Israel announced Thursday it was barring the entry of two Democratic US congresswomen after Donald Trump encouraged the move, a remarkable step both by the US President and his ally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to punish political opponents.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told CNN on Thursday of Israel’s decision to ban Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from entering the country. The announcement came shortly after Trump said Israel would be showing “great weakness” by allowing them to enter the country.
“The plan of the two Congresswomen is only to damage Israel and to foment against Israel,” Netanyahu said in a statement following the decision.
The intervention by Trump into Israel’s decision-making was extraordinary enough. But the move by Netanyahu’s government lent the longstanding US-Israel alliance a new partisan tinge and opened the door for fresh criticism.
Omar responded to the decision Thursday by calling it “an affront” and “an insult to democratic values.”
“It is an affront that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, under pressure from President Trump, would deny entry to representatives of the U.S. government,” Omar said in a statement. “Trump’s Muslim ban is what Israel is implementing, this time against two duly elected Members of Congress.”
Omar went on to say, “As a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 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. 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.”
Trump’s history feuding with the congresswomen
Trump has criticized the two lawmakers – who are the first two Muslim women elected to Congress – in harsh and sometimes racist terms. But his move to call for their ban in Israel reflects a new chapter in his grudge and a further erosion of presidential norms, which in the past sought to avoid instilling partisanship in foreign affairs.
In considering the ban, Israel cited the congresswomen’s support for a boycott against Israel.
“The State of Israel respects the American Congress in the framework of the close alliance between the two countries, but it is unthinkable that an entry to Israel would be allowed to those who seek to damage the State of Israel, even during a visit,” said Interior Minister Aryeh Deri in a statement. Under Israeli law, the interior minister is the one authorized to make a decision on barring entry.
Deri said he made the decision with the support of Netanyahu and other Israeli officials.
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said the US “supports and respects” Israel’s decision to deny entry to Tlaib and Omar.
“This trip, pure and simple, is nothing more than an effort to fuel the (boycott movement) engine that Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar so vigorously support,” Friedman said in a statement released Thursday evening.
Slamming the boycott movement as “economic warfare designed to delegitimize and ultimately destroy the Jewish State,” Friedman defended Israel’s right to deny entry to those who support a boycott of the country.
Israel’s decision to deny entry to the two freshmen congresswomen amounted to a reversal of a position taken last month when Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer said the two would be allowed to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“Out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel,” Dermer said at the time in widely reported comments. Dermer is considered one of those closest to Netanyahu.
The move was met with a swift backlash from Democratic congressional lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who said in a statement she was “deeply saddened” by the news.
“Israel’s denial of entry to Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar is a sign of weakness, and beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel,” Pelosi said. “The President’s statements about the Congresswomen are a sign of ignorance and disrespect, and beneath the dignity of the Office of the President.”
In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, called the decision a “sign of weakness, not strength,” and said, “It will only hurt the U.S.-Israeli relationship and support for Israel in America. … Many strong supporters of Israel will be deeply disappointed in this decision, which the Israeli government should reverse.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, in a statement called the decision “outrageous” and said the move “is contrary to the statement and assurances to me by Israel’s ambassador to the United States that ‘out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any Member of Congress into Israel.’ That representation was not true.”
Hoyer has been working since Wednesday to persuade the Israeli government to permit the two congresswomen entry, an aide to Hoyer told CNN. That effort included speaking directly with Netanyahu and Ambassador Dermer on Wednesday. Hoyer had also previously worked with the ambassador to secure the statement that no member would be denied entry.