Israel blocks Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from entering country

Nicholas Wu and Deirdre Shesgreen

WASHINGTON – Israeli officials said Thursday they would bar two American members of Congress, Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., from visiting the country – shortly after President Donald Trump encouraged Israel to take that extraordinary step.

Trump has feuded with the two women over Israel and other issues. Thursday, he ramped up that domestic political spat by pressuring Israel to block their trip.  

"It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit," Trump tweeted Thursday morning. "They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds." 

Omar and Tlaib – the first Muslim women to serve in Congress – had planned to travel to Jerusalem and the West Bank, among other stops, this weekend.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is engaged in a difficult reelection fight, announced the decision less than two hours after Trump's provocative tweet.

"Congressmen Tlaib and Omar are leading activists in promoting boycott legislation against Israel in the US Congress," Netanyahu wrote in a tweet Thursday. "Only a few days ago, we received their visitation plan, and it became clear that they were planning a campaign whose sole purpose was to strengthen the boycott and negate Israel's legitimacy."

Omar blasted Netanyahu's move as anti-Muslim. 

"It is an affront that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, under pressure from President Trump, would deny entry to representatives of the U.S. government," she said in a statement. "Sadly, 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."

Omar on President Trump: This is 'a fight for the soul of our nation'

President Donald Trump has feuded frequently with the self-described

Tlaib posted a photograph of her Palestinian grandmother on Twitter and said Israel's move to block her visit "is a sign of weakness b/c the truth of what is happening to Palestinians is frightening." 

Israel's decision – a reversal from its previous position on the visit – came despite last-minute entreaties from House Democratic leaders to allow Omar and Tlaib to travel to Israel. The move sparked a fierce backlash from Democrats in Congress who said it would hurt U.S.-Israeli relations.

"This action reflects weakness, not strength," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. Hoyer said he spoke with Netanyahu on Wednesday and urged him to allow Omar and Tlaib's visit to go forward.

"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.  

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., a staunch supporter of Israel, said the decision would fuel anti-Israel sentiment.

"If Israel’s government hopes to win the support of American lawmakers across the political spectrum, then this visit could have been an opportunity to share views and make a case for why American support for Israel is so important," Engel said. "Instead, refusing entry to members of Congress looks like Israel closing itself off to criticism and dialogue. This decision will only strengthen the anti-Israel movements and arguments many of us find so troubling, further politicize support for Israel in the United States and ultimately play right into the hands of Israel’s enemies." 

Last month, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, said the two congresswomen would be allowed to visit Israel “out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.” 

Trump acknowledged that he lobbied Israeli officials on the matter but declined to say if he spoke with Netanyahu directly.

"I don't want to comment about who I spoke to, but I think my social media statement pretty well speaks for itself," the president told reporters before a campaign rally on Thursday. "But I did speak to people over there." 

Omar and Tlaib have been sharply critical of Trump on a broad range of issues. Omar sparked controversy over her remarks about the influence of the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States, which many said played into anti-Semitic tropes.

Trump targeted the two women and some of their colleagues last month in a tweet suggesting they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested" countries from which they came. His comments were widely condemned as racist.

Tlaib was born in Detroit to Palestinian immigrant parents. Omar was born in Somalia, fleeing that country's civil war with her family when she was 8 years old.

The two Democrats have expressed support for a boycott movement known as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) targeting Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. They said their views are based on policy disagreements, not any anti-Jewish sentiment.

Critics of the boycott movement said it amounts to "economic warfare" against Israel, and others call it "anti-Semitic." Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a March 2019 letter that “The founding goals of the BDS movement, and many of the strategies employed in BDS campaigns, are fundamentally anti-Semitic."

Netanyahu defended his government's decision Thursday, saying it was not about silencing critics of Israel. 

"There is no country in the world that respects the US and the US Congress more than the State of Israel," the prime minister tweeted. "As a vibrant and free democracy, Israel is open to any critic and criticism, with one exception: Israel's law prohibits the entry of people who call and operate to boycott Israel."

In March 2017, the Knesset, Israel's legislature, passed a law requiring the interior minister to ban foreign nationals from entering Israel if they publicly expressed support for boycotting Israel. 

Netanyahu said Tlaib might be allowed to visit her family in the West Bank, "subject to a commitment that she would not act to promote the boycotts against Israel." That decision would be made by Israel's interior minister, he said.

More: Netanyahu to Omar: 'From this Benjamin: It’s not about the Benjamins!'

Netanyahu's decision even drew a rebuke from the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. 

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

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israel blocks visit from Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib