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Tlaib-Omar Israeli controversy, and Trump’s unhinged politicking

Aug 20,2019 - Last updated at Aug 20,2019

There is no precedence to what President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had done last week. A sitting US president calls on Israel, a close ally, to bar two Muslim congresswomen from entering the country, and the Israeli premier caves in. It was the latest episode in what has become a trademark divisive and unpredictable Trump behaviour. Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have become the target of an almost daily Twitter tirade waged by Trump against them and the entire Democratic party. Omar, a Somali born, and Tlaib, daughter of Palestinian immigrants, are two of a four-member, minority elected officials, whom Trump calls the “squad”.

Demonising his opponents and appealing to a hard-core base of mostly xenophobic white men, Trump accused the two congresswomen of being Israeli haters and “anti-Semitic. He Tweeted last week that if they are allowed to visit Israel, it would be a sign of weakness. And after initially saying that the two women would be allowed to visit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed his position and defended a decision to bar them, suggesting that they support the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement aimed at punishing Israel for its occupation of Palestinian territories.

Trump’s action and Netanyahu’s response have backfired; eliciting denunciations from Republican and Democratic members as well as Jewish organisations, including the influential Israeli lobby AIPAC. In fact, the outcry has focused public attention on BDS and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians under occupation. Netanyahu’s rivals accused him of bowing to Trump and of threatening Israel’s standing in US Congress.

Tlaib and Omar, who are strong critics of Trump and Israel, have enjoyed unprecedented support from Jewish organisations in the US as well as media publicity. The White House has rejected reports that Trump has pressured Israel to deny them entry, but a number of media outlets have confirmed that the US president has told advisers that Israel should not allow the two congresswomen to enter.

Aside from this dangerous precedent, the case has focused attention on Trump’s unorthodox and polarising politics as he prepares to launch his campaign for re-election in 2020. As Trump often does, he doubled down describing Omar and Tlaib as the face of the Democratic Party, which he now labels as promoting a “communist and socialist” agenda.

For Netanyahu, who is struggling to contest an unpredictable election in September, the gesture to Trump could be a prelude for a quid-pro-quo. He has asked Trump to approve a controversial move to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank; one which would appease thousands of far right voters. Trump has already sanctioned the illegal annexation of the Golan Heights, recognition of Jerusalem as Israeli capital and the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv.

For now, Tlaib and Omar appear to have won the public opinion battle. While Congress has approved a law that delegitimises BDS recently, it continues to support the two-state solution. Neither woman has called for the destruction of Israel, but the controversy has focused attention on Israel’s occupation and its brutal treatment of Palestinians. Ironically, Israeli far-right lawmakers have addressed the US Congress last week, describing support of the two-state solution as more dangerous to Israel than the BDS movement.

But away from the Omar-Tlaib controversy, Trump’s behaviour has deepened the rift that now characterises US politics. Since he first launched his campaign for presidency of the US in 2015, Trump was keen to prove that he was not a conventional politician. Resorting to fiery populist rhetoric to mobilise his mostly white, xenophobic, right-leaning voter base, the billionaire candidate was able to rattle and dislodge mainstream politicians and impose his own agenda. Fanning anti-immigrants, anti-Muslims and anti-minorities sentiments, Trump was able to do something that no candidate before him had dared to do: Normalise hate speech!

Since then, it had become the norm to greet the day with a barrage of Trump tweets; using derogatory terms to describe his Democratic opponents and being unperturbed to the fact that some of these tweets are openly racist, provocative and misleading. The mainstream media, which Trump dubs as fake news, would spend the day fact-checking the president, and proving him wrong on many issues.

Regardless of the outcome of the presidential elections next year, the big question is will the US ever recover from the polarising effect of Trump’s unhinged politics? The way he has treated his opponents, most recently Tlaib, Omar and other members of the so-called squad, suggests that his populist/nationalist rhetoric, as divisive as it is, now has a faithful voter base. Normalising hate speech and bashing opponents based on their ethnicity, religion and political beliefs will take a long time to wipe out from US politics.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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