WASHINGTON — The Israeli government’s decision to bar two American congresswomen from entering Israel sparked widespread outrage and condemnation in the US Thursday morning, with pro-Israel advocates, liberal activists, former diplomats and Jewish organizations warning that the move would be deeply damaging to Israel’s global standing.
In July, the government had announced it would allow Democratic representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to visit Israel — despite a controversial 2017 Israeli law prohibiting any foreigner from entering the country who “knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel.” But on Thursday, shortly after US President Donald Trump tweeted that allowing them to enter would “show great weakness,” Jerusalem reversed that decision, saying it would ban the BDS-supporting lawmakers.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, issued a rare rebuke of the decision. While it disagreed with the two legislators’ positions, “every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand,” AIPAC said.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which hosted a conference call with Israeli envoy Ron Dermer defending the move, said it had expressed “reservations about the ramifications of the decision.”
While not explicitly backing Israel’s decision, the umbrella group also accused Tlaib and Omar of “a lack of interest in dialogue or true fact finding,” in contrast to other Israel critics in Congress who have visited.
Former US diplomat Aaron David Miller, who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, argued that the move would hurt Israel’s standing as a bipartisan cause in Washington, while eroding its status in the international community.
“In barring Omar and Tlaib [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu in a single act creates more publicity and political oxygen than any visit might have; makes an Israeli PM appear to be a tool of a US President; blackens Israel’s image; and erodes bipartisanship critical to US-Israeli relations,” he tweeted.
The influential left-wing advocacy group J Street issued a similar warning.
“This reported decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu is dangerous, unacceptable and wrong,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the organization’s president. “As sitting members of Congress representing hundreds of thousands of Americans in their districts, Reps. Omar and Tlaib have the same right as every one of their colleagues to visit Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.”
He went on, “We may disagree with the views that the members hold on such questions as BDS or with Rep. Tlaib on the two-state solution, but the right approach for a state that values democracy is to welcome criticism and debate, not to shut it down.”
The decision also elicited opprobrium from Democratic presidential candidates who urged Israel to revert back to its original stance.
“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,” said Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. “This would be a shameful, unprecedented move. I urge Israel’s government to allow @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib entry.”
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. I urge Israel’s government to allow @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib entry.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 15, 2019
At the same time, some nonpartisan mainstream Jewish organizations who have been harshly critical of the freshmen congresswomen — the first Muslim female members of Congress — said that Netanyahu’s decision was a mistake.
While the American Jewish Committee said Omar and Tlaib’s agenda, devoid of any scheduled meetings with Israeli officials, was likely not a “fact-finding mission” but a “propaganda exercise,” it stressed that Israel ultimately erred in disallowing them into the country.
“AJC 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,” the group said in a statement.
“The costs in the US of barring the entry of two members of Congress may prove even higher than the alternative,” it said.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center took a similar stance. “Representatives Omar and Tlaib are unapologetic anti-Semites and supporters of the anti-peace BDS movement,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Center’s associate dean and director of global social action. “The congresswomen should have joined dozens of their colleagues who recently visited Israel and Palestinian territories. Still, the first instinct of Israeli officials to let them into the country was right one.”
Trump had been pushing Israel to keep Omar and Tlaib out.
“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit,” Trump tweeted early Thursday, after Axios reported earlier this week that he had pressured Netanyahu to block the two from coming. “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!”
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
Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said that the move helped the president’s goal of trying to weaponize Israel against the Democrats and diminish bipartisan support for the Jewish state.
“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 said.
Other prominent pro-Israel Jewish Democrats said that Israel’s decision was a gift to the BDS movement, which seeks to delegitimize the country as undemocratic.
“This reversal is counter productive to say the least and gives a victory to the BDS Movement,” said Aaron Keyak, the former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “This action also sets a dangerous precedent for the many other countries — many led by dictators and ruthless thugs —that US elected officials visit. A painful moment for those of us who care about a strong US-Israel relationship and fight for the cause of peace.”