Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

What was and what could’ve been – Rashida Tlaib and choices made

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., right, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., at a news conference, August 19, 2019 at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

The last few days have been a roller coaster of action and reaction, of poor choices and escalating consequences, each of which have driven attention and energy away from progress. In recapping what happened, I also propose what could’ve been. And I say: those who care about Israelis, about Palestinians and about actually finding a solution must speak up.

Let’s start at the beginning. Every other August, the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), a charitable foundation affiliated with AIPAC, organizes a trip for new members of Congress. Democrats came first and Republicans later, with an overlap of a few days in between. Its itinerary aims to be broad and balanced, and both delegations were “slated to meet separately with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, as well as with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.” Further, this organized trip “…also includes time in the West Bank, as well as meetings with Israeli peace activists and civil society leaders who are critical of Netanyahu’s government [and] young Palestinian entrepreneurs, Israeli civil society leaders, and peace activists.” Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Omar Ilhan declined this trip. They could have accepted it.

Instead, an organization called Miftah put together an itinerary for their trip. The group, as the conservative National Review pointed out (using admittedly subjective adjectives but backed up with links to multiple sources), despite its subtitle, ”The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue & Democracy,” does not appear to actively promote peace and has a spotted history of acting against it. While it has since issued a statement disputing one allegation, the majority of what I saw on its website had less to do with promoting dialogue and democracy, and more to do with helping the situation of women in the territories. This is admirable but isn’t relevant.  I did see in Miftah’s fact sheet on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict  a conspicuous absence of terrorism and its victims; recognizing both sides’ pain (and how both sides’ actions hurt progress)  is an essential piece of promoting dialogue. While Miftah’s proposed itinerary to “Palestine” included some very useful meetings, it omitted many more and did nothing to actually advance coexistence. As I proposed in my blog a few weeks ago, the congresswomen could’ve used a well-respected NGO to put together a comprehensive itinerary that would help them assess the full situation. They did not.

Four pages of Miftah’s itinerary, some focused on investment in the territories, a feature of the Bahrain conference that the PA arrested Palestinians businessmen for attending

In declining to go with their fellow Democratic colleagues for a trip which included a curated but not one-sided collection of meetings and instead opting for one which clearly omits Israel’s perspective, the pair made their intent fairly clear. It was not fact-finding. What they could’ve and should’ve done was to participate in the first, schedule the kinds of meetings they thought would bring attention to what was being hidden and invited their colleagues to join them – this would’ve helped Tlaib and Omar share their concerns about inadequate representation of the Palestinian viewpoint. 

This and no other itinerary found its way online; if it was only a proposal or if it was only a partial account of what the Congresswomen would be doing on their trip, there was no way to know. Later on in this chronology, Omar indicated that her itinerary would have differed from Tlaib’s and that she had intended to meet with Arab Knesset members and Israeli security officials, among others. I’ve not been able to find anything online from Knesset members or Israeli officials to confirm. Instead of Bibi and Omar calling each other liars over intent, this could’ve been avoided had they either published their itinerary or shared it with the Israeli government. But they did neither. 

Again, they could’ve taken one of the offered trips, tacked on their own, invited the Dems to other meetings and made progress towards helping Palestinians. And chose not to. And no one is calling them out for this squandered opportunity. That is what it is — a squandered opportunity. The silence of both Israeli and Palestinian peace activists hurts.

Democrats who value promoting peaceful coexistence and a two-state solution need to call out those members of their party who are sabotaging that possibility of it ever happening. If the two are convinced that America has a skewed view of the situation, what better way to correct that than to learn more themselves and then help other lawmakers learn more too? The Democratic silence gives Trump more ammunition to attack them all, painting the entire Democratic party with the same brush as he paints Tlaib and Omar. This contributes to the division within the very party they belong to. Tlaib and Omar could’ve worked with their fellow lawmakers to build a strong and united front against Republican accusations, instead of adding to divisiveness in the party.

But back to what happened…Israel has a law on the books which allows them to deny entry to anyone active in promoting the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement. I personally think the law is undemocratic, so do others. Many condemned Israel’s refusal to let the Congresswomen in (even AIPAC). Regardless, the law stands. Its rationale is that BDS demonizes Israel; its movement’s founder Omar Barghouti opposes a Jewish state in any part of  Palestine, as Bill Maher recently later explained in this clip worth watching.

After Ambassador Ron Dermer’s earlier statement that despite their BDS activity, Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar would be given permission to visit Israel, the country refused. Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri said that if Tlaib were to submit a request to visit her grandmother and committed to refraining from BDS activity (i.e., to comply with Israeli law), he would reconsider. And so she put a request into writing. And he agreed. And then she refused to go, deeming compliance with the law offensive conditions that were designed to humiliate her. Had she not used her grandmother whom she has not seen since 2006 as a political pawn, Tlaib could have been visiting her family and using the opportunity to meet with other Palestinians now.

My take initially had been that while Benyamin Netanyahu gets the nuances of Israeli politics he somehow misses the boat where the U.S. is concerned. Tying his horse to Trump and the GOP’s post hurts bipartisan support. Is he that unaware? I am not sure. It may be that he just doesn’t care. But, as this article in Tablet points out, Bibi is weak and Trump is a bully who is sacrificing Israel for his own political ends. And so, it may not be that one follows the other but that one succumbs to the other. Or not. Either way – the congresswomen should not have had their entry denied in the first place. If Tlaib faced criticism from Palestinians for her letter to Deri, she could’ve addressed that too.

It is unhelpful to make Israel a partisan issue when it need not be. I wrote about how Bibi made it difficult for Democrats who are Zionists when campaign posters of him and Trump appeared on the streets of Tel Aviv. I thought at the time – and still do – that Democrats need to do a better job of educating and articulating the reasons we as a country need to support pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian efforts (and how these should never be conflated with anti-Palestinian and anti-Israel sentiments). It didn’t escape me that the more that Trump paints all Dems with the brush he uses on Tlaib and Omar, the worse this will be. Other Dems will be forced to defend their colleagues and these congresswomen will never be called out for their acts of hypocrisy and anti-Semitism. An example of hypocrisy would be criticizing an AIPAC-related group for funding a tour but being ready to accept Miftah’s sponsorship of its one-sided tour. An example of anti-Semitism is the cartoon they both shared depicting Trump and Bibi silencing the two in a design showing an Israeli flag by an artist who placed second in a Iranian Holocaust cartoon competition. Putting that aside, there is blatant anti-Semitism here. As Forward editor Batya Ungar-Sargon pointed out, “Jews controlling and subverting world leaders is a classic anti-Semitic trope. So is Jews silencing critics. But no one has silenced the Reps.”  They did not have to agree with it and they certainly did not have to share it on their Instagram stories. Instead, they could’ve addressed the fact that Tlaib preferred supporting BDS to suspending activities and going. 

So now, the attention is on what happened and the fallout of what happened…and all I can think about is what could have happened. I recently learned that the Democratic Majority for Israel did offer to arrange a balanced itinerary for Omar and Tlaib (as I had suggested in my original blog and shared on social media wherever I could). I thought coming from their own party, it would be something they would have to consider. But it turns out, they ignored the offer.

This breaks my heart. Because Tlaib and Omar had the opportunity to serve their party well and to show the world Palestinian suffering. They also had the opportunity to recognize Israel’s concerns for security and then to think about how the multitude of issues in this complex situation. They could’ve spent their energy on figuring out solutions. And they chose not to.

By both rejecting a trip which was planned to include meeting with Abbas and with activists from the territories (that is, the one that their fellow Dems went on) and ignoring an offer for a more tailored one from their own party and instead choosing an imbalanced itinerary sponsored by Miftah, they positioned themselves as representatives of Palestinians only (which feels a bit hypocritical to me in light of accusations of Jews having dual loyalty, representing Israel, and being pawns of AIPAC’s money). Had Tlaib and Omar made different choices, they could have demonstrated to all that they were truly interested in going as representatives of the legislature, not as representatives of the Palestinians.

Without question, it is important to represent the Palestinians’ plight more fully and in a more three-dimensional way, but handling it the way they did, they as much as spelled out to anyone paying attention that their intent was not to figure out how to balance the need for freedom of movement and access of Palestinians with the need for security of Israelis, let alone how to move towards a place of coexistence.

If Tlaib and Omar are incapable of seeing the bigger picture and their Democratic colleagues are incapable of helping them see it too, the party will have given Trump what he wants – for Israel to become a partisan issue. As I pointed out in a blog on this topic, we will pay the price at the polls in 2020. I also fear with the rise of anti-Semitism, that we will also pay a price in our lives in the 15 months leading up.

Despite what was and what could have been, there is still time. Those who want to work towards a pro-Palestinian, pro-Israel and pro-peace future, please raise your hands and be counted.

About the Author
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Lawn Guyland, Wendy lived in Jerusalem for over a decade submerged in Israeli culture; she has been soaked in Southern life in metro Atlanta since returning to the U.S. in 2003. Recently remarried, this Ashkenazi mom of three Mizrahi sons, 27, 24 and 19, splits her time between managing knowledge in corporate America, pursuing a dual masters in public administration and integrated global communications, relentlessly Facebooking, enjoying the arts and trying to bring a wider perspective to the topics she covers while blogging.
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