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August 15, 2019 1:23 pm

Storm of Controversy Erupts Over Israeli Decision Barring Entry to BDS-Supporting Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) shares a fist bump with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) in Washington, DC, April 10, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Jim Bourg.

A storm of controversy erupted on Thursday after Israel confirmed that it will prevent Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) from entering the country.

The announcement came just hours after a tweet from US President Donald Trump warning that Israel would show “great weakness” if it admitted the two US legislators, who were due to arrive on Friday.

Israeli media reported earlier in the day that the decision was in the works, and it was later confirmed by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely. The final decision was apparently made by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri on the basis of the congresswomen’s support for boycotting the Jewish state.

The congresswomen “exploit” their position in Congress to “support the BDS organization that calls for a boycott of Israel,” Israeli news site Walla quoted Deri saying.

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“The State of Israel respects the US Congress,” he added, “in the context of the close alliance between the two states, but it is unthinkable to allow entry to the country to those who seek to harm the State of Israel.”

Deri added that if Tlaib, who is of Palestinian origin, wishes to visit her relatives in the West Bank, he would consider allowing her to enter the country.

Several observers said that Israel’s hand was forced by President Donald Trump, who tweeted shortly before the decision was announced, “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. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”

The move reverses an earlier pledge from Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador in Washington, DC, that Israel would allow entry to Omar and Tlaib.

“Out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel,” Dermer said on July 19.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained the decision by saying, “As a free and vibrant democracy, Israel is open to critics and criticism. With one exception: Israeli law prohibits the entry into Israel of those who call for and work to impose boycotts on Israel, as do other democracies that prohibit the entry of people believed to be damaging to the country.”

“The US did this to an Israeli member of Knesset and other public figures from around the world,” Netanyahu noted.

“Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar are leading activists in promoting the legislation of boycotts against Israel in the American Congress,” he asserted. “Only a few days ago, we received their itinerary for their visit in Israel, which revealed that they planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel’s legitimacy. For instance: they 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.”

Netanyahu highlighted that Miftah, the organization funding their trip, is an avid supporter of BDS,  whose members have expressed support for terrorism against Israel.

On its website, the organization states, “Miftah encourages activists to use the boycott and divestment campaigns as educational tools regarding the supported provided for Israeli aggression by our purchases and investments.” The group provides a 20-page list of companies and individuals it claims are linked to Israel and should therefore be boycotted.

Reactions to the announcement came quickly, with many expressing the view that Israel had made a serious mistake.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), one of Israel’s strongest supporters in Congress, said, “Denying entry to members of the United States Congress is a sign of weakness, not strength. It will only hurt the US-Israeli relationship and support for Israel in America. No democratic society should fear an open debate. Many strong supporters of Israel will be deeply disappointed in this decision, which the Israeli government should reverse.”

American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris issued a statement saying, “When Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib announced their plans to visit, the Israeli government decided to allow them entry into the country, despite their unrelenting hostility toward the Jewish state and their active support for the BDS movement. This decision, which AJC supported, was made, above all, out of respect for the fact that both are members of the US Congress, and that Israel rightfully prides itself on being an open, democratic society.”

While asserting that it was clear the two congresswomen “were not coming to hear from various points of view, but rather to undermine the very legitimacy of the State of Israel,” Harris nevertheless said “out of two less-than-ideal options, neither of which was risk-free, Israel did not choose wisely by reversing its original decision.”

“While we fully respect Israel’s sovereign right to control entry into the country,” Harris added, “a right that every nation employs, and while we are under no illusions about the implacably hostile views of Reps. Omar and Tlaib on Israel-related issues, we nonetheless believe that the costs in the US of barring the entry of two members of Congress may prove even higher than the alternative.”

AIPAC, the leading American pro-Israel lobby, also expressed disapproval, saying, “We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib’s support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement, along with Rep. Tlaib’s calls for a one-state solution. We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.”

Significantly, reaction to the decision did not strictly follow party or broader political affiliations.

