AIPAC, pro-Israel U.S. Lawmakers Rebuke Netanyahu Over Omar-Tlaib Ban

Tweet by pro-Israel lobby group marks second time in recent months it published a statement containing some level of criticism over a decision by Netanyahu

U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands on the West Wing colonnade, Washington, March 25, 2019.
Leah Millis/REUTERS

WASHINGTON — The American Israel Public Affairs Committee spoke out Thursday against Israel's decision to bar American lawmakers Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting the country.

The U.S. pro-Israel lobby tweeted that while it disagrees with Tlaib and Omar's "support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement, along with Rep. Tlaib’s calls for a one-state solution," it also believes "every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand."

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It was the second time in recent months AIPAC published a statement containing some level of criticism over a decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In February, the organization criticized the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, at the same time that Netanyahu was working to create a political merger between that party and other forces within the Israeli right-wing. 

Then, however, AIPAC didn't directly refer to Netanyahu's decision to help Otzma Yehudit in the political process; it simply wrote that it does not engage with the far-right party. This time, however, AIPAC's statement appears to directly contradict Netanyahu's decision.

The decision to bar the two lawmakers — who were set to arrive on Saturday — came after several Israeli diplomats warned that doing so would significantly damage the country's relationship with members of the Democratic Party in the United States.

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."

Congresswoman Tlaib tweeted that "the decision by Israel to bar a U.S. Congresswoman, is a sign of weakness b/c the truth of what is happening to Palestinians is frightening," adding that her Palestinian grandmother "deserves to live in peace and with human dignity." 

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 move was also criticized by some Republican figures. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, author of the Combatting BDS Act, called it a mistake. While stressing he disagrees with Omar and Tlaib, Rubio added that "Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state."

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.

Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman, tweeted: "Not good. Israel should have been bigger than Trump here. And that's not asking a lot."

Several Democratic politicians, including front-runners in the race for the party's 2020 nomination, the speaker of the House and the Senate minority leader swiftly criticized the decision.

In a tweet, Sen. 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."

Former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted that no leader of the free world should encourage a democracy to deny entry to visitors based on the content of their ideas—even ideas they strongly object to.

Kamala Harris, a Democratic senator and a nominee for the party's presidential candidacy, said in light of the decision that no country should deny entry to elected Members of Congress. "It’s an affront to the United States. Open and engaged foreign relations are critical to advancing U.S. interests. Trump is playing politics as he weakens our global leadership."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said the decision was "beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel," as well as condemning Trump's comments about the two lawmakers.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat of New York) 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 that 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." 

Democratic presidential hopeful and Sen. 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."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, also a Democrat, released a statement saying the decision was "outrageous, regardless of their itinerary or their views." Hoyer said that Israel's ambassador to the United States had assured him the country would not deny entry to any lawmakers.

"This action reflects weakness, not strength," Hoyer added. "Instead, the Israeli government should seek to engage these Members of Congress in a dialogue regarding Israel’s security and the future of both Israelis and Palestinians. When Members of Congress visit Israel, they gain a stronger appreciation for its unique challenges and the existential threats that endanger Israel’s survival as a Jewish, democratic state."

Democratic lawmaker Dean Phillips warned 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.” 

Phillips, who is Jewish, added that “it will hurt Israel and forgo an opportunity to build bridges of understanding.”

Democratic 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 also issued a statement Thursday urging Israel to allow the two lawmakers 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." She also accused the U.S. president of interfering in Israel’s democracy, "to the detriment of the U.S.-Israel relationship."