Israel Bars Two U.S. Muslim Lawmakers After Trump Calls for Move

Gwen Ackerman and Ivan Levingston
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Israel Bars Two U.S. Muslim Lawmakers After Trump Calls for Move

(Bloomberg) -- Israel barred entry to two Muslim members of the U.S. Congress after President Donald Trump asserted that letting them into the country would be a sign of weakness and that the pair “hate Israel & all Jewish people.”

The Interior Ministry said Thursday that Democratic Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan wouldn’t be allowed into Israel because of their support for a boycott of the country. The two had planned to begin their visit this weekend.

Trump’s unprecedented intervention and the decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government put them at odds with Democrats and at least one prominent Republican in Congress, who denounced the action, as did some pro-Israel groups in the U.S.

“It is an affront that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, under pressure from President Trump, would deny entry to representatives of the U.S. government,” Omar, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

She added: “This is not a surprise given the public positions of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has consistently resisted peace efforts, restricted the freedom of movement of Palestinians, limited public knowledge of the brutal realities of the occupation and aligned himself with Islamophobes like Donald Trump.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Israel’s decision “is a sign of weakness, and beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel.” She called Trump’s statements about the two lawmakers “a sign of ignorance and disrespect, and beneath the dignity of the Office of the President.”

Several Democrats noted that Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, said last month that Israel would not deny entry to any member of Congress.

Israel’s interior minister said in a text message that the decision was made because the lawmakers “exploit the most central stage of all to support organizations such as BDS that call for a boycott against Israel.” A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Israel declined to comment.

BDS refers to the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement against Israel over the country’s treatment of Palestinians, which Omar and Tlaib have voiced support for. Boycott activists have also been prohibited from entering Israel for the same reason.

Israel’s move drew criticism from a notable Israel ally in the Senate, Republican Marco Rubio of Florida.

“I disagree 100% with Reps. Tlaib & Omar on #Israel & am the author of the #AntiBDS bill we passed in the Senate,” Rubio said in a tweet. “But denying them entry into #Israel is a mistake.”

Tlaib didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Israel’s decision was announced shortly after Trump intervened, tweeting, “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.”

Netanyahu defended the decision, saying it was taken after reviewing an itinerary of the congresswomen’s visit that made clear that their “sole purpose was to harm Israel and increase incitement against it.”

The congresswomen, part of a group of four female Democratic lawmakers under attack from Trump, planned to visit both Jerusalem and the West Bank on their privately funded trip. MIFTAH, the Palestinian Initiative for Global Dialogue and Democracy that organized their tour, criticized Israel’s decision, calling it “an assault on the Palestinian people’s right to reach out to decision-makers and other actors from around the world.”

Widening Rift

The ban is likely to widen a rift between Israel and the Democratic Party, which has become increasingly critical of Netanyahu, a firm ally of Trump. One House Democrat, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, said on Twitter that “no member of Congress” should visit Israel until the decision was reversed.

“It will only hurt the U.S.-Israeli relationship and support for Israel in America.,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, said. “No democratic society should fear an open debate. Many strong supporters of Israel will be deeply disappointed in this decision, which the Israeli government should reverse.”

House Appropriations Chairman Nita Lowey called the Israeli ambassador on Wednesday and urged Israel to allow the congresswomen enter the country, according to a House Democratic aide. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who recently returned from a trip to Israel, said he spoke to Netanyahu on Wednesday.

“The Israeli government should seek to engage these Members of Congress in a dialogue regarding Israel’s security and the future of both Israelis and Palestinians,” Hoyer said in a statement. “When Members of Congress visit Israel, they gain a stronger appreciation for its unique challenges and the existential threats that endanger Israel’s survival as a Jewish, democratic state.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, said on Twitter, “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. This would be a shameful, unprecedented move.”

Pro-Israel Groups

The decision also drew criticism from American pro-Israel and Jewish groups. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the staunchest backers of Israel, said the two lawmakers should be allowed to visit.

“We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib’s support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement, along with Rep. Tlaib’s calls for a one-state solution. We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand,” the group said in a tweet.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said the U.S. government supported Israel’s decision.

“In contrast to the nearly 70 freshmen members of Congress who just recently completed, or who are currently pursuing, a balanced visit to Israel that includes meetings with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Tlaib/Omar Delegation has limited its exposure to tours organized by the most strident of BDS activists,” Friedman said. “This trip, pure and simple, is nothing more than an effort to fuel the BDS engine that Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar so vigorously support.”

Netanyahu faces national elections next month after earlier failing to form a government.

The prime minister said that if Tlaib, who has an uncle and other relatives in the West Bank, submitted a humanitarian request to visit family it would be considered on the condition that she pledged not to promote boycotts against Israel.

(Updates with statement from Rubio in 10th paragraph.)

--With assistance from Fadwa Hodali, Billy House and Erik Wasson.

To contact the reporters on this story: Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem at gackerman@bloomberg.net;Ivan Levingston in Tel Aviv at ilevingston@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Riad Hamade at rhamade@bloomberg.net, Bill Faries, Justin Blum

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