Israel’s Interior Minister Aryeh Deri announced on Thursday that Israel has decided to deny entry to two US congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, over their support for boycotting the Jewish state. The two had been expected to travel to Israel and the West Bank this weekend.
Deri’s move was quickly endorsed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said the US government supported and respected Israel’s decision to bar the two BDS-backing lawmakers. The move was immediately panned by left-wing and Arab Israeli lawmakers, some US Democrats and several American Jewish groups.
Omar said it was a “chilling” decision and an “insult to democratic values.” Tlaib said it was “a sign of weakness” because “the truth of what is happening to Palestinians is frightening.”
The announcement, reversing Israel’s previous readiness to allow them to visit, came soon after US President Donald Trump tweeted that letting the two enter Israel would “show great weakness.” Israel’s Channel 12 news reported late Thursday that Trump and Netanyahu were in contact several times in recent days over the issue.
In a statement announcing the unprecedented entry ban on serving US legislators, Deri said the decision was made “after Minister Deri was convinced that [the visit] was part of boycott activism against Israel.” The statement accused the two US lawmakers of “taking advantage” of their prominent political position “to support organizations that call for boycotts of Israel.”
“The state of Israel respects the US Congress as part of the close alliance between the two countries. But it is inconceivable that Israel would be expected to let into the country those who wish to hurt it, including by means of the visit itself,” the Interior Ministry’s statement said.
The decision Thursday to ban the first two Muslim women elected to Congress marked a reversal in policy, amid pressure on Israel from the Trump administration to deny the two Democrats entry.
Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer had last month said Israel would not deny entry to any member of Congress. But reports surfaced earlier this week that Trump had expressed displeasure at the decision.
Shortly before Deri released his statement Thursday, Trump took to Twitter to warn that Israel would “show great weakness” if it allowed the visit.
“They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds,” the US president said, adding: “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. They are a disgrace!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 15, 2019
Trump later tweeted that “Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!”
Trump has spent weeks criticizing the lawmakers, including sending racist tweets urging them and two other minority women lawmakers to “go back” to their purported countries of origin. Three of the four were born in the US.
Deri’s ministry said he would consider letting Tlaib enter Israel in order to visit her relatives in the West Bank, if requested to do so. “Minister Deri stressed that if a request is filed on behalf of Mrs. Tlaib to meet her family members for humanitarian reasons, subject to necessary commitments, he would consider that.”
According to a purported copy of the lawmakers’ itinerary posted to Twitter by the Kan public broadcaster’s diplomatic correspondent Gili Cohen, a large part of the trip involved meetings with aid organizations and Palestinian officials to learn about the impact of Trump administration aid cuts in the West Bank and Gaza. The reported itinerary also included visits to the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, as well as the Western Wall, Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah. No Israeli officials of any government agency or political party are listed.
לו"ז הביקור המתוכנן ("משלחת לפלסטין") של חברות הקונגרס הדמוקרטיות ראשידה טאליב ואילהן עומאר. ישראל כאמור לא מתירה את כניסתן בעקבות לחץ מצד ארה"ב pic.twitter.com/hR9V0aC8xA
— Gili Cohen (@gilicohen10) August 15, 2019
Last month Tlaib pointed to the examples of boycotts against Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa as justification for maintaining the individual right to boycott Israel. Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman to be elected to Congress, made the remarks during a House debate on a resolution rejecting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
“Americans boycotted Nazi Germany in response to the dehumanization, imprisonment and genocide of Jewish people,” Tlaib said. “In the 1980s, many of us in this very body boycotted South African goods in the fight against apartheid. Our right to free speech is being threatened with this resolution.” Recalling her Palestinian roots, the Michigan representative said, “I can’t stand by and watch this attack on our freedom of speech and the right to boycott the racist policies of the government and the State of Israel.”
Despite Tlaib’s objections, the bill passed by a vote of 398-17, with five abstentions. Sixteen Democrats opposed the bill, including Tlaib and Omar of Minnesota.
