By David K. Shipler
Before Israel became extremely right-wing, officials used to be eager to make their case with facts and reason. They were so confident in the legitimacy of their position in the Arab-Israeli conflict that they actually seemed to welcome a good opposing argument, because they thought they had a better one. When I arrived there in 1979 after four years covering the Soviet Union, the refreshing air of openness by government was like a tonic. There were exceptions, but as a rule, Israel’s officialdom didn’t try to silence painful disagreement. Comfort with flagrant debate was one of Israel’s most admirable qualities.
There is still plenty of noisy, acerbic dispute in the country. But the government lost its footing in denying entry to two Muslim US congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who wanted to visit the West Bank to champion the Palestinian cause and condemn Israel’s continuing “occupation.” That would have been an annoyance that the old Israel could have handled with sensible rebuttal, and hopefully some healthy introspection. In an earlier time, leaders stood tall in self-assurance. In the new Israel, it seems, they cower pathetically in fear of on-the-ground criticism.
The ironic result is the opposite of what President Trump imagined. He had said that Israel would look weak if it allowed Omar and Tlaib to visit. Israel now looks weak for having banned them—and for taking Trump’s bad advice. (Of course Trump’s idea of weakness is that you listen respectfully to views that differ from your own. He doesn’t seem to realize how weak he looks in his thin skin.)
This episode brings to mind Israel’s decision in 1979 to allow Jesse Jackson to enter the country for a highly publicized visit to Israel and the West Bank. Because of Jackson’s pro-Palestinian tilt, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan convinced Prime Minister Menachem Begin to deny Jackson any meetings with senior government officials, a rebuff that displeased some of Begin’s aides, who thought Begin himself should have met him. Yet the discomfort with Jackson’s views, including his earlier anti-Semitic remarks, did not rattle the conservative governing coalition enough to block his trip.