SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Drama between the U.S. and Israel with a focus on the upper Midwest. President Trump tweeted Thursday that Israel ought to block two Democratic congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, from taking a trip to Israeli-occupied West Bank this weekend. He said Israel would show weakness if it didn't because the two representatives have been critical of Israeli policies. Israel did block the visit. Then a deal was struck. Then it broke down.
NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us from Tel Aviv. Daniel, thanks so much for being with us.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Sure thing. I'm also a Midwesterner, by the way, from St. Louis.
SIMON: Yes. OK. So - and, as you know, I am, too, from Chicago. So...
ESTRIN: Very good.
SIMON: The deal was that Representative Tlaib would take the trip, visit her grandmother in the West Bank. What scuttled it?
ESTRIN: Well, she said she had to write a letter to the Israeli government promising not to advocate a boycott of Israel while she was visiting her grandmother. And she got a lot of backlash from Palestinian activists. Even one Palestinian organizing her trip accused her of groveling to Israel. So then she said she would give up her chance to see her grandmother because she didn't want to give up on speaking her mind about what she calls Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians. And Trump tweeted yesterday that Tlaib had acted obnoxiously.
SIMON: What's the range of reaction been among Palestinians and Israelis?
ESTRIN: Well, many Palestinians are cheering her on for standing up to Israel. We spoke with her Palestinian uncle. The family in the West Bank had been getting ready for her visit, and they had hoped it would draw attention to the struggles they face living under Israeli military occupation. But they do like how she handled it. On the Israeli side, the interior minister said, well, apparently Tlaib hates Israel more than she loves her grandmother. So I think all politicians on all sides of this seem to be coming away scoring political points with their supporters.
But there is a stormy debate among Israelis about whether this was handled well, the thought being we'd be damned if we would've allowed her to visit and damned if we didn't. But a lot of Israelis do see these congresswomen as hostile to Israel. There was a lot of talk about their itinerary - that they weren't planning on meeting Israeli officials, although Ilhan Omar now says that she did plan to meet Israeli lawmakers and security officials.
SIMON: Prime Minister Netanyahu, of course, is up for reelection next month, and it's irresistible to ask if that and his close relationship with Donald Trump somehow figure into this.
ESTRIN: It does, Scott. Netanyahu's bond with Trump is really at the center of his reelection campaign. He tells the Israeli voter, look at what I've accomplished through my bond with Trump - the U.S. Embassy moving to Jerusalem, the U.S. pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. recognizing Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights. And now there is speculation that in the runup to the Israeli elections, Netanyahu is hoping that Trump will support Israel annexing Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and that would be a really dramatic step.
You know, the way Netanyahu's opponents look at this, Scott, is they say Netanyahu is helping turn support for Israel into a partisan issue in the U.S. You know, here he helped Trump score a point against two Democratic congresswomen. And Netanyahu's critics are saying it looks like he's in the sunset period of his career. He's going for short-term gains here. He's making his nationalist base happy. He'll try to win elections with this and help Trump. But, you know, one day, the pendulum is going to swing back. There will be a Democrat in the White House. And already, we're hearing from people like Bernie Sanders who are questioning whether aid money should continue to go to Israel.
SIMON: So a visit to a grandmother that could've been contained winds up being a major issue in what seems like two political campaigns.
ESTRIN: Yes, and that other political campaign is Trump's. He's running for reelection, too. And maybe Netanyahu - we may see him hosting Trump in Israel, which would go over well with Trump's pro-Israel, evangelical base.
SIMON: NPR's Daniel Estrin, thanks so much.
ESTRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.