Nuanced realism: Israel and the Tlaib/Omar visit

In the Jewish/Israel realm and many political talk shops around the world (until Hong Kong, Venezuela or something else serious erupts), the big story is Israel’s sudden reversal and decision to bar entry to two hard-core anti-Israel Members of Congress, Rashida Tlaib (D – MI) and Ilhan Omar (D -MN).

In mainstream media and in liberal Democratic circles (the two are closely linked), Israel is getting battered. Even organizations like AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee, which are generally sympathetic to Israeli perspectives, the criticism is particularly harsh. Prime Minister Netanyahu is being attacked for bowing to Trump’s pressure and agenda, for short-sightedness by endangering long-term American support, and for using this opportunity to bolster his own campaign in the upcoming election rerun. These are reasonable guesses, although not more.

I share some of their concerns — both for long-held philosophical reasons, and pragmatic considerations regarding Israel’s image and ability to win in the soft-power warfare (propaganda) battlefield. I argued for allowing Tlaib and Omar into Israel, despite the media circus and bad PR that they would manufacture, because we should not bar members of the US Congress, and because this would probably be worse on the propaganda front. Indeed, that was the initial decision, before yesterday’s reversal.

My poltiical philosophy is anchored by the parts of my identity as a post-Shoah Jew and liberal (I was raised in California and went to Berkeley as an undergraduate), I view the use of governmental power as a last option, to be applied minimally. (“That government is best which governs least…”) Personal freedom is a central value, as long as it does not encroach on the liberties of others (laws against smoking in public places, enforcing health and public safety standards, and transparency in political funding are necessary). In a wider sense, borders between countries should be open except when security and basic social order are endangered.

For this reason, I oppose the Israeli law barring BDS leaders from visiting for short periods, including students. (Long-term working visas for professional BDSers for Human Rights Watch obtained under false pretenses are something else, but for this, the BDS law is unnecessary and counterproductive.) And of course, whenever Israel has tried to turn away a young activist, the PR damage from the long legal proceedings (for the demonizers who paint us as a “fascist state”, the many democratic checks and balances are incongruent) are has been substantial. And all the more so when it comes to Members of Congress, however hateful and antisemitic then may be.

However, Tlaib and Omar are Israel eliminationists, and their published itinerary, put together in cooperation with a hate-filled and antisemitic Palestinian NGO run by chief Palestinian propagandist Hanan Ashrawi, is designed to provoke and inflame already highly inflammatory situations. Israeli leaders were right to be concerned that a visit to the Jerusalem holy sites, including Al Aqsa and the Temple Mount, or to Hebron, for tours led by NGOs known for confrontation, could trigger violence. In a ten page official document, all of the justifications for not allowing them in were presented. And these were summarized in a twitter thread from the Prime Minister’s office.

In my view, the risks of refusing entry to Members of Congress were still greater that the risks posed by their political theater, which I believe, Israel could have handled, including the provocative visits. But I do not have the responsibilities that elected officials carry in having to deal with plans and scenarios that go badly wrong. It is easy for me to advocate taking risks for a greater good based on liberal values (although I still get pelted by the one-dimensional progressive trolls.)

In contrast, much of the American and Israeli punditry (or pundocracy) unleashed a flood of condemnations of the Israeli move in mainstream and social media (click bait), entirely devoid of nuance. The claims and counterclaims, including the portrayal of Netanyahu as merely following Trump’s lead (or demand), are simplistic in the extreme. These “debates” involve one-dimensional stick figures in a reality that is far more complex. A conclusion, after weighing the details and nuances, that Israel was wrong to bar Tlaib and Omar, is one thing; simply slamming Netanyahu with cliches and slogans is another.

I realize that nuanced argument, political realism and prudent hedging are all in short supply in the era of ideological polarization, zero-sum politics (we have truth; everyone else is evil), and anti-social media. And what is true in general around the world, is multiplied greatly in the case of Israel. But after many years of academic and political “on the one-hand; on the other hand-ism”, I am not about to change my ways. And I will continue to hope that eventually, nuanced realism will return to favor, particularly on Israel.

About the Author
Gerald Steinberg is Professor of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. His latest book is "Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism", (Indiana University Press)
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