WASHINGTON -- Israel on Thursday barred two American Democratic lawmakers who had planned to visit the Israeli-occupied West Bank, hours after President Donald Trump had urged the country to block them.
Trump on Thursday blasted the two lawmakers, Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., tweeting that "they hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision "deeply disappointing," and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who lobbied Israeli officials Wednesday to allow the lawmakers to make a trip, called it "outrageous."
Sen. Charles 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."
A senior White House official said Trump never directly told Netanyahu to prohibit the visit but that advisers conveyed the president's views to the Israeli government after it initially said the women would be allowed in.
Netanyahu "was certainly aware of the president's position," the official said.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations.
Some Republican critics of the lawmakers broke with Trump and Netanyahu, saying the decision was wrong.
"Denying them entry into #Israel is a mistake," tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. "Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state."
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization that rarely criticizes the Israeli government, said the lawmakers should be allowed to visit. The committee said in a tweet that it disagreed with Omar and Tlaib's support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which calls for boycotting Israeli goods and services to protest Israeli treatment of Palestinians. But the group added, "We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand."
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 lawmakers.
"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.
Supporters of the boycott movement say it is a nonviolent way to protest Israeli policies and call for Palestinian rights. Critics say the effort aims to delegitimize Israel and ultimately erase it from the map, replacing it with a binational state.
Tlaib and Omar have repeatedly denied harboring animus toward Jews or Israelis and have said their criticisms of the Israeli government are based on serious policy differences.
In a statement, Omar said the Israeli decision was not a surprise coming from 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."
The leading liberal presidential primary candidates swiftly condemned the decision, with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., calling it a "sign of enormous disrespect to these elected leaders" and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., warning that it would be a "shameful, unprecedented move."
Netanyahu insisted that his government continues to respect the U.S. Congress but said there are limits to whom it will allow entry. "As a vibrant and free democracy, Israel is open to all its critics and criticism, with one exception: Israeli law prohibits the entry of people who call and operate to boycott Israel," he said in a statement.
Senior Democrats in Congress said they felt particularly misled by Israel's ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, who said last month that the two lawmakers would be allowed to visit Israel "out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America." On Wednesday, Israeli officials notified Democrats that Netanyahu had changed his mind, sparking a last-minute lobbying campaign by Democrats to reverse the decision.
Several Jewish Democrats who have long been critical of Tlaib and Omar's positions on Israel pleaded with Dermer on their colleagues' behalf. Reps. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. -- all strong supporters of Israel -- phoned the envoy to lobby against barring the lawmakers. Hoyer took the lead on negotiating for the Democrats, but a Wednesday phone call with Netanyahu proved unsuccessful.
"I am saddened by the Israeli government's decision to bar two sitting members of Congress from entering Israel, especially following Ambassador Dermer's public announcement that both women would be allowed to enter just a short time ago," Lowey said in a statement. By blocking them, the Israeli government is "empowering those who seek to create a wedge between our two countries," she added.
With three weeks to go before a repeat election on Sept. 17, Netanyahu is fighting to stay in office and wants to appear strong to his fractured right-wing base.
Omar and Tlaib's trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank was planned by Miftah, a nonprofit organization headed by Palestinian lawmaker and longtime peace negotiator Hanan Ashrawi.
On Thursday, the group called Israel's decision "an affront to the American people and their representatives."
"MIFTAH worked hard to organize a well-rounded visit ... in order to facilitate their engagement with Palestinian civil society and to provide them with an opportunity to see the reality of occupation for themselves," the group said in a statement. "This is their right and duty as members of Congress, who oversee US policies and actions that affect Palestine, Israel, and countries worldwide."
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.
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.
The question about their entry status arose because of a recently passed Israeli law that denies entry visas to foreigners who publicly back or call for any kind of boycott -- economic, cultural or academic -- against Israel or its West Bank settlements.
Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, publicly confirming the decision to ban the two lawmakers, said Thursday that the move was coordinated among Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Israel Katz and Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan in accordance with the law preventing those who advocate a boycott from entering Israel.
"The State of Israel respects the U.S. Congress, as part of the close alliance, but it is inconceivable that anyone who wishes to harm the State of Israel will be allowed," Deri said in a statement.
Deri made clear that if Tlaib's request to visit included a humanitarian reason -- such as a private meeting with her family -- then he would consider it.
Information for this article was contributed by John Hudson, Ruth Eglash, Rachael Bade, Josh Dawsey and Ashley Parker of The Washington Post; by Isabel Kershner of The New York Times; and by Ilan Ben Zion and Lisa Mascaro of The Associated Press.
A Section on 08/16/2019
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