The leaders of an unprecedentedly large bipartisan congressional delegation visiting Israel on Sunday welcomed the plan by two controversial Muslim lawmakers to visit the Jewish state, and Jerusalem’s decision to let them enter the country.
The two Democratic freshman lawmakers — Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — would likely walk away from an educational tour of the region with a better appreciation of Israel’s security concerns, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) agreed at a joint press conference in Jerusalem.
“I think it would be helpful for anyone that has an opinion to come,” McCarthy said in response to a question by The Times of Israel.
“I feel very secure in this. Everyone who comes with open ears, open eyes, and an open mind will walk away and have an understanding… that this bond is unbreakable, that there is an importance to democracy in the Middle East, that it makes a difference to security. I think all should come,” he said.
“Any member of Congress is welcome to visit,” Hoyer said. Anybody who comes to Israel to learn about what Israelis are doing to cope with the protracted security situation and the government’s efforts to create a better economy for its people, he said, “will leave with a much more positive view.”
Hoyer and McCarthy are currently leading the largest-ever Congressional delegation to Israel, which consists of 72 lawmakers — 41 Democrats and 31 Republicans.
Omar and Tlaib, the first female Muslim congresswomen, both back the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. They are expected to visit August 18, though the dates have not been confirmed.
Asked whether he believes the two congresswomen would really be open to changing their views of Israel and not merely use their visit as an opportunity to accuse the country of mistreating the Palestinians, Hoyer recalled that he took Omar’s predecessor, Keith Ellison, who is also Muslim, on a trip to Israel a few years ago.
“He came back with a more positive view, and a more informed and more balanced view. I would hope that, and think that, [the same] would occur” with Omar and Tlaib, Hoyer said.
“I know both… and they’re all very bright. Ms. Omar apologized for statements she had made that were perceived as, and probably were, anti-Semitic. She apologized. So there is an openness of mind to learn, and that I think would be positive for Israel and for those members,” he said.
In February, Omar, had tweeted that “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” in reference to AIPAC’s allegedly vast influence on American politics.
Benjamins are a slang term for $100 bills, which feature US founding father Benjamin Franklin.
After Omar was criticized for her use of what many saw as an anti-Semitic canard, the Somalia-born legislator removed the tweet and apologized.
Hoyer and McCarthy both rejected a report by Israel’s Channel 13 on Saturday that indicated US President Donald Trump was unhappy about Israel’s decision to allow the two controversial lawmakers into the country.
Citing unnamed sources, the report quoted Trump as saying that if Omar and Tlaib wanted to boycott Israel, “then Israel should boycott them.”
“I don’t know that the president is being disappointed of them coming,” McCarthy told The Times of Israel on Sunday, noting that he speaks to the president daily and has not heard such sentiments from him. “He knows that there are people with differences of opinion.”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham denied Trump ever gave any kind of directive on the issue to the Israelis. “The Israeli government can do what they want. It’s fake news,” she said.
Omar and Tlaib’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.
Last month Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer said Israel would not prevent the legislators from entering.
“Out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel,” Dermer told The Times of Israel in a statement.
The 72 congressmen participating in the bipartisan visit are in Israel on an educational seminar sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), a bipartisan foundation affiliated with AIPAC.
“This is the largest delegation that has ever visited Israel together… in united, strong, and unwavering support for the State of Israel, its success, its sovereignty and its security,” Hoyer said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.