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Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s on-again, off-again visit to Israel, explained

Israel said it would allow Tlaib to visit her grandmother for a humanitarian visit. Tlaib rejected the “oppressive conditions.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) gives a speech on July 22, 2019.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Israel said Friday it would allow Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) to visit her family in the West Bank after all, but now Tlaib is refusing the invitation.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked Tlaib and another Democratic Congress member, Ilhan Omar (MN), from visiting the Israel and the Palestinian territories, citing the women’s support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, a campaign intended to pressure Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. President Donald Trump had also urged Israel’s government — both privately and publicly on Twitter — to bar the women from the country.

But after the announcement, Tlaib appealed to Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, asking that she be permitted to visit her relatives in the West Bank — specifically her grandmother, who is in her 90s. “This could be my last opportunity to see her,” Tlaib wrote. “I will respect any restrictions and not promote boycotts against Israel during my visit.”

After the request, Israel reversed its decision for just Tlaib, and granted her permission to visit after she agreed in writing not to promote the boycotts, according to the New York Times. In a statement, the Israeli interior minister’s office said that it hoped “she would keep her commitment and that the visit would truly be solely for humanitarian purposes.”

But on Friday, Tlaib rejected Israel’s offer, saying that she would not visit under the conditions set forth. “I can’t allow the State of Israel to take away that light by humiliating me & use my love for my sity to bow down to their oppressive & racist policies,“ Tlaib wrote on Twitter Friday.

“I have decided that visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions stands against everything I believe in--fighting against racism, oppression & injustice,” she added.

The whiplash back-and-forth of the past 24 hours may make even more complicated the fraying relationship between Democrats in the US and Israel, which Vox’s Alex Ward points out is becoming one of “the key foreign policy issues tearing Democrats apart.”

Tlaib’s visit to Israel: on, off, on, and off again

On Thursday, Israel abruptly blocked Tlaib and Omar from entering Israel at the urging of President Donald Trump. The move drew harsh criticism from fellow Democrats and prominent pro-Israel groups, including AIPAC.

Israel had initially said it would grant permission to Tlaib and Omar to visit the Palestinian territories, where they’d planned to arrive Sunday to take a tour and assess the impact of the Trump administration’s decision to cut off funding for the United Nations agency that provides aid to Palestinians.

Tlaib and Omar have both been critical of Israel during their first year in office — sometimes to considerable controversy — and both support the BDS movement against Israel. At first, Netanyahu’s government agreed to let Omar and Tlaib visit out of “respect for the US Congress” despite their stances, and despite a 2017 Israeli law that allows the government to bar foreign supporters of the boycott from entering the country.

That abruptly changed this week, in large part thanks to Trump. The president, who’s frequently attacked Tlaib and Omar as members of the “Squad” of left-wing first-term congresswomen, reportedly made it known that he wanted Netanyahu to block them — and a very public tweet apparently pushed the Israeli prime minister to go ahead with that plan.

Netanyahu justified that decision based on the 2017 law, claiming the Democratic congresswomen were visiting “to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel’s legitimacy.”

But the move likely had quite a bit do with Netanyahu’s own domestic political situation. The prime minister faces elections in September, and his tough stance against the Democratic Congress members — and his close relationship with the US president — is prime fodder for his right-wing base. Granting Trump’s wishes on this issue may have seemed like the best option, even if it risked angering US Democrats, who have also historically been strong supporters of Israel.

Sure enough, Democratsand a few Republicans — were unhappy with the Israeli government’s decision. And the developments of the past 24 hours are likely going to make this saga even more complicated.

By making the initial decision to turn away Tlaib and Omar about their politics and support for BDS, Israel couldn’t really deny Tlaib a chance to visit her grandmother when she asked on humanitarian grounds, especially after she apparently agreed to abide Israel’s conditions and avoid politics during her trip.

It seemed like a reasonable, conciliatory move on the part of both Tlaib and the Israeli government, a compromise of sorts. Which is why Tlaib’s sudden decision to reverse her position later, perhaps in response to criticism from Palestinians or BDS supporters for having given into the strict terms of the visit, seemed so surprising.

In a statement on Friday, Tlaib said the “Israeli government used my love and desire to see my grandmother to silence me and made my ability to do so contingent upon my signing a letter — reflecting just how undemocratic and afraid they are of the truth my trip would reveal about what is happening in the State of Israel and to Palestinians living under occupation with United States support.”

Israel’s interior minister responded to Tlaib’s rejection on Twitter, saying that “it was just a provocative request, aimed at bashing the State of Israel. Apparently her hate for Israel overcomes her love for her grandmother.” Notably, he tagged Trump in the post.

As Vox’s Ward explain, the US-Israel relationship is one of the thorniest questions facing Democrats. Many prominent Democrats rejected Israel’s decision to bar US Congress members based on their political views.

But the BDS movement definitely does not have mainstream support among Democrats, and Tlaib’s much more explicit stance is likely to cause some discomfort for Democratic leaders, who have to balance defending their members without looking like they support the boycott movement.

This controversy, then, probably isn’t going to go away quietly.