’s decision, Trump and Republicans will tar Democrats as putting BDS supporters above Israel, and the anger and resentment among Democrats over the use of Israel as a wedge issue will only grow. Trump will win politically, the progressives will gain more ammo for their argument that American support for Israel is misguided, and Israel will be the ultimate loser.
There is an argument quickly developing that it would have made sense to allow Omar and Tlaib into Israel if they were genuinely interested in learning about Israel’s security challenges firsthand and hearing from Israelis, but that their itinerary was instead going to be one-sided and intended to showcase Israel’s ugliest warts. This misses the larger point, and demonstrates why keeping them out betrays Israel’s weakness rather than conveys its strength.
It does not matter what Omar and Tlaib intended to see or with whom they intended to meet. The Israeli government is not claiming that Omar or Tlaib need to be kept out because of anything they have done, but rather because of what they think. If the Israeli government views the opinions of two members of Congress to be so threatening to its fundamental well-being that it believes there are greater benefits than costs to keeping them out of Israel, it is a clearer sign of Israel’s weakness than anything that Omar or Tlaib could point to on their own.
Allowing Omar and Tlaib into Israel with open arms and smiling as they conduct an unbalanced tour while bashing their host country would show that Israel is secure in its convictions and confident in its claims. Barring Omar and Tlaib does the opposite, and makes Israel look small. It evinces a lack of confidence in its own case, and will only provide fodder to those who support BDS rather than choke off support for the movement. Rather than seize on a golden opportunity to show that Israel is the open-minded party in contrast to Omar and Tlaib, and make them defend their itinerary choices, Israel is now the party on the defensive.
There is no angle from which this decision is not a long-term strategic disaster. Longstanding Israeli arguments about the strength of its democracy and its special relationship with the U.S. are both going to be more difficult to make going forward. Israel’s wholesale embrace of Trump at the expense of broader support within the American political landscape will continue apace. And Israel’s image among the wider public that does not follow these issues on a minute-by-minute basis will be damaged. There will certainly be political winners in this incident. But nobody should for a second think that Israel will be one of them.