Written by Isabel Kershner
Israel on Thursday barred two American Democratic congresswomen who had planned to visit the Israeli-occupied West Bank, hours after President Donald Trump had urged the country to block them.
Trump’s intervention was an extraordinary step to influence an allied nation and punish his political opponents at home. Israel’s decision to bar the two congresswomen, Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, was widely criticized, including by prominent Israel supporters.
The two lawmakers, both freshmen, are the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Both are outspoken adversaries of Trump and have been vocal in their support of the Palestinians and the boycott-Israel movement.
The president has targeted them in speeches and Twitter postings that his critics have called racist and xenophobic.
It was reported last week that Trump was pressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to deny entrance to the two women, and Thursday morning he left little doubt. While Israeli officials were still deliberating the matter, he said in a Twitter post that “it would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit.”
He added: “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”
Later Thursday, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced that Netanyahu had decided to deny entry to the two American lawmakers, on grounds of their “boycott activities against Israel” and in accordance with the country’s anti-boycott law.
“No country in the world respects America and the American Congress more than the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said in a statement after the decision had been announced. “As a free and vibrant democracy, Israel is open to critics and criticism, with one exception: Israeli law prohibits the entry into Israel of those who call for, and work to impose, boycotts on Israel, as do other democracies that prevent the entry of people believed to be damaging to the country.”
Welcoming the decision, Trump said on Twitter: “Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!”
His ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, said in a statement that the boycott movement was “no less than economic warfare” and that Israel had “every right to protect its borders” against activists who support it.
In lobbying a foreign government to bar members of the U.S. Congress, Trump crossed yet another line that other presidents generally respected. No matter how virulent their differences at home, presidents have traditionally not enlisted the help of overseas allies to take action against domestic political adversaries.
But Trump has demonstrated time and again over the last 2 1/2 years that he sees little need to observe the norms that governed previous occupants of the White House, dismissing them either as antiquated or irrelevant if he recognized their existence at all. To Trump, politics is a contact sport with few limits, and Omar and Tlaib have become two of his favorite targets.
It is not the first time Trump has tried to bolster Netanyahu, the longtime Israeli leader who is facing another election in September, the second in five months. Trump’s 2017 decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and his administration’s suggestion in June that it would accept Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, were helpful in strengthening Netanyahu’s appeal to right-wing Israelis.
In a statement, Omar called the latest actions by Trump and Netanyahu “an affront” that had limited the ability of members of Congress to learn from both Israelis and Palestinians.
“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,” she said.
“The irony of the ‘only democracy’ in the Middle East making such a decision,” she said, “is that it is both an insult to democratic values and a chilling response to a visit by government officials from an allied nation.”
Trump’s intervention also placed him at odds with the Democratic and Republican leadership in Congress and even some pro-Israel advocacy groups in the United States.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, said denying the representatives entry was “a sign of weakness, not strength.”
“No democratic society should fear an open debate,” he tweeted. “Many strong supporters of Israel will be deeply disappointed in this decision, which the Israeli government should reverse.”
Just a few days earlier, the House minority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, told reporters in Jerusalem while leading a delegation of 31 Republican lawmakers: “I think all should come.” Speaking at a news conference with McCarthy, Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader who was heading a delegation to Israel of 41 Democratic representatives, agreed.
Many Israelis and Jewish leaders have also expressed discomfort with the idea that American officials could be denied entry because of their beliefs or criticism of Israel. Just last month, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, said that Israel would not deny entry to any U.S. representatives.
David Harris, chief executive officer of the American Jewish Committee, a prominent pro-Israel organization, said it disagreed with Netanyahu’s decision even though the group strongly opposes the views expressed by the two congresswomen.
“While we fully respect Israel’s sovereign right to control entry into the country, a right that every nation employs, and while we are under no illusions about the implacably hostile views of Reps. Omar and Tlaib on Israel-related issues, we nonetheless believe that the costs in the U.S. of barring the entry of two members of Congress may prove even higher than the alternative,” Harris said in a statement.
