WASHINGTON — Several Israeli diplomats warned on Thursday that significant damage would be caused to Israel’s relationship with the Democratic Party if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decides to bar Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from entering the country for a visit set to begin on Saturday.
“It won't damage our image, it will cause actual damage to our relations with the Democrats. Everyone understands that Democrats will return to power at some point, and this will be a decision that the party won’t forget,” an Israeli diplomat told Haaretz.
U.S. President Donald Trump urged Israel not to allow Omar and Tlaib to enter Israel since they are "a disgrace."
"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. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office," Trump tweeted.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Netanyahu's government informed congressional leaders, who are currently in Israel, that it would formally announce the two would be denied entry due to their support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
A senior Israeli official familiar with the deliberations said that at the moment, Netanyahu is weighing denying a political visit by the two, but may allow Tlaib — who has family in the West Bank – enter in order to see her relatives there.
Presidential hopeful and Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren criticized the move, tweeting: "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."
Rep. Justin Amash, a former Republican from Michigan, said Israel should stand up to Trump and allow the visit. "Nobody has to agree with their opinions, but it will inevitably harm U.S.-Israel relations if members of Congress are banned from the country. We must find ways to come together; there’s enough division," he tweeted.
Democratic lawmaker Dean Philips warned on Thursday that “barring any member of the United States Congress from entering Israel would set a damaging precedent by a free and democratic nation, and one of our most important allies in the world.”
Philips, who is Jewish, added that “it will hurt Israel and forgo an opportunity to build bridges of understanding.”
Rep. David Cicilline from Rhode Island also lamented the decision to possibly bar the two, tweeting: "This is a grave mistake by the Israeli government. Democracy is about accepting that others don’t always share your views and respecting the right to disagree."
The Jewish Democratic Council of America issued a statement Thursday urging Israel to allow the two to enter the country.
"As strong supporters of Israel and of the U.S.-Israel relationship, we urge the government of Israel to reject President Trump’s unprecedented and ill-advised recommendation to deny" Omar and Tlaib, wrote JDCA Executive Director Halie Sofer.
Sofer added that "Banning members of Congress from visiting Israel, where they can see facts on the ground with their own eyes, is counterproductive and plays into President Trump’s goal of politicizing support for Israel," and accused the U.S. president of interfering in Israel’s democracy, "to the detriment of the U.S.-Israel relationship."
Another diplomat said that barring Tlaib and Omar from entering Israel will strengthen them politically.
During a joint visit to Israel earlier this week, Congressional leaders of both the Republican and the Democratic Party said that allowing Omar and Tlaib to enter Israel is the right decision.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Republican of California) said that “it would be helpful for anyone who has an opinion to come here”, adding that anyone with “an open mind and open eyes” will return more understanding and supportive of Israel from such a visit.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Democrat of Maryland) added that Israel’s doors should be open to any member of Congress, and agreed with McCarthy’s remarks that anyone who visits Israel will walk away with a better understanding of the country and that banning Omar and Tlaib from entering Israel could embarrass the two Congressional leaders.
Israeli officials said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held consultations on Wednesday with the country's foreign minister, interior minister, National Security Council chief and attorney general, but has yet to decide.
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Israel's Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer said in July, "out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel," referring to Omar and Tlaib.
Israeli law allows authorities to deny entry into the country by individuals who support boycotting the country. However, the Foreign Ministry has the authority to recommend to the Strategic Affairs Ministry and the Interior Ministry issuing waivers for political or diplomatic figures, if it deems denying them entry would harm Israel's foreign relations.
Assessments in the United States indicate that Israel was inspired to reconsider its decision due to pressure from the White House. Channel 13 News reported earlier this week that U.S. President Donald Trump had expressed disappointment over Netanyahu's decision to let the two lawmakers enter Israel.
Approval of the trip is still pending in the House of Representatives Ethics Committee, which would examine its itinerary, according to sources involved in planning the visit who spoke to Reuters.
A planned tour by the two lawmakers of the holy compound in Jerusalem that houses al-Aqsa mosque, and which is revered by Jews as the site of two biblical Jewish temples, has turned into an issue of contention.
The flashpoint site is in an area of Jerusalem that Israel captured along with the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move not recognised internationally.
"To make sure there's apparent Israeli sovereignty over the site, they'll demand Israeli police go in with them, and not just the Waqf officials," said one of the sources with knowledge of the planned visit, referring to Muslim religious authorities.
An official in Israel's internal security ministry said any visit by Tlaib and Omar to the complex, revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount, would require Israeli security protection.
Violence erupted there on Sunday between Israeli police and Palestinians amid tensions over visits by Jewish worshipers on a day when the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish fast day of Tisha B'Av overlapped.
Israeli lawmakers warn barring congresswomen 'desperate attempt to hide reality'
Arab Israeli lawmaker Ayman Odeh tweeted in response to reports of Netanyahu's pending decision: "A state that has nothing to hide would not consider restricting the movement of both congresswomen. Another desperate attempt to hide reality from the world and especially from ourselves."
Aida Touma-Sliman, an Arab Israeli MK, also criticized the possibility of barring the congresswomen, tweeting: "They represent global public opinion - opposed to the occupation and settlements...I welcome their arrival."
Touma-Sliman pointed to Netanyahu's relations with Trump, calling their alliance one of "racism and occupation."
On Sunday, U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer spoke from Jerusalem, saying he favored allowing the two congresswomen to visit Israel, despite their views.
“I feel very secure in this — that anyone who comes with open ears, open eyes and an open mind will walk away with understanding, just as all these members here do; that this bond is unbreakable; that it is important to have a democracy in the Middle East that makes a difference to the world and to security.”
Omar and Tlaib broke barriers when they were elected as the first Muslim U.S. congresswomen in November. Omar, who was born in Somalia and immigrated at a young age to Minnesota, and Tlaib, who was born in Michigan to Palestinian parents, have been outspoken about their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, garnering accusations of anti-Semitism for their statements and support for the BDS movement.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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