Israel reversed itself, again, on Friday in announcing that Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib could visit, but only to see her grandmother. Tlaib said: No thanks.
The Michigan congresswoman said Israel’s decision to admit her to the country on “humanitarian grounds” was an attempt to silence and humiliate her.
It was the second flip-flop by the Israeli government in less than 24 hours.
One day earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from President Trump, announced that his government would not allow Tlaib or Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — a fellow Muslim and first-term House member — to enter Israel on a planned fact-finding mission. A month before that, Israel had said the congresswomen would be welcomed despite their frequent criticism of Israeli policies and support for a pro-Palestinian boycott movement.
Trump’s request of a foreign government to ban elected American officials, who happen to be his political enemies, and Netanyahu’s willingness to oblige seemed to drag Israel into U.S. domestic politics and contradicted decades of strong bipartisan support for Israel. The unprecedented move to bar U.S. lawmakers from a country that receives billions of dollars in aid from Congress drew swift criticism from U.S. politicians, American pro-Israel groups and former diplomats.
Including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former senator and vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, both staunch supporters of Israel, there was consensus among many that while they disagreed with Tlaib and Omar on many issues, Israel should have invited them to see for themselves the complex reality in the region.
Netanyahu’s move seemed to expose his isolation less than a month before a tough election, as allies long accustomed to ceding the role of chief diplomat to him kept silent, and the opposition accused him of hypocrisy and betraying Israel’s interests to please Trump.
A telling example came on the evening news on Israel’s Channel 12. A chuckling panel of questioners asked hard-line former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked why her new Yamina party, which she leads, was committed to supporting Netanyahu for another term as prime minister if he can’t handle two members of the U.S. Congress.
One panelist emphasized what many ordinary Israelis don’t fully grasp: “This is a huge, huge thing to have done to American legislators.” Even the normally disciplined Shaked laughed in apparent acknowledgment of the mess Netanyahu is in.
The Tlaib-Omar controversy came amid a raft of scandals and irregularities already troubling Netanyahu’s reelection bid. He faces possible indictment on corruption charges, has fired civil servants in chaotic fashion and is accused of attempting to stuff a government ethics oversight committee with his supporters. On Friday, the welfare minister of his Likud Party was forced to resign amid fraud charges.
Netanyahu is flailing in the polls ahead of an election next month that is a rerun of one in April when he narrowly won but then could not muster sufficient support to form a government.
With the exception of his son Yair, Netanyahu’s usual backers were silent Friday on the Tlaib-Omar situation, neither supporting or criticizing.
Opponents ridiculed the prime minister.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Netanyahu’s “weakness again harms Israel,” adding, “Democratic Party leaders are openly against us. AIPAC [the pro-Israel lobbying group] is against us. The Jewish community is against us. With his own handiwork, Netanyahu boosts [the boycott movement] and weakens Israel’s friends in the United States.”
Netanyahu apparently bowed to Trump’s pressure in banning the two congresswomen, with whom the U.S. president is waging battle and attempting to portray as an anti-Semitic part of the Democratic Party.
After Netanyahu banned the pair Thursday, Trump congratulated the Israeli leader and seemed to take credit. He had tweeted that if Israel allowed Tlaib and Omar in, it would “show great weakness,” and that they hated Jews and Israel.
Asked whether he had influenced Netanyahu, Trump said: “I don’t want to comment about who I spoke to, but I think my social media statement speaks for itself.... But I did speak to people over there, yeah.”
Tlaib was born in Detroit to Palestinian immigrants and has several relatives, including her 90-year-old grandmother, in the occupied West Bank. It is not possible to reach the West Bank without going through Israel, whose military controls all entry points.
On Friday, Israel partially reversed its decision, saying Tlaib would be allowed to enter on humanitarian grounds, as long as she visited family and didn’t engage in political activities.
Although she apparently seemed willing to agree to the conditions set by Israel, later Friday she declined, saying they made her feel like a criminal.
“I have decided that visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions stands against everything I believe in — fighting against racism, oppression & injustice,” Tlaib said on Twitter. “It would break my grandmother’s heart.”
Tlaib, who, like Omar, is a member of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, later called for a reassessment that could have profound impact on the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
In a statement Friday, she said, “The close alignment of Netanyahu with Trump’s hate agenda must prompt a re-evaluation of our unwavering support for the State of Israel,” adding that Israel’s denial of entry revealed “deep-rooted racism within Israel that is taking us further away from peace.”
Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who said he received a request from Tlaib for the humanitarian exemption, reacted angrily to her decision.
“I approved her request as a gesture of goodwill on a humanitarian basis, but it was just a provocative request, aimed at bashing the state of Israel, " he said. “Apparently her hate for Israel overcomes her love for her grandmother.”
Netanyahu and Trump have built an unusually close alliance. Trump gave Netanyahu a major election campaign boost this year, when days before the April vote he invited the prime minister to the White House and went against international law in recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a fertile plateau that Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.
The campaign also featured billboards of the two men beaming side by side.
Earlier Trump also turned against decades of U.S. policy to grant numerous concessions to Israel by recognizing the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the U.S. Embassy there, jettisoning the principle favoring an eventual independent Palestinian state, and declining to criticize Israel on any topic, including the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Special correspondent Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer Wilkinson from Washington.