Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday defended Israel’s decision to bar Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from entering the country and said that the Israeli ambassador to the United States had said they would be allowed in before learning of their itinerary.
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 a 2017 law denying entry to supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS).
The move was widely condemned by Jewish groups in the US and Democratic lawmakers, with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Democrat-Maryland) saying the ban marked a reversal of Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer’s announcement in July that Tlaib and Omar would not be barred.
Netanyahu on Sunday said that while Israel respects all Congress members and has a policy of automatically granting them entrance to the country, it would not welcome those who back boycotts of the Jewish state.
“We respect all members of Congress. Our directive is to facilitate, on a regular and automatic basis, the entry of all members of Congress, Democratic and Republican. Just one week ago, I met with dozens of Democratic members of Congress. Ambassador Dermer enunciated this precise policy,” he said. “There is only one exception and it is the BDS law that obligates us to evaluate the entry of people who support BDS,” Netanyahu told reporters at the airport before travelling to Ukraine.
The prime minister said Dermer’s announcement last month came before Israel received a request from Omar and Tlaib to visit or were aware of their travel plans. He also stressed the ban was not related to the congresswomen’s party affiliation, but was rather a matter of principle.
“When Ambassador Dermer spoke, there was no specific request regarding these visits; neither was there an itinerary or a specific travel plan. As soon as these arrived, we checked it and reached the decision that we did. This was a principled, not a partisan, decision. We respect all political parties in the US equally; however, we also respect ourselves. Whoever comes to impose boycotts on us and to deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel, we will not allow them entry,” he said.
Netanyahu’s comments on Dermer, one of his closest confidantes, came a day after Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the ambassador announced Tlaib and Omar would be allowed into Israel without consulting with the government.
“It was not with the prime minister’s blessing, it was not a decision of the Israeli government… It was not with my blessing. He gave his opinion,” Katz told Channel 12’s “Meet the Press.”
Katz said that, with the visit drawing closer, Netanyahu met with cabinet ministers to discuss the matter and decided to bar the lawmakers.
Katz denied reports that US President Donald Trump had pressured Israel to disallow the two congresswomen from visiting. He also said the decision to bar the two was made before Trump tweeted support of a ban on Thursday.
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.
“Several days ago, we received [Omar and Tlaib’s] trip itinerary,” Netanyahu said in a statement, “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.”
Hebrew media reports claimed Netanyahu had been heavily pressured by Trump to block the two congresswomen. The announcement that Israel would not allow the pair in came shortly after Trump tweeted that the Jewish state would be showing weakness if it gave them permission to come.
Tlaib then submitted a letter requesting to be allowed in despite the ban, citing her elderly grandmother, and promised not to promote boycotting Israel during her visit. The request was approved by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri on humanitarian grounds, but Tlaib later said she had decided not go under “humiliating terms.”
The Israeli ban on the two congresswoman was criticized by centrist, left-wing, and Arab Israeli lawmakers, and by many prominent US Democratic leaders.
A Friday report in the McClatchy news service said that top Democratic lawmakers in the US House of Representatives had discussed censuring Dermer and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman over the decision to bar Tlaib and Omar. Around a dozen Democrats had begun talks on how to express a “deep lack of confidence and trust” in the two, the report said.
Also Sunday, the US political news site Politico reported that the pro-BDS organization cited by Netanyahu as the reason for barring entry to Israel to Tlaib and Omar has in fact sponsored other authorized trips to Israel for members of Congress.
“The itinerary of the two congresswomen reveals that their sole purpose is to harm Israel and increase incitement against it. In addition, the organization that is funding their trip is Miftah, which is an avid supporter of BDS, and among whose members are those who have expressed support for terrorism against Israel,” Netanyahu said last week.
But according to Politico, in 2016, Democratic Reps. Matt Cartwright (Pennsylvania), Dan Kildee (Michigan), Mark Pocan (Wisconsin), Luis Gutierrez (Illinois), and Hank Johnson (Georgia) all went on a five-day trip to Israel and the West Bank sponsored by the group.
“And on that trip,” noted Politico, “the members of Congress listed their destination as “Palestine – Jerusalem – Ramallah” — not Israel,” similar to Tlaib and Omar’s itineraries.
“Those members of Congress stayed in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah. They met with PLO officials and Miftah board members, went to Hebron and met with its mayor, and tried to tour Gaza, but were prevented by the Israeli government,” the report added.