Israel’s decision on Thursday to block two American congresswomen from entering the country amid pressure from Donald Trump drew widespread criticism in Washington, with some Democrats warning the move threatened to erode US support for its longtime ally.
In an unprecedented chain of events, the Israeli government declared it would bar entry to representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, ahead of a planned visit to the West Bank. The move came just hours after Trump publicly urged Israel not to allow the two Democratic lawmakers into the country in a highly unusual effort to influence a foreign government against his political opponents.
Omar responded to Israel’s announcement by stating it was “an affront” for the country’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to acquiesce to pressure from Trump.
“Trump’s Muslim ban is what Israel is implementing, this time against two duly elected Members of Congress,” she said in a statement. “Denying entry into Israel not only limits our ability to learn from Israelis, but also the Palestinian territories.”
She added: “Sadly, this is not a surprise given the public positions of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has consistently resisted peace efforts, restricted the freedom of movement of Palestinians, limited public knowledge of the brutal realities of the occupation and aligned himself with Islamophobes like Donald Trump.”
Later Tlaib responded to Israel’s decision to block her trip there, saying it showed “weakness”.
Top Democrats in Washington swiftly condemned Israel’s actions while urging its government to change course.
“Denying entry to members of the United States Congress is a sign of weakness, not strength,” the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, a staunch supporter of Israel, said in a statement. “It will only hurt the US-Israeli relationship and support for Israel in America.”
“No democratic society should fear an open debate,” he added. “Many strong supporters of Israel will be deeply disappointed in this decision, which the Israeli government should reverse.”
The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said 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 in a statement. “I pray that the government of Israel will reverse that denial.”
She also criticized Trump’s interference in the process, stating: “The president’s statements about the congresswomen are a sign of ignorance and disrespect, and beneath the dignity of the office of the president.”
Several 2020 Democratic presidential contenders also lambasted the decision to deny entry to Omar and Tlaib, which the Israeli government largely attributed to the two freshmen lawmakers’ support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.
“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 Vermont senator Bernie Sanders tweeted.
He added: “It is disgusting that a bigot like Trump is attacking @RashidaTlaib and @IlhanMN in this way. Opposing Netanyahu’s policies is not ‘hating the Jewish people.’ We must stand together against those who promote hatred and racism in Israel, Palestine, the US and everywhere.”
The Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren decried the move as “shameful” and “unprecedented”.
“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,” she said.
Netanyahu defended his government’s rationale, claiming the sole purpose of Tlaib’s and Omar’s visit was “to damage Israel and to foment against Israel”.
“There is no country in the world that respects the US and the American Congress more than Israel,” the prime minister said in a statement.
Netanyahu added that his government would consider allowing Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, to visit family members in the occupied West Bank if she submitted a request on humanitarian grounds.
But even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, arguably the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, criticized the decision.
“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,” the group wrote on its Twitter account. “We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.”
J Street, a lobbying group that has positioned itself as a more liberal voice for the Washington-based Jewish community, said Israel’s move was “dangerous, unacceptable and wrong”.
“We may disagree with the views that the members hold on such questions as BDS or with Rep Tlaib on the two-state solution, but the right approach for a state that values democracy is to welcome criticism and debate, not to shut it down,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president, in a statement.
“The fact that President Trump has already tweeted out his own call for these representatives to be denied entry illustrates that this decision is motivated purely by politics and ideology – not by the interests of the State of Israel,” he added.
“It is an affront to Congress and the American people and does severe damage to the US-Israel relationship – and it must be reversed immediately.”
Just last month Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the US, said the two congresswomen would be permitted to visit Israel “out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America”. Reports surfaced last week that Trump was encouraging Netanyahu to deny entry to Omar and Tlaib, privately telling advisers that if the two Democrats were in favor of boycotting Israel “then Israel should boycott them”.
Trump ratcheted up the pressure in a tweet Thursday morning, stating: “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,” the president wrote.
After Israel made its decision public, Trump went after the congresswomen once again, tweeting: “Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!”
Trump has made a series of incendiary attacks on Omar and Tlaib, both of whom are outspoken critics of his administration and of the Israeli government.
Last month, the president invited an avalanche of criticism for suggesting that Omar, Tlaib and two other congresswomen of color – the representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley – should “go back” to where they “came from”. The four progressive lawmakers, commonly known on Capitol Hill as the Squad, are all US citizens.
Although Trump’s tweets were widely denounced as racist, the president refused to back down and went onto single out the quartet at a campaign rally. Trump’s mention of Omar, who came to the US at a young age as a Somali refugee, drew highly controversial chants of “send her back” from his supporters.
Tlaib and Omar were poised to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Hebron and had planned to meet with both Israeli and Palestinian peace activists and human rights organizations. They did not have any scheduled events with Israeli officials.