No one has to like the politics and inflammatory speech of the two congressional Democrats banned by Israel on Thursday at President Donald Trump’s behest.
We find the comments of Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar often annoying, simplistic and reflecting a one-sided view of the Middle East’s many complexities.
Agree or disagree with them, however, their right to have political points of view and to express them is fundamental and should never be in question within any country that calls itself a democracy.
Trump and close Israeli political ally Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly forgot that democracy cannot survive, much less flourish, if free speech exists only for those who say things they agree with.
Banning Tlaib, of Michigan, and Omar, of Minnesota, was a political stunt that backfired in the worst way. Instead of weakening international support for the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement that Tlaib and Omar advocate, Trump and Netanyahu gave the movement new legs.
The conservative American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a longtime strong backer of Netanyahu, publicly derided the ban.
“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. We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand,” AIPAC tweeted Thursday.
Various analysts writing in Israeli newspapers also derided Netanyahu for enveloping Israel in the domestic U.S. political spat between Trump, Tlaib, Omar and two other liberal first-term congresswomen who call themselves “The Squad.”
The foreign ministry had previously said Omar and Tlaib could travel to Israel. But Netanyahu overruled and declared them unwelcome after Trump tweeted that they should be banned. (Israel officials later said Tlaib could enter on humanitarian grounds so she could see her grandmother but would have required her to sign a promise restricting her speech and her movement. Tlaib ultimately declined to go.)
There is no known precedent for a U.S. president intervening to block the international travel of a member of Congress. By acceding to Trump’s demand, Netanyahu emerged looking weak and subservient as elections approach to decide his political future.
“One must ask though, is Netanyahu’s vision of Israel so feeble that it can’t tolerate intense public criticism?” opinion writer Peter Fox wrote in The Jersualem Post.
The Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement calls for Israel to reverse its West Bank settlements policies and respect Palestinian rights.
Among its many odious ripple effects, though, is the platform the movement has given to anti-Semites.
But there is nothing inherently anti-Semitic in criticizing settlements and advocating for Palestinian rights.
And as J-Street, the Washington-based Middle East policy organization, has noted, free speech includes the right to support boycotts.
Israel has the right to decide who is granted entry and who isn’t. But that decision must be independent of Trump’s political agenda and always in keeping with the free speech values that all democracies seek to uphold.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.