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, from Netanyahu’s Likud party, explained the decision to bar the two lawmakers in an interview Thursday with the Kan public broadcaster by insisting, “We won’t allow those who deny our right to exist in this world to enter Israel… This is a very justified decision.”
Netanyahu issued a statement defending the move, insisting “there is no country on Earth that respects America and the US Congress more than the state of Israel. Israel is open to all critics and any criticism, with one exception: the law in Israel that prohibits entry to people calling and advocating for boycotting the country, just like in other democracies that bar entry to those who they believe will do harm to their nation.”
The statement noted that “the US behaved this way toward an Israel member of Knesset and other public figures from around the world,” a reference to the US decision in 2012 to deny an entry visa to then-lawmaker Michael Ben Ari, a former member of the extremist Kach party.
“Several days ago, we received [Omar and Tlaib’s] trip itinerary,” Netanyahu’s statement continued, “which clarified that they planned a visit whose sole purpose was to support boycotts and deny Israel’s legitimacy. For example, they called their destination ‘Palestine’ and not ‘Israel,’ and unlike all Democratic and Republican members of Congress before them, they did not seek any meeting with any Israeli official, whether government or opposition.”
In a statement, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman backed the Israeli ban, saying the US “supports and respects the decision of the Government of Israel to deny entry to the Tlaib/Omar Delegation.”
The boycott movement against Israel “is not free speech. Rather, it is no less than economic warfare designed to delegitimize and ultimately destroy the Jewish State,” Friedman said.
The statement seemed to deny that Trump’s pressure had changed Israel’s mind, blaming the shift instead on the lawmakers’ purported refusal to expose themselves to Israel’s perspective on the planned trip. Israel had agreed to the visit “as an opportunity to engage with and educate the delegation members with regard to Israel’s vibrant and robust democracy, its religious tolerance and its ethnic diversity,” it said. But the delegation’s itinerary “leaves no room for that opportunity…. The Tlaib/Omar Delegation has limited its exposure to tours organized by the most strident of BDS activists. This trip, pure and simple, is nothing more than an effort to fuel the BDS engine” that the two lawmakers “so vigorously support.”
One mainstream Jewish group, the New York-based American Jewish Committee, acknowledged the lawmakers’ unbalanced itinerary, but insisted Israel “did not choose wisely” in denying them entry.
“When Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib announced their plans to visit, the Israeli government decided to allow them entry into the country, despite their unrelenting hostility toward the Jewish state and their active support for the BDS movement,” AJC said in a statement Thursday. “This decision, which AJC supported, was made, above all, out of respect for the fact that both are members of the US Congress, and that Israel rightfully prides itself on being an open, democratic society.”
But, the statement added, “Our understanding is that the congresswomen did not request any meetings at all with Israeli officials, members of Knesset (Parliament) of any mainstream party, nor briefings on any subject from leading Israeli experts. The failure of the legislators to include any Israeli perspectives whatsoever reveals this to have been not a fact-finding mission, but rather a propaganda exercise. … They were not coming to hear from various points of view, but rather to undermine the very legitimacy of the State of Israel,” AJC said.
The group said it believes that “out of two less-than-ideal options, neither of which was risk-free, Israel did not choose wisely by reversing its original decision. 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 US of barring the entry of two members of Congress may prove even higher than the alternative.”
Omar has said she supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Tlaib, however, has advocated for a single-state outcome.
Dan Shapiro, US ambassador to Israel under president Barack Obama, said that he knew of “no such precedent” for Israel barring an elected American official from entering the country, calling the decision “short-sighted.”
“There’s no reason to prevent members of Congress, including critical ones, from coming, seeing and learning, offering them every possible briefing,” Shapiro said. “By refusing them entry, it will only fuel the very things that Israel claims to be unhappy about” when it comes to calls for boycotts.
Agencies contributed to this report.