Israel this week made a decision to prohibit two congresswomen from entering the country on a planned visit. The lawmakers, Ilhan Omar from Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib from Michigan, have been highly critical of Israel, which has a law barring anyone who supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement from entering the country. Israel had previously been willing to allow the trip, but reversed its stance, reportedly at the request of the American administration.
Rarely does anything related to Israel generate consensus, but the decision to keep out the two congresswomen has been criticized by voices from both the mainstream right and left. Most see it as a bad PR move for Israel. While the views of Omar and Tlaib may be anti-Israel and the country, like all others, has the right to determine who may visit, preventing two Muslim lawmakers from visiting just feeds into the perception that Israel violates human rights.
Some have suggested that Israel was in a difficult position, with risks on both sides. Bar them and you risk looking petty and mean; let them in and you look weak as you help critics bash Israel. However, it seems to me the Israeli government took a bad situation and made it worse. I suspect if the congresswomen had made their trip without incident, few, in America at least, would have paid attention. Now, the decision to bar them is all over social and traditional media.
The other mistake is the involvement of the White House. Apparently Israel was going to let Omar and Tlaib visit until the administration encouraged a ban, including Tweets from the president. Israel has managed to get sucked into a domestic political squabble as the president feuds with the congresswomen in an attempt to hold them up as representative of the Democratic Party.
Israel has always prided itself on a nonpartisan relationship with America by avoiding internal US politics; it’s the key to a strong long term partnership. This decision by the current Israeli government has done damage to that relationship. By barring the congresswomen they have given the president a controversy that he can exploit in his bid for re-election. While the prime minister might be happy to help the president, such partisan maneuvering does nothing to strengthen the future of the US-Israel relationship. If the Israeli government is seen as helping the Republicans, why would Democrats want to support Israel?
Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and the freedoms that come with democracy are often messy. It requires protecting speech you don’t like, and it requires respecting the democratically elected officials of your allies, even if you don’t like them. As we were taught in childhood, it’s usually best, although rarely easy, to take the high road.