Reporter's Notebook: Spat over scrapped 'Squad' members' Israel visit is tricky politics for both sides

Is it a blip? Or is it a recalibration?

Israel has had no better friend than the United States for decades. But the recent flare-up over Israel’s refusal to admit Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., could reverberate deep into the future on a litany of political fronts. Some of President Trump’s most loyal foot soldiers in Congress quickly rushed to Israel’s defense - including Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y. In fact, it was Trump who first argued that Israel shouldn’t allow Omar and Tlaib to travel there.

But Israel could have bigger problems after House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., one of the most pro-Israel voices in Congress, lashed out Benjamin Netanyahu's government for its treatment of the first-term Congresswomen.


Hoyer just returned from Israel days ago after escorting a large delegation of House members there, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

"To my knowledge, no Member of Congress has ever asked to agree to preconditions in order to visit Israel,” argued Hoyer. “Not only was this request disrespectful of Rep. Tlaib but of the United States Congress as well."

Hoyer continued his excoriation, calling the dispute "a self-inflicted wound by one of America’s closest allies."

Democrats were upset that Israel didn’t admit Omar and Tlaib. But the U.S. government blocked a member of the Israeli Knesset from coming here in 2012 on grounds they were linked to terrorist organizations.

On Friday, Tlaib seemed to give different reasons for her mission to the Palestinian-controlled territory where her grandmother lives.

“In preparation for my visit, my grandmother was deciding which fig tree we would pick from together,” 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.”


But later in the same press release, Tlaib asserted that she may wish to speak out against Israel and engage in political activism. That’s why Israel asked the Michigan Democrat to sign a waiver against such activity, considering some of the controversial statements Tlaib has made in the past.

Tlaib argued that Israel’s conditions were an effort to “humiliate me” and that Israel was “silencing me.” Tlaib claimed that agreeing to such conditions “would kill a piece of me that always stands up against racism and injustice.”

So, was this about fig trees and visiting grandma or something else? Right or wrong, perhaps the Israeli government perceived Tlaib’s predicate for the visit as the ultimate fig leaf.

Congressional Democrats find themselves in an awkward spot with Tlaib.

Many Democrats who are ardent backers of Israel denounced the Israeli government's decision – even though some of those same Democrats have their own reservations about things both Omar and Tlaib have said. There is a risk in this move by Israel. Is Netanyahu betting solely on President Trump? That could backfire if the contretemps over Omar and Tlaib is more than a blip. Trump and Netanyahu may be in lock-step now. But what happens if U.S. voters don’t reelect the president next year? How do powerful pro-Israel lawmakers like Hoyer and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., approach Israel in the future?

The likes of Hoyer, Schumer, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., are in a funny spot defending Omar and Tlaib – Democratic colleagues with whom they vehemently disagree when it comes to their views on Israel. But many lawmakers feel they have to defend their colleague and the institution of Congress – even if they disagree with said colleagues' inflammatory statements.

Moreover, there is an “optics” issue for Democrats. Democrats are trying to appeal to middle-of-the-road, suburban voters who aren’t impressed by liberal ideas like “Medicare for All” or the “Green New Deal. Democrats are trying to spend the August recess talking about bread and butter issues and health care. And yet what’s front and center? Two members of "the squad": Omar and Tlaib. Average Americans may not understand the nuances of the Middle East conflict and what vexes Israelis and Palestinians. But lots of news about Omar and Tlaib and the Middle East is not the narrative Democrats hoped to hone this month.

No wonder Republicans have a field day trying to portray all Democrats as too extreme and as “socialists.” That disaffects many voters in the middle. All the average voter hears is Omar and Tlaib. Those voters believe the duo is too far left and controversy follows them everywhere they go – or don’t go. The problem is that voters then project that view onto many other Democrats.

However, this fighting is not all beneficial for Trump. Tlaib and Omar may be controversial. But they both come from swing states which could be in play in 2020.

Michigan boasts a sizable Arab-American population. Omar took the Minnesota seat once held by the first Muslim in Congress, former Rep. Keith Ellison, who retired to become the state's attorney general.

Trump won Michigan and its 16 electoral votes by just 10,000 votes in 2016, which works out to about a quarter of a percentage point, the closest margin in the 2016 contest. Minnesota was the sixth-closest state in 2016, with Hillary Clinton winning its 10 electoral votes by just by 44,000 votes (or 1.6 percent).

The president and his Democratic adversary will pay lots of attention to both Michigan and Minnesota in 2020.


Could this flap involving Trump, Israel, Netanyahu, Tlaib and Omar actually help the incumbent in those battleground states because of backlash against the squad? Or, could Trump's involvement in the issue backfire as Michigan and Minnesota defend their congresswomen and cast their ballot for the Democratic nominee in 2020? Unclear. But it bears watching.

So, it’s tricky politics all around. Congressional Democrats face risk defending Omar and Tlaib and upbraiding Israel. Trump’s attack on Omar and Tlaib is central to his re-election playbook. So far, the president has successfully gotten Democrats off message and left them to stick up for two of their most-controversial members, criticizing Israel and losing a chance to discuss pocketbook subjects central to the 2020 campaign.