Jeremy Ben Ami, leader of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel advocacy group in Washington, sharply criticized both Trump and Netanyahu. J Street, which backs Democrats who support Israel, did not endorse Omar and withdrew its endorsement of Tlaib last year after she said she did not support a two-state solution and expressed support for the boycott-Israel movement.
“The very foundations of American and Israeli democracy are being called into question by President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Ben Ami said in an interview. “If you’re not allowed entry into a country because of your views, then we have reached the end of the ability to say the U.S.-Israel relationship is based on shared democratic values.”
Omar had been scheduled to arrive Sunday for a tour of the West Bank, partly under the auspices of an organization headed by a longtime Palestinian lawmaker, Hanan Ashrawi, that was expected to highlight Palestinian grievances over the Israeli occupation.
The women had been planning to visit the West Bank cities of Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlehem, as well as Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, according to Ashrawi, including a visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a hotly contested and volatile holy site. Most of the delegation was expected to depart Aug. 22, but Tlaib had been planning to stay to visit relatives in the West Bank.
No meetings had been planned with either Israeli or Palestinian officials, other than Ashrawi, who is also a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee. She said the organization she leads, MIFTAH, was co-sponsoring the visit.
The purpose of the visit, Ashrawi said, was to give the congresswomen a way “to engage with the Palestinian people directly and to see things on the ground.”
“What are they afraid of?” she said, referring to the Israeli government. “That they might find out things?”
Tlaib, of Palestinian descent, has spoken often of her grandmother, who lives on the West Bank, while Omar, a Somali refugee, is the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor.
While they were hailed as symbols of diversity when they arrived in Washington, they quickly became embroiled in controversy over their statements on Israel and on supporters of the Jewish state. Omar apologized after she said support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins, baby” — a reference to $100 bills.
In early March, the House voted to condemn all forms of hatred after Omar said pro-Israel activists were “pushing for allegiance to a foreign country,” a remark that critics in both parties said invoked the long-standing anti-Semitic trope of “dual loyalty.”
Those remarks have been deeply problematic for Democratic leaders, who are trying to demonstrate solidarity with Israel. And they have given Trump and his fellow Republicans an opening to fan the flames of racial division, in an effort to break the long-standing alliance between American Jews and the Democratic Party.
Omar and Tlaib’s public support for the boycott movement had already drawn criticism from the White House. In remarks last month that were widely condemned as racist, Trump said that four congresswomen of color — Omar and Tlaib, as well as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts — should “go back” to the countries they came from.
Axios reported recently that Trump had told advisers that he thought Netanyahu should bar Tlaib and Omar under a law that denies entry to foreign nationals who publicly show support for a boycott.
Under the law, passed in 2017, Israel can bar entry to people considered prominent advocates of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, a loose network that, among other goals, aims to pressure Israel into ending the occupation of the West Bank. Pro-Israel advocates accuse the movement’s supporters of anti-Semitism.
Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan resolution condemning the boycott-Israel movement as one that “promotes principles of collective guilt, mass punishment and group isolation, which are destructive of prospects for progress towards peace.”
Netanyahu, for his part, is in the middle of a tight election campaign, and some analysts say he can ill afford to appear weak when dealing with high-profile critics of Israeli policies. At the same time, he is involved in a high-wire act of trying to balance Israel’s ties with the Democrats and his close embrace of, and support from, Trump.
Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, told Israel’s Army Radio on Thursday that it would be “foolishness” to deny the lawmakers entry. “These are congresswomen of the majority party, which most American Jews vote for.”
One of the main points of contention over the planned itinerary appears to be the visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem. A sacred site revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as Temple Mount, the location of their ancient temples, it is a frequent flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and a former deputy foreign minister, told Israel’s Kan Radio on Thursday that the congresswomen should be allowed to enter Israel “but with restrictions.”
“If they want to stage a provocation by entering the Temple Mount with Palestinian hosts, then that can be prevented,” he said.