In Jerusalem, U.S. House Leaders Back Netanyahu’s Decision to Let Tlaib and Omar Enter Israel

Steny Hoyer and Kevin McCarthy call on all U.S. House members to visit region, during educational tours by over 70 Democratic and Republican representatives

House majority leaders Kevin McCarthy (Republican of California) and Steny Hoyer (Democrat of Maryland) at a press conference in Jerusalem, August 11, 2019.
Israel Hadari

U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Sunday dismissed assertions that support for Israel is waning among members of his Democratic Party.

Speaking in Jerusalem, he noted that an overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress recently voted in favor of a resolution condemning the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

“The central reality is that there is extraordinary unity on issues that Israel is very concerned about,” said Hoyer. “The alliance between our two countries has been strong and unbending since May of 1948 [when Israel gained its independence], and it remains such.”

Hoyer is heading a delegation of 41 Democratic members of the House of Representatives — the vast majority of them newly elected — that arrived in Israel last week. He was joined several days ago by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is heading a delegation of 31 representatives from his Republican Party.

Both trips were organized and sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, an independent, bipartisan nonprofit that is affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

At a joint press conference, both leaders were asked to comment on a report this weekend that U.S. President Donald Trump was disappointed that Israel had agreed to allow two freshman Democrats, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar — both supporters of the BDS movement — to visit Israel and the West Bank in coming weeks.

“I do not know that the president was unhappy; I speak to him everyday,” said McCarthy, responding to an Axios story alleging that Trump told advisers that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should use Israel’s anti-boycott law to bar Omar and Tlaib from entering Israel. The Republican leader said he favored allowing the two congresswomen to visit, 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.”

Congressional members of the Republican and Democratic parties posing for a photograph at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, August 11, 2019.
Israel Hadari

He added: “I think all should come.”

Hoyer agreed that it was “appropriate” for members of the House who are critical of Israel to be allowed in to visit the country.

The education seminar was the largest congressional delegation ever to visit to Israel, Hoyer noted, representing 15 percent of the entire House of Representatives — a sign, he said, that both Republicans and Democrats are “united and strong in their unwavering support for Israel.”

The Democrats met last week with Netanyahu and his chief rival in the upcoming September 17 election, Kahol Lavan head Benny Gantz. They also met in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. A similar itinerary has been prepared for the Republican delegation.

“I’ve been to Israel 16 times, and one of the things I’ve observed is that there are some very strong differences of opinion here,” Hoyer told reporters, with members of the bipartisan delegation crowded around him and McCarthy. “That exists in the United States as well. But we are very united on Israel. I don’t want to go much deeper than that and ask everybody to raise their hands on every issue, but we are like Israel and you are like us — a very vibrant democracy that welcomes and accepts different points of view.”

McCarthy said the purpose of the visit was for House members to “ask hard questions and gather information so that when they go back and cast their votes, they do it with knowledge.”

Asked for specifics, Hoyer said the “hard questions” concerned the two-state solution and Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The House majority leader expressed disappointment over discussions held with the Palestinian president. “Frankly, I did not hear anything new from Abbas,” he said. “He indicated he was prepared to sit down and negotiate [with Israel] without preconditions, and then he referenced a number of preconditions.”

Still, Hoyer said, it was “very important” that the delegation members had an opportunity to hear from the Palestinian leader, “who is of course in the 14th year of his five-year term.”

Hoyer added that discussions with Israeli leaders had also focused on Iran. “The United States and Israel are both absolutely committed to the fact that Iran does not ever become a nuclear power and a nuclear threat,” he said.