Earlier this month, Israel refused entry to two members of the US Congress, Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota). This led to condemnation from Democratic Party officials who had received assurances from the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, that the two representatives would be allowed to visit. While the decision confirms how Israel views its relationship with American officials and others who oppose its policies, it comes at a crucial moment in American-Israeli relations and fits into a general political and social context that has been changing for some time.
What added to the disturbing nature of this denial of entry was the pressure US President Donald Trump exerted on the Israeli government to reject the visit. In a tweet, Trump cautioned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that allowing Tlaib and Omar in would show “great weakness.” While this pressure may have been unnecessary, since Israel has a record of denying entry to Palestinians and others who reject its policies, politicians in the United States used it both to justify Israel’s action or criticize it. In general, Republicans supported the president’s position and saw that the Israeli government was right to reject the visit, while Democrats sided with their colleagues and blamed the president for helping to exclude US officials from visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories.
For several years, a partisan divide has grown in American attitudes toward Israel, one that indicates a coming shift in US-Israel relations. The change in attitudes has been most perceptible in public opinion polls that, year after year, have confirmed this trend through a variety of probing questions, all of which illustrate an unprecedented gap in Republican and Democratic attitudes. These polls have also shown that the shifts are most pronounced among specific demographics within each party’s membership. In short, older, white, male, and Christian (particularly evangelical) Americans are more likely to show more support for Israel. Consequently, the most critical views of Israel are found among people of color, women, the young, and non-evangelicals.
Older, white, male, and Christian (particularly evangelical) Americans are more likely to show more support for Israel. Consequently, the most critical views of Israel are found among people of color, women, the young, and non-evangelicals.
These differences also overlap a disconnect between the bases of both political parties in the United States. It is also noteworthy that there is a divide between the demographics at the top of the Democratic Party and its own base. Some of these splits began to play out in the federal legislature, most significantly on anti-boycott legislation, where Democrats were more likely to oppose the efforts to pass such bills because of First Amendment concerns. Representative Betty McCollum’s (D-Minnesota) legislation on Israeli military detention of Palestinian children, however, is a single but notable exception.
Largely, however, when we have seen these attitudes manifested into action, it has not been on the federal level but rather in civil society where actors at the base of the party have more influence.
All of this began to change in a significant way with the election of Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar along with a number of other young, dynamic, women of color. For the first time, the demographics that represented this shift in attitudes in the base were now breaking through to the federal legislature. Tlaib, the first Palestinian American woman in Congress, and Omar, the first Somali American woman there, were both also the first Muslim women elected to the House of Representatives. More importantly, they were propelled into these positions by a progressive base of the party.
Soon after their election, Tlaib and Omar made it clear that they were not going to play by the old rules of the bipartisan consensus on Israel. Both also opposed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the highly influential Israel lobby in the United States.
Soon after their election, Tlaib and Omar made it clear that they were not going to play by the old rules of the bipartisan consensus on Israel. Both also opposed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the highly influential Israel lobby in the United States. Tlaib announced that she would be taking a separate trip to Palestine from the one organized annually by AIPAC—and blessed by the Israeli government—for new members of Congress, a trip aimed at showing them what Israel wants them to see. For her part, Omar made comments earlier in the year about the undue influence of AIPAC, for which she was promptly condemned by many members of her own party. The manufactured controversy nonetheless cast a shadow over the annual AIPAC conference taking place just weeks later and prominent progressive groups called on leading presidential candidates to boycott the meeting.
