Netanyahu’s catch-22 over anti-BDS campaign

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will soon have to decide whether to use the anti-BDS law he supported to prevent the entry into Israel of US Democratic congressional members Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, July 14, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Jul 19, 2019

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will soon have to decide whether to allow a visit to Israel by the Americans Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, two Muslim congressional representatives from the Democratic Party. The women recently announced their plans to visit Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories in the next few weeks. No matter what Netanyahu decides, it will be a bad decision.

If Netanyahu lets them in, he will be emptying an amendment to the Entry to Israel Law of any real substance. The amended law was intended to prevent supporters of boycotts of Israel from entering the country, so allowing them in would be the statute's death knell. If, on the other hand, he denies the two representatives entry, he could find himself in hot water with the Democratic Party and at the center of an international incident, even if President Donald Trump tweets his support for such as decision.

Omar, Tlaib and two other congresswomen from their party — Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley — currently find themselves at the center of a huge public debate in the United States stemming from Trump personally attacking them on July 14. In a series of scathing tweets, Trump said that they should, to paraphrase, go back to where they came from, even though three of the four were born in the United States. Omar was born in Somalia and moved to the United States at a very young age. She is a vocal supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement who has asserted that American politicians support Israel because of money they receive from the AIPAC lobby.

Tlaib, born in Detroit to Palestinian parents, has extended family living on the West Bank. She also has opinions that could be considered anti-Israel. One example is her response to legislation proposed by Republican senators that would have punished anyone calling for a boycott of Israel. Tlaib tweeted about her colleagues, “They forgot what country they represent. This is the U.S. where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality.”

Last August, Tlaib recommended cutting foreign aid, particularly military aid, to Israel. In another instance, she expressed a desire to promote the idea of a two-state solution, because, she said, “Israel and the Palestinians have a lot in common.” Omar has also expressed interest in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In an interview with the Jewish Insider, she mentioned that she would be visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories in the next few weeks, so that she can learn about the situation on the ground: “We must really address that [occupation] and make sure that as we push forth a two-state solution, that we acknowledge that and fight any attempts to stall this process and make sure that there is an opportunity for both sides to fully recognize each other’s dignity and to live peacefully.”

In March 2017, Knesset members Bezalel Smotrich, who was recently appointed transportation minister, and Roi Folkman from Kulanu pushed forward legislation to amend the Entry to Israel Law to prohibit entry visas and stays in Israel to foreign citizens who call for a boycott of Israel. A total of 46 Knesset members supported the amendment, while 28 opposed it. Though the Foreign Ministry can make an exception for political and diplomatic figures, it remains a particularly sensitive issue and one with implications for Israel’s relationship with the United States. Netanyahu will have to decide what to do about the two congresswomen.

The Smotrich-Folkman legislation was just one more layer in a series of laws and regulations passed by the Knesset as part of an effort spearheaded by Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan against what he called foreign factors who have declared war on Israel’s very existence, which is how he defines anyone who criticizes Israel. Back in August 2016, before the amendment to the Entry Law was passed, Erdan and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri had created a team to identify BDS activists in Israel with the express purpose of deporting them. After Erdan launched his anti-BDS campaign, a large number of human rights activists, journalists and intellectuals were researched extensively before their arrival in Israel and detained at Ben Gurion International Airport for interrogation if it was determined that they had allegedly spoken out against Israel or expressed support for a boycott. One of those flagged was the Jewish journalist Peter Beinart, who was questioned about articles he had written. In response to his interrogation, he remarked that Israel, like the United States, is “getting uglier.”

Erdan waged a stubborn fight that eventually reached the Supreme Court after he tried to prevent an American student, Lara Alqasem, from entering Israel after she had been accepted to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He waged a no-less-stubborn fight against Human Rights Watch representative Omar Shakir that also reached the Supreme Court. In December 2018, American human rights activists Vincent Warren and Katherine Franke were detained because Franke had allegedly tried to conceal her ties to an American Jewish organization that supports the boycott of Israel. The list goes on and on.

This obsessive activity has made Erdan the most effective PR person for the entire BDS movement. Whenever anyone is detained or arrested at Ben Gurion, there is intense commotion in the media that generates international coverage. BDS leaders can rub their hands with glee at what they view as the “welcome” activity of an Israeli minister who provides their movement with free advertising and exaggerates its true strength, as if they posed an existential threat to the State of Israel.

The epitome of Erdan’s ridiculous behavior was his decision to spend about 2 million shekels on a television campaign to supposedly explain to the Israeli public the risks posed by boycott activists. He even recruited television host Avri Gilad to be the face of the campaign. In the segments, Gilad claims that Palestinian terrorists realized that they could not defeat Israel through terrorism, so they decided to disguise themselves as human rights activists to whitewash their activities. Erdan was quick to promote the campaign, tweeting, “I call on the public to join in the defense of Israel. Everyone can take part in the struggle for the truth. Together we can uncover the hypocrisy and lies of boycott activists and tell the truth about Israel.’’

Netanyahu did not stop his public security minister in real time. Instead, he allowed him to stir his stew for his own political reasons. Now Netanyahu will have no choice but to eat it.

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