Netanyahu Backtracks After Pressure From Trump, Bars Omar, Tlaib From Entering Israel

Barring Congresswomen would greatly damage Israel's relations with Democratic party, Israeli diplomats warn ■ Trump tweets allowing their visit is 'great show of weakness'

Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib at the Capitol in Washington, February 5, 2019
J. Scott Applewhite,AP

UPDATE: Rashida Tlaib cancels West Bank visit, citing Israel's 'oppressive conditions'

Israel has decided Thursday to bar U.S. Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from entering the country, the Interior Ministry announced, despite acceding to the visit originally.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 35Haaretz

The decision was made in accordance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, the statement said, adding that it was reached after Interior Minister Arye Dery learned of their involvement in boycott movements, and that their entry must be disallowed in accordance with Israeli law.

The ministry said Omar and Tlaib seek to use the most central stage to support BDS organizations and call for a boycott of Israel.

Netanyahu released a statement after the decision, saying: "No country in the world respects the United States and the U.S. Congress more than Israel."

The premier added: "As a vibrant and free democracy, Israel is open to any visitor and to any criticism, with one exception: The law in Israel forbids the entry of people calling for and acting to placing a boycott on Israel, as is the norm in other democracies that prevent the entry of people whom they see as harming the country."

>> Read more: Nixing Tlaib and Omar visit, Netanyahu harms Israel to assuage Trump’s ego | Analysis ■ Trump and Netanyahu just broke the special relationship between America and Israel | Opinion ■ In the Tlaib-Omar saga, all the politicians are winners | Analysis 

This is how the U.S. acted toward an Israeli member of Knesset and toward other public figures in the world, he said.

Netanyahu said Tlaib and Omar are "leading activists in promoting legislation to boycott Israel in the U.S. Congress. We received their itinerary only a few days ago, and it made clear that they are planning a trip whose entire purpose was supporting the boycott and eroding Israel's legitimacy. Thus, for example, they defined the destination of their trip as 'Palestine' and not as 'Israel,' and in contrast with all other Democratic and Republican members of Congress until now, they refrained from requesting any meeting with an Israeli official, either in the government or in the opposition."

Earlier Thursday, 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 American Israel Public Affairs Comittee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobby group, tweeted that while it disagress with the two congresswomen'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."

Congresswoman Omar called the decision "an affront" and said Israel was implementing "Trump's Muslim ban."

"Denying entry into Israel not only limits our ability to learn from Israel, but also to enter the Palestinian territories," Omar said in a statement. "Sadly, this is not a surprise given the public positions of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has consistently resisted peace efforrts, restricted the freedom of Palestinians, limited public knowledge of the brutal realities of the occupation and aligned himself with Islamophobes like Donald Trump." Saying that her role on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs calls on her to conduct oversight of American foreign aid, Omar added: "The irony of the 'only democracy' in the Middle East making such a decision is that it is both an insult to democratic values and a chilling response to a visit by government officials from an allied nation."

In a tweet, Senator Bernie Sanders called the move "A sign of enormous disrespect to these elected leaders, to the United States Congress, and to the principles of democracy. The Israeli government should reverse this decision and allow them in."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the move "a sign of weakness, not strength. It will only hurt the U.S.-Israel relationship and support for Israel in America.  No democratic society should fear an open debate. Many strong supporters of Israel will be deeply disappointed in this decision, which the Israeli government should reverse."

Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler strongly condemned the decision, saying "The close relationship enjoyed by the United States and Israel should extend to all its government representatives, regardless of their views on specific issues or policies."

Nadler added that the decision "undermines the ability for our two allied countries to have the frank, open and, at times, difficult discussions that we must have in order to ensure Israel remains a secure and democratic nation." 

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."

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.

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. 

>> Read more: Tlaib and Omar’s planned West Bank trip embroils Israel in Trump’s battle with ‘the squad' | Analysis ■ A ridiculous and unnecessary battle over Omar and Tlaib's visit | Editorial 

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. 

Former Ambassador of the U.S. to Israel said there is "zero harm in letting them (Omar, Tlaib) come learn, see (even if they had an agenda). Reversal harms Israel's standing in US, boosts BDS."

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.