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What happens when the 'Squad' goes to Palestine?

Four progressive congresswomen of colour are charting a new path, despite criticism from the president and members of their own party
US representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley hold a news conference in Washington on 15 July (AFP)

Ever since being elected late last year, four progressive women - Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib, Somali-American Ilhan Omar, African-American Ayana Pressley, and Hispanic-American Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - have shaken up the rather staid halls of Congress.  

Tlaib and Omar have championed views never espoused by Democratic members, with both endorsing the BDS movement and Tlaib even endorsing a one-state solution.

When the liberal Jewish lobby group, J Street, consequently threatened to withdraw its support for Tlaib, she didn’t back down, as members have always done before; she stuck to her guns.

Omar, in particular, has excoriated the Israel lobby and its toxic impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her “all about the Benjamins” tweet drew the ire of most major national pro-Israel organisations as well as many Democratic and Republican opinion-makers.

Targeting women of colour

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The four pioneering female Congress members have also taken on the leadership of their own party and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They denounced a Democratic measure that offered funding for Trump’s border wall, saying it betrayed the interests of immigrants and children being incarcerated at the southern US border.

This, in turn, drew the wrath of Pelosi and her supporters in the House. She belittled the four women, now known as “the Squad”, noting: “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.”

Tlaib and Omar are having none of this window-dressing. They are going to Palestine - full-stop

The truth is that Ocasio-Cortez has nearly five million Twitter followers; Pelosi has a little more than half that.

The former has been in Congress for six months and the latter for 32 years. Pelosi’s remarks have been characterised as specifically targeting women of colour, raising the spectre of racism, the third rail of US politics.

That’s where US President Donald Trump comes in. He, who regularly espouses racist views, enjoyed seeing this circus play out in the Democratic Party. A master meddler known for sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong, he threw a match on the roiling oily waters: “I think Cortez is being very disrespectful to somebody who’s been there a long time … I think that a group of people is being very disrespectful to her. And you know what, I don’t think that Nancy can let that go on.” 

'Send her back'

Within days, Trump unleashed his now-infamous attack on the four congresswomen: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.” In fact, all are US citizens, and three of the four were born in the US. 

A few days later, at a major public rally, Trump’s crowd chanted “send her back”. This offered Democrats a chance to patch up their differences temporarily; the House passed a resolution rebuking Trump for the use of abominable racist tropes.

US President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in North Carolina on 17 July (AFP)
US President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in North Carolina on 17 July (AFP)

The president has relished the attacks, which bolster his support among his populist, largely white, working-class base.

Shortly after the resolution passed, Tlaib and Omar opted to take advantage of the massive press coverage to announce they planned to visit Palestine in the coming weeks. In this, too, they were entirely unorthodox in their approach.  

Each year, congressional leaders of both parties lead a delegation to Israel, subsidised by a non-profit AIPAC affiliate. The tours are usually heavy on pro-Israel messaging, with meetings scheduled with Israeli military and intelligence officials and the prime minister. Meetings with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are largely an afterthought, appended to check off a box marked “two-state solution”, so they can appear even-handed without being so.

Tlaib and Omar are having none of this window-dressing. They are going to Palestine - full-stop. It's highly unlikely that they will be meeting with Israeli army generals or Knesset MKs or ministers.

Palestine tour

But a major obstacle threatened their plan: as both support BDS, Israel, which passed a law banning boycott sympathisers from the country, could bar them from entry. 

To get to Palestine, one must travel via Ben Gurion airport or the Allenby Bridge via Jordan. Both are under Israeli control, and Israeli authorities have routinely denied entry to European officials and foreign government ministers deemed hostile to Israeli interests.

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Given that Trump has become a nemesis of the Squad, and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a close Trump ally, one might have expected the latter would have banned them - but that did not happen.

Facing the prospect of offering Tlaib and Omar reams of free pro-Palestinian publicity, Israel’s leader apparently decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Israel’s US ambassador, Ron Dermer, announced that the Congress members would be permitted to enter Israel.

If you think this is a happy ending, though, you’d be mistaken. Israel is not done yet, and will likely do everything in its power to sabotage the tour. 

It could denounce the congresswomen if they refuse to visit Israel or meet with Israeli officials. Since Israel controls much of the West Bank either de facto or de jure, it could flood them with soldiers and security officers, claiming it needs to protect them, all while impeding their access to the Palestinians they seek to meet.

Netanyahu plays a very shrewd game. He is a wily politician who always looks for his advantage, and many an opponent has been felled by being overconfident. Thus, Tlaib and Omar will need to tread this ground carefully, lest they play into his hands.

I have little doubt they are capable of all this and more. They have not secured the victories they have without possessing great political skill.

The path forward

This promises to be a riveting experience, given that Israel is used to congressional visits that are akin to dog-and-pony shows. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds with members of the Squad, who challenge Israel and refuse to accept the standard hasbara lines offered to their colleagues for decades.

Politically, the battle lines drawn between Trump and his young female nemeses benefit both sides. Trump has no interest in widening his electoral base, but he does need every white, rural and working-class voter to turn out if he is to win a second term.

Ideas and programmes that could not be debated before are now becoming mainstream

For Tlaib, Omar, Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley, the terms are different. They understand that they are the future of the Democratic Party. Pelosi probably will not continue as Speaker beyond 2020. The next Speaker will, they trust, be more reflective of their youth and values.  

Similarly, Trump will find it hard to win a second term. The chances for a truly progressive Democratic president in 2020 are promising, and the demographics of the country favour them

Since Bernie Sanders ran an insurgent campaign to be the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 as an unapologetic democratic socialist, conventional political discourse has been disrupted. Ideas and programmes (like single-payer healthcare for all, the Green New Deal, free college tuition) that could not be debated before are now becoming mainstream.

The future belongs to the Squad.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield) Photo of RS by: (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times)
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