Ilhan Omar Is Hurting the Palestinian Cause

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Freshman Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar has wasted no time making a name for herself by generating a controversy about the motivations of pro-Israel organizations, individuals and politicians in Washington.

But here’s one group that will not benefit from the brouhaha resulting from Omar’s repeated use of familiar anti-Semitic themes, most recently questioning the loyalty of American Zionists: the Palestinians themselves. It’s a painful reminder that being anti-Israel is different from being pro-Palestinian.

If Ms. Omar wants to support Palestinians, there’s no end to the urgent tasks she could champion. Palestinians are enduring a crisis in relations with the U.S. and desperately need effective political support in Washington. A disastrous set of developments under President Donald Trump needs to be reversed, but no one in Congress is effectively addressing them.

A few days ago, the Trump administration merged the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem, which functioned as an embassy to Palestinians, with the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. Both now report to Ambassador David Friedman, who is an avowed opponent of Palestinian statehood and supporter of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

When the administration closed the Washington mission of the Palestine Liberation Organization last year, the U.S. became the only major international power with no diplomatic representation to and from the Palestinians.

And by recognizing Jerusalem without qualification as “the capital of Israel,” and saying that this long-disputed issue has been "taken off the table,” the administration has destroyed the framework for peace negotiations established in 1993.

Washington no longer finances any program related to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, including health, education, and peace and reconciliation programs. Support has been cut off to the U.S.-trained and equipped Palestinian Security Forces on which Israel relies to combat terrorism in Palestinian population centers.

Last year, the Trump administration defunded the United Nations agencies that care for Palestinian refugees scattered around the Middle East.

Another urgent issue is the growing crisis in Gaza, especially the failure to bring humanitarian and reconstruction aid to that benighted, polluted and impoverished open-air prison of almost 1.5 million people, most of them also refugees.

Instead of championing the urgent Palestinian interest in any of those imperatives, Omar’s rhetoric has provoked a pointless debate over the motivations and national loyalty of Americans who support Israel.

This plays into the hands of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing the most serious political crisis of his career. That’s crucial because as long as he remains in power, the revival of meaningful negotiations with Palestinians will be impossible.

Mr. Netanyahu can now mobilize Israelis and American Jews by claiming that they are under attack by Democrats, pushing those constituencies toward himself and his Republican allies.

Worse, enmeshing Democrats in a divisive, embarrassing internal struggle is a huge gift to Trump because it deflects attention from the impact of his destructive policies. Voters appalled by Trump’s trafficking in anti-Semitism now have reason to wonder whether the alternative might be just as bad.

The Trump era ought to stimulate the rise of a Jewish-Muslim coalition against intolerance, nativism and resurgent white supremacy as exemplified by recent Islamophobic attacks on Omar. A coalition of American Jews and Muslims should also be united in favor of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Omar is dividing communities that should be allied on both domestic and foreign policy.

She may be succeeding if she’s trying to establish herself as a star of the Democratic left, claiming to be “speaking truth to power.” The only real test of that will be when she runs for re-election.

For everyone else, however, her rhetoric is a disaster that reinforces divisive stereotypes about supposed Muslim hostility to Jews.

As someone who has spent more than 20 years in Washington working on Arab and Muslim-American problems and championing the Palestinian cause, I implore Omar to learn more about the issues at stake. In the meantime, I have one thing to say to her: Please, just stop it!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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