Lawmakers from the left, center and Arab-majority parties on Thursday lashed the government over its decision to bar US congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from entering the country.
Blue and White no. 2 Yair Lapid called the decision a “serious mistake” and said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who publicly defended the decision, himself knew it was a bad move.
“True, these are two radical members of Congress, but the decision not to let them into Israel goes against our national interests. As Netanyahu well knows, this was a serious mistake that only puts wind in the sails of the BDS movement and further harms our relationship with the Democratic Party.”
Lapid did not specify what made Netanyahu act against his own alleged view.
But Arab Joint List lawmaker Ahmad Tibi was more blunt. He called the decision “shameful,” saying it “smells of humiliating subservience to President Trump and his whims.”
He added: “Preventing the entry of the two Democratic members of Congress strengthens and confirms, and rightly so, the claim of the BDS movement about Israel’s behavior as an occupying power that must be opposed through nonviolent struggle.”
Tibi wrote on Twitter: “Often it is hard for Palestinians to explain to the American public why Netanyahu’s policy is so disastrous. Now, that task is easier.”
The decision was announced Thursday by Netanyahu and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri. Israeli officials said the decision, which reversed last month’s statement by Israel’s ambassador in Washington that Israel would not bar any member of Congress from the country, was due to the visit’s “unbalanced” itinerary.
The Trump administration has also pressured Israel in recent days to bar the lawmakers, according to reports.
The decision was roundly panned on the left.
The leader of the Arab Joint List, MK Ayman Odeh, tweeted, “Israel has always banned Palestinians from their land and separated us from other Palestinians, but this time the Palestinian is a US congresswomen.”
“Rashida Tlaib didn’t even have to land to expose the true face of Israel’s occupation,” he added of the American lawmaker, whose grandmother lives in the West Bank village of Beit Ur al-Foqa.
Israel has always banned Palestinians from their land and separated us from other Palestinians, but this time the Palestinian is a U.S congresswomen.@RashidaTlaib didn't even have to land to expose the true face of Israel's occupation.
— Ayman Odeh (@AyOdeh) August 15, 2019
MK Tamar Zandberg of the left-wing Democratic Camp party called the move “both fundamentally wrong and diplomatically foolish.”
“A democratic country can’t deny entry to elected officials of a friendly democracy, let alone the immense damage already caused — not only image-wise, but also to the important relations with the Democratic Party,” Zandberg said in a statement.
Democratic Camp chair Nitzan Horowitz called the reported decision a “grave mistake.”
“This isn’t just a confrontation with the Democratic Party, which has always supported Israel, it’s also a more basic issue: Israel is a free and democratic country, and in such a country you don’t deal with criticism by entry or exit bans,” he wrote on Twitter.
And Democratic Camp no. 2, MK Stav Shaffir, slammed Netanyahu as a “coward” for the move.
“A country with a wise foreign policy would have invited the congresswomen whose opinions we don’t like for a visit, and made sure that it exposes them to the complexity of the conflict, connects them also to our narrative and shows to the world that we are strong and open,” Shaffir wrote in a tweet.
“The policy of Netanyahu, the coward, slams the door and hands a gift to BDS, which gives back a gift to Bibi: fear and division,” she said.
The planned visit of the two controversial freshman lawmakers has made headlines in recent days after it was reported that US President Donald Trump was disappointed by Israel’s decision not to bar them from coming. Israel’s laws allow border authorities to turn away supporters of the anti-Israel boycott movement.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu discussed the matter with Deri, Foreign Minister Israel Katz, Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, according to a diplomatic official.
Deri has in the past taken a hardline position on letting backers of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement into the country, citing a law that allows Israel to bar BDS activists from entering.
Until Thursday morning, it had generally been presumed that Israel would not hinder the two congresswomen from visiting out of respect to the US.
Last month Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, said that she would visit Israel and the West Bank with Tlaib, a Palestinian-American congresswoman from Michigan. The two are the first female Muslim congresswomen.
Last Saturday, Axios reported that US President Donald Trump had criticized the apparent Israeli decision to allow Omar and Tlaib to visit the country. Trump said that if Omar and Tlaib wanted to boycott Israel, “then Israel should boycott them,” the report said, quoting a source with direct knowledge.
However, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham denied that Trump — who recently singled out Omar, Tlaib and two of their colleagues for several harsh rebukes — had ever given any kind of directive to the Israelis. “The Israeli government can do what they want. It’s fake news,” Grisham told Axios.
Under a controversial law that Israel enacted in 2017, the state can prohibit from entering the country any foreigner who “knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel.” Since then, the Interior and Strategic Affairs ministries have used the statute to deny visas to a handful of students, activists and artists upon their arrival to Israel.
The Foreign Ministry, however, can recommend the law be waived for visiting politicians or government officials out of diplomatic concerns.
On Wednesday evening, Channel 13 reported that Israeli officials were preparing for the possibility that the two lawmakers may seek to visit the flashpoint Temple Mount in Jerusalem during their stay in the country.
Omar last month introduced a resolution, co-sponsored by Tlaib, ostensibly aimed at pushing back against laws seeking to clamp down on boycotts of Israel. The resolution, which does not explicitly mention Israel or the Palestinians, affirms the right of Americans to participate in boycotts as an expression of free speech under the First Amendment, citing boycott movements against Nazi Germany, the USSR and apartheid South Africa.
It currently has three sponsors — Omar, Tlaib and Democratic Georgia Rep. John Lewis, an icon of the US civil rights movement.
Omar, Tlaib and other BDS supporters say that in urging businesses, artists and universities to sever ties with Israel, they are using nonviolent means to oppose unjust policies toward Palestinians. Israel counters that the movement masks its motivation to delegitimize or destroy the Jewish state.
Omar has said she supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Tlaib has advocated for a single-state outcome.