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Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are in the crosshairs of the Saudi-Israel axis

The fledgling Saudi-Israel nexus is working in tandem to smear and blunt the impact of two progressive Muslim women in Congress
US Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) and US Representative from Michigan Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) arrive for the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on 5 February, 2019 (AFP)

Hardly anything has been more disruptive to geopolitics as usual in the Middle East than the newly flourishing relationship between the Saudi monarchy and the state of Israel.

While the newfound coziness between the two states is built largely on shared enmity towards Iran, the normalising of ties comes at the expense of the Palestinians, who have become, once again, all but ignored in the world of Arab politics.

Smear campaign

Equally disruptive is the election of the first Muslim women to the US House of Representatives, with both Rashida Tlaib, the daughter to Palestinian immigrants, and Ilhan Omar, the daughter to Somali refugees, being sworn into the US Congress with their respective hands atop Islam’s holiest book - the Quran.

While there are a total of 535 members of the House and Senate, with a total of 98 freshmen taking their place in the country’s respective legislative chambers, no two rookies have caused as much of a backlash as the two Muslim congresswomen.

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Internal debate regarding Israel threatens to drive a wedge between stalwart Democrats and the more progressive and pro-Palestinian voices within the party, including Tlaib and Omar

Both have been falsely smeared for "putting their allegiance to the Quran over the constitution”, placing the United States into "civilizational decline", conducting "spiritual warfare", and for percolating “Sharia supremacism".

"What makes congresswomen like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar…so dangerous is that they are not simply talking to an outfit that I think is properly described as Hamas, doing business as [the Council on American-Islamic Relations], but that they fully share the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology and ambitions to achieve the triumph of Sharia in our country too," said Frank Gaffney, who’s long considered the godfather of anti-Muslim activism in the US.

Phoney charges

Predictably, phony and scurrilous charges of anti-Semitism have been levelled at the two Muslim women representatives, despite the fact that neither has advocated for the oppression or discrimination against Jews anywhere in the world, including Israel. 

While smear attacks from those aligned formally and informally with the Israel lobby, like Gaffney, are to be expected, it’s the way in which the Saudi propaganda machine has come after the pair of them so venomously that has turned heads.

"Academics, media outlets, and commentators close to Persian Gulf governments have repeatedly accused Omar, Rashida Tlaib…of being secret members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are hostile to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE," observed Foreign Policy in an article titled Saudi Arabia Declares War on America’s Muslim Congresswomen.

Senator Marco Rubio said states have a right to ban companies that boycott Israel (AFP/File photo)
Senator Marco Rubio said states have a right to ban companies that boycott Israel (AFP/File photo)

The Saudi monarchy also fears that progressive American voters and sentiments will pull the pair towards undermining the uncritical and unfettered US support it has received and enjoyed courtesy of the Donald Trump administration.

Under his presidency, the kingdom has received continued military support for its war in Yemen, has been shielded from US criticism and punishment regarding the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and watched on gleefully when Trump rescinded US commitment to the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal.

This explains why the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya website published an attack piece on Omar by tying her to Saudi Arabia's arch-nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood, because of her association with Muslim-American activist Linda Sarsour, while also describing her as "hostile to the Gulf".

Saudi-Israel nexus

So, this is where we are today, with the fledgling Saudi-Israel nexus working in tandem to smear and blunt the impact of two progressive Muslim women in the US Congress, with the former concerned with protecting its strategic interests, and the latter concerned with protecting and entrenching its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.

The first two months of their respective congressional terms have been nothing short of a baptism of fire, with smears and attacks coming in from all quarters.

And while the US Senate has advanced a bill that takes aim at the boycott Israel movement, otherwise known as Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS), the intense pressure and scrutiny on congresswomen Tlaib and Omar is about to become ever more focused and vicious. 

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Last Tuesday, the US Senate voted overwhelmingly in favour of the bill that encourages states to cut off contractors who boycott Israel. Essentially, the Senate's bill aims to protect Israel from private US citizens and corporations who wish to boycott Israeli-owned businesses and goods. BDS is a means to pressure Israel into ending its more than 50-year long occupation and mistreatment of the Palestinian people.

Now that the Senate’s bill has moved to the House, however, where Democrats hold a sizeable majority, internal debate regarding Israel threatens to drive a wedge between stalwart Democrats and the more progressive and pro-Palestinian voices within the party, including Tlaib and Omar.

Moral leaders

To that end, the pro-Israel establishment, backed by Republican Party leaders, has signalled its intention to target the two Muslim congresswomen, and will attempt to paint them as anti-Semitic in the hope that such phony accusations stick.

Meanwhile the Israel Lobby hopes it can push enough Democrats to vote in support of the Senate’s anti-BDS bill.

On Friday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) tried to conflate Tlaib and Omar’s expressed support for BDS with anti-Semitism, while also mischievously equating their respective criticism of Israel’s policies with the rabid racism and white supremacist rhetoric of Representative Steve King (R-IA), who has a long history of denigrating racial minorities.

"We took action on our own side [by rebuking King]. I think when they [Democrats] stay silent, they are just as guilty,” McCarthy said, in reference to Tlaib and Omar. “I think this will not be the end of this."

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In response, Omar described Republican attacks as “nothing more than an attempt to discredit my position as a member of Congress and distract from the real hate within their own party - including from the president himself."

Meanwhile, Tlaib countered Republican efforts to smear her as anti-Semitic in a statement to The New York Times Tlaib saying: "I will never support the criminalisation of any form of speech protected under our First Amendment.

"This respect for free speech does not equate to anti-Semitism. I dream of my Palestinian grandmother living with equal rights and human dignity one day, and would never allow that dream to be tainted by any form of hate."

Despite the attacks, Tlaib and Omar have already established themselves as moral leaders in their party, championing universal human rights and equality for the Palestinian people.

In doing so, they place themselves in line with the more progressive and enlightened views of the next generation of this country’s leaders, which scares the daylights out of two of the most illiberal and repressive regimes in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

So expect the attacks and smears on both to continue.

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

CJ Werleman is a journalist, columnist and analyst on conflict and terrorism.
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