I disagree 100% with Reps. Tlaib & Omar on #Israel & am the author of the #AntiBDS bill we passed in the Senate But denying them entry into #Israel is a mistake,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) tweeted. “Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state.”

Contrastingly, liberal Israeli politician Einat Wilf praised the decision.

“Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have no good will towards Israel, or pro-Israel Jews,” she declared on Twitter. “They are on a long term mission to turn the US away from Israel. They are not coming with an open mind. There is no reason for Israel to allow them in and submit to their agenda.”

The former head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, came out against the decision, saying, “As difficult as the visit of the two congress members to Israel would be, Israel should permit it — because it is Israel, a democracy, a close ally of the USA and a country that values unity but also difference. I hope the Israeli government reconsiders again!”

Criticism also came from a prominent diplomat. Arthur Lenk, Israel’s former ambassador to South Africa tweeted, “Making visit of 2 junior congresswomen who represent a tiny % of Americans into a wedge issue is a crazy mistake.”

“Doing this would be sinking us deeper into US domestic political quagmire,” he asserted. “It would waste huge effort on 40+ democratic congressmen who just visited. It will anger a majority of American Jews – who mostly dislike these two congresswomen.”

In an apparent dig at Netanyahu, Lenk added, “Not action of a confident ‘World Leader.’”

Two US Democratic presidential candidates also weighed in on the negative side, with Elizabeth Warren saying, “Israel doesn’t advance its case as a tolerant democracy or unwavering US ally by barring elected members of Congress from visiting because of their political views. This would be a shameful, unprecedented move. I urge Israel’s government to allow @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib entry.”

Left-wing candidate Bernie Sanders also criticized Netanyahu’s decision, tweeting, “Banning Congresswomen Omar and Tlaib from entering Israel and Palestine is a sign of enormous disrespect to these elected leaders, to the United States Congress, and to the principles of democracy. The Israeli government should reverse this decision and allow them in.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the head of the House Judiciary Committee, also expressed strong disapproval, stating, “I strongly condemn this decision by the Israeli government, which undermines the ability for our two allied countries to have the frank, open and, at times, difficult discussions that we must have in order to ensure Israel remains a secure and democratic nation.”

Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-NY), the Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee and its Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, also weighed in, saying, “I am saddened by the Israeli government’s decision to bar two sitting Members of Congress from entering Israel.”

“Members of Congress frequently disagree on policy solutions, just as members of Israel’s Knesset do,” she added. “Democracies are marked by the ability to express opposing views. By blocking entry by these representatives, the Israeli government is missing an opportunity for engagement in dialogue with those they disagree with, instead empowering those who seek to create a wedge between our two countries.”

“This decision does nothing to further the U.S.-Israel relationship, and I urge the Prime Minister to reconsider,” she said.

Criticism also came from within Israel itself, with Yair Lapid, head of the major opposition party Blue and White, tweeting, “While these are two radical congresswomen, the decision not to allow them entry into Israel is contrary to our political interest.”

“As Netanyahu well knows, this is a major mistake that gives BDS a headwind and further harms our relationship with the Democratic party,” he added.

Israeli-Arab MK Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List Party, also attacked the decision, saying, “A state with nothing to hide would not consider limiting the movement of two congresswomen. Another desperate attempt to hide the reality from the world and especially from ourselves.”

Democratic Camp MK Stav Shaffir criticized Netanyahu directly, writing, “Israel with smart [foreign policy] would open its doors to Congresswomen who have positions we disagree with and make sure their visit shows them the complexity of the conflict. Bibi’s Israel slams the door shut and gives the BDS a gift which in return gives Bibi what he wants: fear+isolation.”

Support for the decision, however, came from Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks, who said in a statement, “Israel’s decision to deny entry to Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, while not easy or taken lightly, is the right decision.”

“This decision has nothing to do with American partisan politics,” he asserted. “In fact, 40 Democratic members of Congress were just welcomed enthusiastically in Israel for a trip led by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.”

“Rather, this decision is about Israel following Israeli law, and two freshman Democratic Members of Congress that choose to support BDS and traffic in antisemitism,” Brooks said. “

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