A lesson of the Trump, Tlaib, Omar, Netanyahu affair

U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are seen in a combination from file photos.  REUTERS/File Photos - RC166537AA60
Editor's note:

There’s been across the board condemnation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s initial decision to deny two sitting members of Congress entry into Israel. Hady Amr offers some perspective. A version of this piece was originally published in The Hill.

There’s been across the board condemnation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s initial decision to deny two sitting members of Congress entry into Israel. That condemnation has come from Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as from the leading pro-Israel advocacy organization in Washington.

So I thought I would offer a little perspective. In 1996, I conceptualized and escorted what may have been the first ever delegation of Arab-American elected officials – including members of Congress – to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. Those were happier times for the Holy Land. Peace was progressing, and the Palestinians were undertaking their first ever democratic elections not only in Gaza and the West Bank, but also in East Jerusalem.

The trip’s purpose was to bring Arab-American elected officials to critically observe and hopefully eventually celebrate the milestone of holding democratic elections. We all hoped such elections would eventually lead to a democratic state of Palestine living side by side in freedom, security and prosperity with Israel. It was an idea sparked by having observed South Africa’s first democratic elections two years earlier, where I saw planeloads of African-Americans who had travelled to do the same. Alas, history did not unfold in such a happy manner for Israelis and, in particular, Palestinians.

So what should we all think about the current row between President Trump, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Netanyahu?

First, why all the fuss? How on earth – with stagnant wages, climate change and rampant gun violence –  is this trip even on a U.S. president’s radar? As much as we may have wanted to get media coverage for our 1996 trip, no one seemed to care.

Second, why does Israel feel so threatened by two new members of Congress? Ok, I get it. These congresswomen are not very friendly to Israel. And both have said things I wouldn’t say or want my own kids to say.

But seriously, can a country whose per capita wealth is higher than that of Japan or France, a country that has nuclear weapons, a country that gets over $3.8 billion in annual assistance from the United States, really feel threatened by a visit by two novice members of Congress? Netanyahu’s cabinet reportedly knew better, but Trump and Netanyahu seemingly wanted to play politics with the situation.

Third, you don’t have to support many of their statements to know that denying members of the U.S. Congress visas to enter your country will not build your goodwill with the U.S. Congress. Just look at what Senator Tim Kaine had to say. While Israel’s prime minister has in the past been willing to show disrespect to a Democratic president (Obama) to address the U.S. Congress over a major strategic issue (Iran), Netanyahu has now shown he is also willing to directly insult Democratic members of Congress over the petty issue of a visit. It’s not a smart strategic move for a normally smooth Netanyahu. Perhaps he too is cowing to his right-wing base for the Israeli elections, which are just a month away.

And finally, as far as the trip’s itinerary is concerned, there have been accusations that Tlaib would not be meeting with enough Israelis, and perhaps no Israeli government officials. But it’s also not hard to imagine there have also been countless congressional delegations traveling to the Holy Land over the decades that also did not meet with many or any Palestinians, government officials or otherwise. Having served on Secretary of State John Kerry’s small team for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, I can say that hearing exclusively or mostly from one side of the conflict is not just conceptually wrong, it leads to skewed views and worse, bad outcomes.

The deep and nuanced understanding that is required to truly advance peace on this painful and thorny issue simply cannot be achieved without taking in equal measures of the diverse perspectives among both peoples.

We Americans should insist on equal measures of freedom, prosperity and security for both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people in the Holy Land.

If there is a lesson we Americans can and should learn from the unfortunate Trump, Tlaib, Omar and Netanyahu affair, it is that we should insist that when members of Congress travel to the Holy Land to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they should generally spend equal amounts of time with Israelis and Palestinians.

Sure, some trips may last only a few hours and may serve a single specific economic or security purpose (and many of those will be on the Israeli side of the ledger). But those trips aside, on the whole, equal time with both peoples is what Americans need to make progress.

More than a quarter of a century has gone by since Israel and the Palestinians signed a provisional peace deal on the White House lawn. Many things have gotten worse since then. We need a change to try to make sure another quarter century doesn’t go by before progress is made. A commitment to equal time and equal respect is one small change we can, and should, make now.