On Ban, Criticism From An Unlikely Source
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On Ban, Criticism From An Unlikely Source

WZO’s diaspora affairs chief fears serious damage as Israel becomes polarizing issue in Congress.

Contributing Editor, The NY Jewish Week

“I would expect my prime minister to give more thought to Jewish opinion in the U.S.,” says World Zionist Organization diaspora affairs chief Gusti Yehoshua-Braverman. WZO
“I would expect my prime minister to give more thought to Jewish opinion in the U.S.,” says World Zionist Organization diaspora affairs chief Gusti Yehoshua-Braverman. WZO

A top Zionist official in Jerusalem has issued an “emergency call” warning of a “crash” in bipartisan support for Israel in Congress.

The Tlaib-Omar saga could “create a problem for the State of Israel in the long-term” by polarizing Democrats and Republicans on the issue of the Jewish state, said Gusti Yehoshua-Braverman.

She heads the diaspora affairs unit at the World Zionist Organization, an entity that normally has good relations with political powers in Jerusalem. But this week she offered a scathing indictment of Israel’s leadership, convinced that the government shot itself in the foot — and harmed American Jewry — by banning Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from visiting Israel.

“We have caused more damage to our public image than we have saved,” she said in an interview soon after the two politicians dominated U.S. airwaves with their combative press conference Monday about Israel’s decision to block their political visit.

Yehoshua-Braverman is worried about the political fallout from the saga, and also the offense caused to American Jewry, given its support for the Democratic Party. “I would expect my prime minister to give more thought to Jewish opinion in the U.S.,” she said.

Despite denials from the White House that it pressured Israel for the ban, Trump is widely believed to be cashing in favors extended to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The favors started long before Trump was president — he endorsed Bibi’s 2013 election campaign with a video. His policy moves as president have delighted Bibi, sometimes at key moments, such as the move to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights just before the last election.

Now, Trump has reportedly asked for payback, by pressuring Israel to bar Tlaib and Omar for political gain — so that he can force Democrats to rally around their colleagues and present the party as extreme. He tweeted that Israel would show “great weakness” by letting them in, and reports suggest that requests were conveyed to Jerusalem, where a 2017 law allows authorities to bar visitors if they support BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

Though Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, had said that the politicians — the first two Muslim women elected to Congress — would be allowed to visit, their requests for a political trip were refused. Tlaib, a Palestinian American, was subsequently offered a humanitarian family visit; she initially accepted but soon after, citing Israeli conditions (that she had already agreed to in writing), declined the offer. Many Arab Israelis were furious with the ban, and the prominent advocacy group for their community, Adalah, said that the decision “exposes the depth of Israel’s intolerance towards anyone who dares to criticize its policies.” 

But to most Jewish Israelis, there is nothing controversial in keeping out BDSers, said pollster Tamar Hermann. When she asked last month about “Israel’s policy of denying entry to those who support — or are suspected of supporting — the BDS movement,” 72 percent of Jewish Israelis were in favor. Hermann, a political scientist who conducts her surveys for the Israel Democracy Institute, plans to ask a similar question again, in the light of the current controversy, but said that she doesn’t expect any major change in the numbers.

Opposition to the decision in Israeli society has largely come from the ideological left. Haaretz accused Netanyahu of “groveling to Trump” and argued that he “endangers bipartisan American support for Israel.” Amit Gilutz, spokesman for B’Tselem, an NGO that was due to meet with the congresswomen, told me he thinks that the refusal reflects “a process of turning Israel’s border police into thought police.”

The WZO is an unlikely addition to the critical camp, but the group realizes that the stakes for American Jews are high.

Yehoshua-Braverman emphasized that she respects Israel’s right to refuse entry, but argued that Netanyahu should have consulted U.S. Jewry and acted on its advice. By not doing this, she fears that he alienated American Jews and promoted a sense that Republicans and Democrats are at odds on Israel.

She argued that Netanyahu did his country a disservice by being too keen to please Trump, and allowing himself to be dragged into U.S. politics. “In a way, there’s a wish [by Netanyahu] to give back and not embarrass President Trump, but it’s a very delicate relationship, a dance.”

In her view, “on the one hand, this is a great time for the State of Israel with a president who is aligned with us. But on the other hand, this isn’t black and white — it’s more complex and we need to be smart. In the same way we want the U.S. to not interfere in our internal politics, we expect the prime minister here to be smart.” She is concerned about the state of relations between Israel and the Democrats, especially in the case of a Democratic presidency.

Hermann said that lots of Israelis are also concerned about a demise in Israel’s relationships with Democrats, but recoil from any suggestion that Israel has had a hand in it. “It’s not perceived as anything that Israel did or could have done,” she said.

Many Israeli Jews have come to see the Democratic Party in the mold of Tlaib and Omar, she said. “When they think Democrats, they don’t think [Joe] Biden, they see it as these voices,” said Hermann.

This “might well develop as a process of growing estrangement” of Israelis from Democrats. She said that “the question is whether more moderate Democrats will communicate that their views are different.”

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.

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