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WASHINGTON — Israel barred two U.S. lawmakers from entering the country Thursday, setting off a new round of controversy in the debate over U.S. support for its ally in the Middle East.
Democratic congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have been vocal critics of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians. They were set to visit Israel and several cities in the West Bank in the coming days.
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told public broadcaster Kan, “We won’t allow those who deny our right to exist in this world to enter Israel. In principle, this is a very justified decision.”
U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted shortly before the announcement, writing, “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.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the president’s comments “are a sign of ignorance and disrespect, and beneath the dignity of the Office of the President.” Pelosi reaffirmed her love of Israel but said the move to deny entry to Omar and Tlaib “is a sign of weakness, and beneath the dignity of the great state of Israel.”
Omar and Tlaib’s frequent criticism of Israel has drawn accusations of anti-Semitism for months. Omar was condemned by the congressional leadership in her own party for invoking an offensive trope about Jews and money in social media postings earlier this year.
Omar said the Israeli government’s ban on her entry into the country prevented her from fulfilling her duties as a member of the U.S. Congress.
“It is my job to conduct oversight of foreign aid from the United States of America and to legislate on human rights practices around the world,” she said in a statement. “The irony of the ‘only democracy’ in the Middle East making such a decision is that it is both an insult to democratic values and a chilling response to a visit by government officials from an allied nation.”
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel acknowledged his differences in opinion with Omar and Tlaib on Thursday, even while criticizing the decision.
“It’s a mistake for the Israeli government to bar entry of members of Congress into Israel,” Engel said in a statement.”If Israel’s government hopes to win the support of American lawmakers across the political spectrum, then this visit could have been an opportunity to share views and make a case for why American support for Israel is so important. Instead, refusing entry to members of Congress looks like Israel closing itself off to criticism and dialogue.”
Omar and the Palestinian-American Tlaib are supporters of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), a boycott movement that seeks to economically pressure Israel into ending its occupation of the West Bank, among other goals. Some advocates of BDS support a single-state solution that critics say would lead to the destruction of the Jewish state.
In a Twitter thread, the official account for the Prime Minister of Israel justified the decision, writing the congresswomen had “listed the destination of their trip as Palestine and not Israel, and unlike all Democratic and Republican members of Congress who have visited Israel, they did not request to meet any Israeli officials, either from the government or the opposition.”
David Friedman, the current U.S. ambassador to Israel, said the United States fully respects Israel’s decision, and pushed back against criticism that the move was a violation of free speech.
“The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel is not free speech. It is no less than economic warfare designed to delegitimize and ultimately destroy the Jewish state,” Friedman said in a statement.
Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, wrote Thursday on Twitter that Israel’s reversal would have the unintentional effect of boosting the boycott.
The freshman members of Congress have repeatedly presented a challenge for the House Democratic leadership, as their outspoken statements on U.S. policy in the Middle East have drawn the attention of President Trump.
Omar and Tlaib were two of the four House Democratic freshman members of color whom President Trump has said should “go back” to their home countries. Omar — a naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia — is the only one of the four who was born outside the United States. The president’s supporters chanted, “Send her back” after Trump mentioned the congresswoman at a rally earlier this year. The president later said he did not like those chants.
Israel’s decision to bar lawmakers based on their policy views has already sparked criticism about the need for independence.
Rep. David Ciccilline, who chairs the House Democrats’ communications arm, criticized Israel’s decision to ban the members. In a tweet, he said, “This is a grave mistake by the Israeli government.”
Congressman Justin Amash — a former House Republican who left the party over differences with Trump — called for Omar and Tlaib to be allowed into Israel, tweeting, “Israel should stand up to President Trump and allow our colleagues to visit. Nobody has to agree with their opinions, but it will inevitably harm U.S.-Israel relations if members of Congress are banned from the country. We must find ways to come together; there’s enough division.”
Earlier this month, congressional leaders from both parties said they were comfortable with lawmakers with differing views entering Israel.
“I feel very secure in this, that anyone who comes with open ears, open eyes and an open mind will walk away with an understanding, just as all these members here do, that this bond is unbreakable,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a press conference during a congressional delegation visit to Israel.
The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution in July condemning the BDS movement. Both Omar and Tlaib voted against that resolution.