Israel’s government on Thursday barred Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from entering the country as part of a landmark visit, in a move that quickly set off a political firestorm in Washington.
Omar and Tlaib — the first two Muslim women in Congress — were slated to arrive this weekend, but President Donald Trump had lobbied Israeli leaders to block them from entering the country and again lashed out at the pair on Thursday.
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Omar hit back, saying, “Trump’s Muslim ban is what Israel is implementing, this time against two duly elected members of Congress.”
“The irony of the ‘only democracy’ in the Middle East making such a decision is that it is both an insult to democratic values and a chilling response to a visit by government officials from an allied nation,” the Minnesota Democrat added in an afternoon statement.
The controversial decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came despite pleas from top lawmakers in both parties to allow the delegation to make its trip. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) denounced the decision, saying she was “deeply saddened” by the move after the Israeli ambassador announced last month that the two lawmakers would be allowed to visit.
“Israel’s denial of entry to Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar is a sign of weakness, and beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel,” Pelosi said in a statement.
Netanyahu defended his decision, saying he changed his mind after learning more details of their trip earlier this week.
“Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar are leading activists in promoting the legislation of boycotts against Israel in the American Congress,” Netanyahu said a statement. “Only a few days ago, we received their itinerary for their visit in Israel, which revealed that they planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel’s legitimacy.”
Netanyahu did say that a “humanitarian request” by Tlaib to visit her relatives in the West Bank would be accepted “on the condition that she pledges not to promote boycotts against Israel during her visit.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who led a delegation of dozens of House Democrats to Israel earlier this month, had repeatedly asked Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders to allow the freshman lawmakers to enter the country, only to be rejected.
Hoyer and other pro-Israel Democrats, like Nita Lowey of New York, Brad Schneider of Illinois, Ted Deutch of Florida and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, also personally lobbied Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., to allow the visit. Dermer stated several weeks ago that Israel would let the trip go ahead.
Gottheimer, who has previously sparred with Omar and Tlaib over their controversial comments about Israel, said refusing to allow them to visit the country “regardless of their views and misguided, planned itinerary, is a serious, strategic mistake.”
An irate Hoyer called Thursday’s decision “outrageous” and pointed to Dermer’s earlier pledge to let Omar and Tlaib enter the country.
“This action is contrary to the statement and assurances to me by Israel’s ambassador to the United States that ‘out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any Member of Congress into Israel,’” Hoyer said. “That representation was not true.”
Even the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, criticized the announcement.
“We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib’s support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement, along with Rep. Tlaib’s calls for a one-state solution,” AIPAC said in a statment. “We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have been largely silent about the move. House and Senate GOP leaders have avoided commenting on the controversy. Even Trump’s most loyal boosters on Capitol Hill were mostly quiet, showing how poorly the decision was received by lawmakers in both parties.
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said Tlaib and Omar “should have come with the rest of the U.S. delegation to Israel,” referring to the recent trips headed by Hoyer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
“I stand fully with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel regarding their right to deny admittance to anyone who advocates against the interests of Israel,” Roy said.
But another prominent Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, called the decision “a mistake.”
“Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish State,” Rubio said on Twitter.
Thursday morning, Trump slammed Tlaib and Omar — two fierce critics of the president who have called for his impeachment — and encouraged Israel to block them.
“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”
Tlaib had planned to see her grandmother, who lives in the West Bank. Instead, Hoyer met with Tlaib’s grandmother during his congressional trip.
On Thursday afternoon, Tlaib sent a letter to her fellow freshman Democrats asking for their help in getting the decision reversed, although her request called Palestine “a sovereign state,” which angered some pro-Israel lawmakers in the class.
In her letter, the Michigan Democrat called on her fellow freshmen to support her publicly: “Many of you have more of an influence than I do and I am asking as your colleague to advocate that I am allowed to enter (even if just to allow transport into another sovereign state — Palestine).”
She also defended the trip, saying that their agenda had no meetings planned with Israeli or Palestinian Authority officials — rebutting one of Netanyahu’s chief complaints about the itinerary.
Senior Democrats, including longtime pro-Israel advocates, blasted the move as one that will hurt U.S.-Israeli relations in the long run.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the Israeli decision “is a sign of weakness, not strength. It will only hurt the U.S.-Israeli relationship and support for Israel in America. … Many strong supporters of Israel will be deeply disappointed in this decision, which the Israeli government should reverse.”
“It is utterly egregious for the Israeli government to deny entry to two sitting members of the United States Congress,” added House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.). “I strongly condemn this decision.”
“Democracies are marked by the ability to express opposing views,” added Lowey, top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “By blocking entry by these representatives, the Israeli government is missing an opportunity for engagement in dialogue with those they disagree with, instead empowering those who seek to create a wedge between our two countries.”
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said “no member of Congress should visit Israel until all members of Congress are welcome.”
Democratic presidential candidates also called on Israel to reverse course.
“Israel doesn’t advance its case as a tolerant democracy or unwavering US ally by barring elected members of Congress from visiting because of their political views,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “This would be a shameful, unprecedented move.”
The trip by the two Democratic freshmen would be historic. Tlaib has long touted the trip as an alternative to the annual AIPAC-funded trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, which pro-Palestinian advocates have argued is intended to promote Israel’s political positions.
Israeli leaders said they would deny the lawmakers’ entry into the country because of their support for the global BDS movement, which is intended to force Israel to improve its treatment of the Palestinians.
Most Democrats have strongly rejected the BDS effort, and the House passed a resolution last month on a 398-17 vote condemning the movement. Omar and Tlaib were among the lawmakers who opposed the resolution.
Before that vote, Hoyer had worked with Dermer to ensure that Tlaib and Omar would be able to go ahead with their Israel trip, according to a Hoyer aide.
Dermer recently told Democratic lawmakers that Israeli officials were unsettled by the lawmakers’ itinerary — which did not include meetings with any of the country’s diplomats or visits to historic sites — and was largely focused on the territories.
“They see the point of the trip to cause problems, not to learn,” said one lawmaker describing Dermer’s comments.
But the move threatens to open a new rift on Capitol Hill over Israel, especially inside the Democratic Party.
Progressive champions Omar and Tlaib have sharply criticized Israel’s political influence in Washington and they’ve faced charges of anti-Semitism. Both freshman Democrats, and Omar in particular, have become a favorite target of Trump and conservative media.
Democrats, meanwhile, counter that Trump is fueling a rise in white nationalism and anti-Semitism with his divisive racial rhetoric — not the Israel critics in their party.
“Netanyahu choosing to ban the only 2 Muslim women in Congress from entering tells the US that only *some* Americans are welcome to Israel, not all,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a close ally of Tlaib and Omar. “Trump is exporting his bigotry & making matters worse.”