When Benjamin Netanyahu and three of his cabinet ministers cancelled the visit to Israel of Democratic US Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, he no doubt thought that he had achieved a victory for "the only democracy in the Middle East". Israel's Prime Minister said in a statement that his country is a "vibrant and free democracy" and "is open to any visitor and to any criticism." However, he argued, it is a "norm in other democracies" to prevent the entry of people who are seen to be "harming" such countries.
Netanyahu, though, also made it clear that the real reason for cancelling the Congresswomen's visit was that they did not plan to meet any Israeli official, either from the ruling party or the opposition. He added that Tlaib and Omar support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is banned in Israel along with its supporters, although Tlaib pointed out that she would not promote BDS during her visit.
"Sadly," said Tlaib, "this is not a surprise given the public positions of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has consistently resisted peace efforts, restricted the freedom of movement of Palestinians, limited public knowledge of the brutal realities of the occupation and aligned himself with Islamophobes like Donald Trump."
The two Democratic representatives have been critical of Israeli crimes and violations against the Palestinian people for years. With Palestine-born parents, Tlaib has sought to promote the rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories and diaspora while exposing Israel's crimes against them. By preventing Tlaib and her colleague from entering Palestine or Israel, Netanyahu probably believed that would be able to put an end to their courageous campaigning.
"When I won [a seat in Congress], it gave the Palestinian people hope that someone will finally speak the truth about the inhumane conditions," tweeted Tlaib. "I can't allow the State of Israel to take away that light by humiliating me & use my love for my city to bow down to their oppressive & racist policies."
The two congresswomen were invited by Miftah, a Palestinian NGO chaired by PLO official Hanan Ashrawi. The NGO planned to organise meetings with both Palestinian and Israeli activists and rights groups.
Miftah described the entry ban as "an assault on the Palestinian people's right to reach out to decision-makers and other actors from around the world." The NGO noted that it wanted to facilitate Omar and Tlaib's "direct contact with the Palestinian people, who are subject to Israel's cruel regime of colonisation, oppression and land grab."
If the visit had gone ahead, it would have received modest media coverage and been wrapped up in a couple of days. Netanyahu's decision, though, has garnered it much wider exposure, and helped to publicise its objectives. Indeed, Miftah has organised several trips for members of the US Congress in the past, but could never have thought that it would one day have AIPAC and other groups in America's pro-Israel Lobby, as well as Democrats and Republicans in Congress, criticising Israel and thus exposing its sham democracy and fear of the truth.
"We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib's support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement, along with Rep. Tlaib's calls for a one-state solution," tweeted AIPAC. "We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally, Israel, firsthand [sic]." If Tlaib and Omar had been able to make their visit, the leading anti-Palestinian group in the US would never have made such a public rebuke of Israel.
Moreover, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, described Israel's ban as a "sign of weakness". Pelosi, who has been described as having "warm feelings toward Jews and toward Israel," said: "Israel's denial of entry to Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar is a sign of weakness, and beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel. The president's statements about the Congresswomen are a sign of ignorance and disrespect, and beneath the dignity of the Office of the President."
Having said not so long ago that Tlaib and Omar should "go back" to where they came from, Donald Trump has now praised Israel for not letting Tlaib enter her familial homeland. The irony is probably lost on him.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told the AIPAC conference earlier this year that, "You can be, all at once, completely Jewish, completely pro-Israel and completely American." He has also been critical of Somali-born Ilhan Omar. Nevertheless, he commented on the ban by pointing out that, "No democratic society should fear an open debate. Many strong supporters of Israel will be deeply disappointed in this decision, which the Israeli government should reverse."
Many people around the world who support Israel have expressed their criticism of the Israeli ban on Tlaib and Omar, and used the occasion to reveal some of the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel. A number of Democratic members of the US House of Representatives are considering a statement of no confidence in Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, and opening an investigation into the conduct of the US Ambassador in Israel, David Friedman, following the ban.
Apart from anything else, Israel's ban on Tlaib and Omar visiting the country has highlighted the kind of restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation on the free movement of the Palestinians, not because of alleged "security" reasons, but simply because a Palestinian is a Palestinian, even if elected to the US Congress. Rashida Tlaib now has every right to let the world know — if we didn't already —that Benjamin Netanyahu is no advocate for peace; she can also use this ban to throw the spotlight on the Palestinian struggle against Israel's brutal military occupation, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.