AIPAC’s Slipping Grip
Few interest groups have carried as much weight in Washington as AIPAC, and few likewise have had a demonstrated history of being equally respected on both sides of the aisle. Historically, AIPAC-backed resolutions in Congress could garner nearly unanimous support. That began to change in recent years and for multiple reasons. Part of this shift likely originated in the post-2003 politics in the United States that saw strong partisan division regarding support for the Iraq war. AIPAC’s support for Israel and a strong US military presence in the region put the lobby group at odds with those seeking diplomatic solutions and opposing militarism. But while post-2003 antiwar politics in the United States might have been the kindling, the real spark came with the election of US President Barack Obama and the tension between his administration and the government of the right-wing Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The Obama Administration benefited from the backing of a different American pro-Israel group, J Street, which allowed Obama to claim some support from the Jewish community for policies of pursuing a two-state solution. The administration came under attack from other elements in the American Jewish community that often ended up taking Netanyahu’s side in the dispute with Obama. Nevertheless, this signaled the beginning of AIPAC’s diminishing utility.
A significant break in AIPAC’s bipartisan reach originated from the lobby group’s behavior around the Obama Administration’s diplomatic efforts with Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2014 and 2015.
A significant break in AIPAC’s bipartisan reach originated from the lobby group’s behavior around the Obama Administration’s diplomatic efforts with Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2014 and 2015. AIPAC poured millions of dollars into lobbying against the nuclear deal, the signature foreign policy achievement of the Democratic president on the singularly most important national security issue to his administration: nuclear proliferation. In this fight, AIPAC and Netanyahu aligned with Republicans in more overt ways than ever before. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, a former Republican Party operative, worked with the Republican Speaker of the House at the time, John Boehner (R-Ohio), to invite Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress for the purpose of lobbying against the Iran deal. The move infuriated the White House and many Democratic members of Congress from both the progressive and black caucuses, many of whom were upset about the racial undertones of criticism levied against the president’s Iran policy, which included accusations of treason and questioning his religious identity. The anger over the backroom dealings between Netanyahu, Dermer, and Boehner led to a boycott of Netanyahu’s speech by 57 members of Congress, all Democrats, and Bernie Sanders, an Independent senator from Vermont. The decision to boycott was a stunning benchmark of how significant the partisan divide had become. Prior to that moment, speeches by the Israeli prime minister to Congress had been known for the rancorous bipartisan applause he would draw—in contrast to the American president’s annual State of the Union address—in increasingly polarized times.
Today, AIPAC’s grip seems to have slipped and its brand has become toxic among Democrats, so much so that it has had to rely on spin-off groups to do its handiwork among Democrats. A new organization called the Democratic Majority for Israel was founded by a number of AIPAC-linked operatives; it seems to be aiming to achieve among Democrats what AIPAC used to have the credibility to do on its own.
Once again, as a storm of condemnation from Democrats came in response to a Netanyahu government decision on the Tlaib-Omar visit, AIPAC again found itself at the center of the story. Not only had it, through its affiliated foundation, just taken a large number of members of Congress to Israel with the approval of the Israeli government, but it had also previously worked to make Israel’s denial of entry to US citizens more acceptable.
Israel’s History of Denying Entry
Denying entry into Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies has a long tradition in Israel, especially when applied to Palestinians. Since its creation in 1948, Israel began to institute policies, first military then civil-legal, to deny entry to Palestinian refugees whose towns and villages lay behind Israeli-held lines. Over the years, Israel developed policies that would deny entry to Palestinians and others as well, even if they held citizenship from states with which Israel had good relations. In the eyes of the Israeli state, citizenship does not alter nationality and Palestinians may still be excluded even if they are American citizens. In recent years, this policy of exclusion has been extended beyond just the denial of entry to Palestinians with foreign citizenship but also to others who might be of Arab or Muslim background—or simply those who are critics of Israeli policy. It has become such an issue that the State Department of the United States, Israel’s most significant ally and financier, readily alerts its citizens that Israel may arbitrarily deny US citizens entry “for involvement in and/or expressing support on social media for the BDS movement.”
In the eyes of the Israeli state, citizenship does not alter nationality and Palestinians may still be excluded even if they are American citizens.
This discrimination against American citizens based on political viewpoint is not new and has been an issue of contention in US-Israeli relations in the past. While the United States has acknowledged that Israel retains the right to deny entry to US citizens as it wishes, the State Department has used this frequent denial of entry against Israel in negotiations over the US Visa Waiver Program. This program is available to a certain set of nations, all of which have strong ties to the United States and are primarily in Europe. Citizens of these nations may enter the United States upon arrival and without a pre-approved visa. Yet despite the long-standing strong ties between Israel and the United States, Israel is not part of this program precisely because there is a reciprocity requirement. Israel could not deny more than 3 percent of US citizens seeking entry to become part of the program, but its refusal rate exceeded the limit. In 2013, AIPAC supported legislation in Congress that attempted to legislate an exception to this requirement for Israel so it could continue to discriminate against US citizens and gain access into the Visa Waiver Program. The legislation did not move forward, in part because of uproar over this very issue.
With the denial of entry to Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar, Israel was not merely denying entry to US citizens, it was denying entry to duly elected members of Congress who, like their 433 other counterparts, each represent over 700,000 US citizens. The Israeli decision to impose conditions on Representative Tlaib, as House Democratic leader and longtime AIPAC ally Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) stated, was not only “disrespectful of Rep. Tlaib but of the United States Congress as well.”
Condemnation of the move poured in from all corners of the Democratic Party—from its progressive wing, which was already more outspoken, to its leadership including pro-Israel stalwarts like Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and even Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York).
What seems to be mostly driving the anger of Democrats is the way in which they were double-crossed by the Israeli government. Heading into this summer, Democrats faced a number of very tense fights over Israel-related matters that threatened to divide the caucus. This included fights over anti-BDS legislation as well as over the reactions to public statements by Representatives Tlaib and Omar. Each time, the progressive wing was pitted against the more centrist establishment. The leadership of the party sought to maintain many long-standing relationships with pro-Israel supporters and wanted to project party unity to the greatest degree possible. All the while, the party leadership was also putting up with aggressive and unprecedented attacks from Republicans challenging them on their pro-Israel bona fides as a way to stoke tension and drive some elite donor support away from the Democratic Party.
What seems to be mostly driving the anger of Democrats is the way in which they were double-crossed by the Israeli government.
For these reasons, it was clear that in August, when AIPAC would take its annual delegation of new members of Congress to Israel, and Tlaib would also be taking a much different trip along with a smaller contingent, another flashpoint along the recurring theme that defined much of the year for this Congress was shaping up. The leadership knew it needed to manage division to the greatest extent possible and wanted Israeli cooperation in this effort. If Israel was going to deny entry to two Democratic members of Congress, it would not only cause an uproar, but it would lead many other lawmakers who were planning to go on the AIPAC trip to consider boycotting in solidarity with their fellow members of Congress who were denied entry. This was a nightmare scenario the party leadership was looking to avoid. They received guarantees, however, from none other than Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, who committed that the Israelis would let in all members of Congress. On this basis, the AIPAC delegation of Democrats led by Steny Hoyer went forward. Then, as soon as they completed the trip and posed for photo ops, they returned to the United States only to learn that the Israelis had deceived them, announcing that Representatives Tlaib and Omar would be denied entry.
Democrats had not yet healed from the wounds of Dermer’s antics in 2015 when he cooperated with the Republicans to circumvent the Obama White House. Now, once again, they learned that he had played a central role in setting them up for embarrassment.
The message Democrats could take from this is the message the Israeli government, led by Netanyahu, seems to be sending them: no matter how much the Democratic leadership bends over backwards to hold the line on support for Israel, even if it costs them with their own base, the Israeli government still does not care. And if the Israelis do not seem to care about bipartisan support, establishment Democrats are going to have a much harder time holding that line moving forward. By shutting the door on Representatives Tlaib and Omar, Netanyahu may have broken open the floodgates of partisan politics on Israel that establishment Democrats have tried for a long time to keep firmly locked.