Netanyahu asked US lawmakers in June to condemn Tlaib, Omar for BDS support

In missive to Democratic leaders predating row over ban, Netanyahu wrote that the congresswomen were the ‘antithesis to strong support for Israel’

Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, at a press conference on August 19, 2019 in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Adam Bettcher/Getty Image North America/AFP)
Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, at a press conference on August 19, 2019 in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Adam Bettcher/Getty Image North America/AFP)

Months before Israel decided to bar US Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting the West Bank and Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the pair for backing a boycott of Israel in a letter to Democratic lawmakers.

Netanyahu’s missive, dated June 2 and addressed to Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, called the two lawmakers the “antithesis” to “bipartisan support for Israel” in Congress, according to a Monday report from the Washington Post.

The premier’s letter was in response to an appeal from 17 Democratic lawmakers for Netanyahu to prevent the deportation of Human Rights Watch’s American director for Israel and Palestine, Omar Shakir.

Netanyahu accused Shakir of supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which aims to “isolate and ultimately destroy the State of Israel,” he said. He noted that the letter from the lawmakers was signed by Tlaib and Omar.

Netanyahu wrote:  “I was surprised to see among the signatories of your letter two BDS supporters, whose repeated condemnations of Israel and calls to boycott the Jewish state are the antithesis of the strong support for Israel expressed in the beginning of your letter and the strong bipartisan support for Israel in the United States Congress.”

“The inclusion of BDS sympathizers in your plea can only blemish those esteemed representatives whose political integrity and genuine concern for international human rights is undeniable,” he wrote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a televised statement at his official residence in Jerusalem on March 17, 2015. The poster behind him reads: “It us or them. Only Likud, Only Netanyahu.” (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu wrote in the letter that Israel was concerned about people “that under the banner of justice and human rights actively work to delegitimize the State of Israel and negate its very right to exist.”

Israel passed a law in 2017 allowing it to expel or deny entry to anyone who backs a boycott of the Jewish state. It has sought to expel Shakir based largely on comments he made before joining HRW in which he praised the BDS movement.

Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 9, 2018. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)

Shakir has appealed his deportation and has argued that his advocacy for companies to cut ties to settlements does not amount to supporting a boycott of Israel.

HRW says it does not advocate BDS and calls the deportation order, set to be heard by the Supreme Court in September, a clear attempt to quash criticism.

A spokesperson for McGovern confirmed to the Washington Post that his office received the letter on August 14.

Netanyahu last week announced that Omar and Tlaib, freshman Democratic representatives respectively from Minnesota and Michigan who were planning to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank this week, would be banned from Israel under the 2017 law.

Israeli envoy Ron Dermer had initially said Israel would allow the two to visit, and the reversal was widely seen as the result of pressure from US President Donald Trump, who has sparred with the lawmakers.

Announcing the unprecedented decision to turn away the serving US legislators, Netanyahu said Thursday it was plain that Omar and Tlaib intended to use the visit to harm Israel.

On Monday, Omar mentioned Shakir during a press conference alongside Tlaib in which she questioned Israel’s role as a US ally or democracy given its policies restricting entry of some critics.

AFP contributed to this report.

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