Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday barred Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting his country, saying their planned trip would have boosted the anti-Israel boycott movement.
Mr. Netanyahu said his government is “open to any critic and criticism” but would not welcome those who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has become a major cause for left-wing celebrities and politicians in the U.S.
The decision heightened tensions in some quarters, where people said the move was born of weakness and fear. But President Trump said it was the right decision because the two Muslim congresswomen “hate Israel and all Jewish people.”
The decision was a reversal from last month, when Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. signaled that the two lawmakers would be allowed to visit as a sign of respect for the relationship between the countries.
Now that details of the trip have been finalized, though, Israeli officials said it appeared to be a one-sided effort to boost BDS and Palestinian causes at the expense of Israel.
“Congressmen Tlaib and Omar are leading activists in promoting boycott legislation against Israel in the U.S. Congress,” the prime minister said in a statement. “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.”
He said Ms. Tlaib, whose heritage is Palestinian, could ask for an exemption from the ban to visit family.
Israel’s interior minister said Friday he has received and granted a request by Ms. Tlaib to enter the Israeli-occupied West Bank on humanitarian grounds.
The lawmakers, who are two of three Muslims in Congress, took to Twitter to denounce his decision.
Ms. Tlaib said she had been looking forward to touring Hebron, and she posted a photo of her grandmother.
“This woman right here is my sity,” the representative from Minnesota wrote. “She deserves to live in peace & with human dignity. I am who I am because of her.”
She called Israel’s decision “a sign of weakness” and said “the truth of what is happening to Palestinians is frightening.”
Ms. Omar accused Mr. Trump of being behind the move. She said Israel had effectively implemented “Trump’s Muslim ban” against her and Ms. Tlaib.
The president acknowledged that he had spoken with Israeli officials, though he declined to identify them. He also said he didn’t encourage or discourage Israel’s decision, though he portrayed it as an easy call.
“I can’t imagine why Israel would let them in,” he said Thursday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, he took to Twitter to say, “Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said Israel and Mr. Trump were out of bounds.
“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,” she said. “The president’s statements about the congresswomen are a sign of ignorance and disrespect, and beneath the dignity of the Office of the President.”
Israeli law allows the country to deny entry to supporters of the BDS movement, which seeks to force changes in Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians through economic pressure.
David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, formally endorsed Israel’s decision. He argued that the country has “every right to protect its borders against those activists in the same manner as it would bar entrants with more conventional weapons.”
The two congresswomen voted last month against a House resolution condemning BDS, arguing it was an attempt to constrain Americans’ protest rights. The resolution passed in an overwhelming bipartisan vote despite their objections.
Ms. Omar wrote her own resolution that backs the right to boycott “in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad.” The lawmaker from Minnesota tied the resolution to the BDS movement when she announced the legislation last month.
The two congresswomen were supposed to be part of a trip hosted by a Palestinian nonprofit. Even some Democrats critical of Israel’s decision said Ms. Omar and Ms. Tlaib should have made more of an effort for “balance” on their trip, including visits with Israeli officials.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican who previously endorsed the congresswomen’s plans to travel, suggested Thursday that they should have joined a broader congressional delegation that visited Israel and Palestinian territory this month.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, sounded a dissonant note. He said Israel’s decision was a mistake that will only help its critics.
“Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state,” he tweeted.
Some Jewish groups in the U.S. also criticized Israel’s decision.
Mark Mellman, president of the Democratic Majority for Israel, said the two lawmakers’ trip appeared to be “completely unbalanced” but added that there is “simply no excuse” for any country to ban a sitting member of Congress.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which Ms. Omar this year suggested bribed U.S. lawmakers for support, backed her and Ms. Tlaib.
“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 tweeted.
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