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.
Jackson acknowledged Jews’ past of persecution by visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum. But he made a fool of himself by spending an hour in the Kalandia refugee camp north of Jerusalem without asking a single question of Palestinian residents. Instead, he used the crowded camp as scenery for his TV sound bites, a venture in self-promotion, not fact-finding. Mayor Teddy Kollek said that on a tour of Jerusalem’s Old City, Jackson seemed most interested in having his picture taken. When I duly wrote as much, Jackson went home and gave an interview dismissing my coverage as the work of a Jewish reporter. (I’m not Jewish.) So, did Israel suffer a mortal blow by tolerating his posturing? We know the answer.
Whether Omar and Tlaib would have damaged themselves on such a trip is an open question, but it’s clear that Israel could have engaged them in a productive way. Doors could have been opened for discussions with senior officials, political and military. An agenda could have included briefings on critical security issues, on past peace plans, on Israel’s long sense of vulnerability. The two might have visited Yad Vashem as well. A tour of Jewish history could have been imparted to provide context for understanding the deep ties to that land by Jews as well as Muslims. In the old adage, you can’t kick a person toward you.
After the ban, Israel’s interior minister made a humanitarian exception for Tlaib to visit her grandmother on the West Bank if she would pledge not to advocate during her trip for the boycott movement that she supports. She ended up not agreeing to be silenced, and not going. If Israel had felt compelled to impose conditions on the visit, high-level meetings and briefings would have been more useful. Such invitations Omar and Tlaib could not have refused!
It’s unclear how well they would have listened or how amenable they would have been to revising their thoughts about this complex conflict. But if they were open to learning, they would have come out with a more sophisticated grasp of the clash of historical narratives, of the competition of nationalisms, the rising religious dogmatism on both sides. They would have understood the passionate attachment to Jerusalem that animates many Israeli Jews as well as Palestinian Muslims. And then, Omar and Tlaib would have returned home as more persuasive articulators of policy.
But persuasion is not a hallmark of either American or Israeli politics these days. We are in an age where few people on either side of an argument care to use considered facts and reason to get through to the other. We are in a mode of shouting at each other, not listening to each other. Politics has devolved into scrambles for whipping up your most zealous supporters, which you don’t do with calm appeals to serious discussion. Not only for Trump, but also for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces an election next month, the parochial takes priority over the country.
In this instance, Israel forfeited its ability to make its case.