Israel grants Tlaib West Bank visit but she's not going

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — In what she called a "heart-wrenching decision," U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib said Friday she won't travel to visit her grandmother in the West Bank after all, rebuffing a decision by Israel to admit her on humanitarian grounds under certain restrictions. 

Israel on Thursday had initially denied entry to Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat, and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, citing their support for the movement to boycott, divest and impose sanctions on Israel.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, speaks at a town hall discussion on electric vehicles Thursday night in Plymouth.

The country's interior minister later granted a subsequent request by Tlaib to visit her 90-year-old grandmother on the condition that she promised not to promote boycotts against Israel during her time in the country. 

Tlaib had signed a letter to Israel's interior minister Thursday pledging she would respect any restrictions. By Friday, she had changed her mind. 

"The Israeli government used my love and desire to see my grandmother to silence me and made my ability to do so contingent upon my signing a letter — reflecting just how undemocratic and afraid they are of the truth my trip would reveal about what is happening in the State of Israel and to Palestinians living under occupation with United States support," Tlaib said in a Friday statement. 

“I have therefore decided to not travel to Palestine and Israel at this time. Visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions meant to humiliate me would break my grandmother's heart. 

"Silencing me with treatment to make me feel less-than is not what she wants for me — it would kill a piece of me that always stands up against racism and injustice."

The office of Israel's Interior Minister Aryeh Deri published Friday what it said was Tlaib’s written request, on congressional stationary, which Deri granted on humanitarian grounds. 

In the letter, Tlaib had said she would abide by any restrictions and “not promote boycotts” during her visit, noting this could be her last chance to see her aging grandmother.

Deri reacted on Twitter Friday to Tlaib's about-face: "I approved her request as a gesture of goodwill on a humanitarian basis, but it was just a provocative request, aimed at bashing the State of Israel. Apparently her hate for Israel overcomes her love for her grandmother."

On Thursday night, Tlaib had told reporters after a town hall in Metro Detroit that she still wanted to make an attempt to go and visit with her grandmother. 

“Her granddaughter is a United States congresswoman,” she said Thursday night. 

“She should be able to see me, to touch me, to hug me, so I am going to continue to fight back and demand that they provide access for me and any of my colleagues to come to Israel into the Palestinian areas and to be able to listen, to hear people.”

Israel's decision to admit Tlaib was another reversal concerning the highly anticipated, five-day West Bank tour by Tlaib and fellow Democrat Omar, which had been in the works for months.

Israel last month had said the congresswomen would be allowed to visit but then moved Thursday to block their entry, citing a 2017 law that bars entry to boycott advocates. 

That decision came after President Donald Trump said that it would show “great weakness” by Israel to allow in the pair, who have been sharply critical of him and of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

Trump and other Republicans have targeted Tlaib and Omar with repeated attacks in recent months, seeking to portray them as anti-Semitic, in part for their opposition to anti-boycott legislation.

In a series of Twitter posts Friday evening, Trump kept up his criticism of the Detroit congresswoman.

"Israel was very respectful & nice to Rep. Rashida Tlaib, allowing her permission to visit her 'grandmother,' the president tweeted. ”As soon as she was granted permission, she grandstanded & loudly proclaimed she would not visit Israel. Could this possibly have been a setup? Israel acted appropriately!"

Israel alleges that the boycott movement targets the nation's very existence, while the movement’s supporters say it is intended as leverage to end more than half a century of Israeli military rule over Palestinians.

In a series of tweets a month ago, Trump said the lawmakers should “go back” to the countries they came from. Both are U.S. citizens, and Tlaib was born in Detroit. 

Tlaib and Omar were expected to arrive in Israel this weekend with an itinerary to include stops in Jerusalem as well as the West Bank cities of Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah, according to a source familiar with the planning.

They were to be joined by Rep. Stacey Plaskett, the delegate to the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

The agenda did not include meetings with any Israeli officials — a point noted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as evidence that their "sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel’s legitimacy." 

Instead, the congresswomen had planned to meet with students, human rights activists, humanitarian aid workers and business owners and investors, in part to discern the impact of the Trump administration ending hundreds of millions worth of aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. 

In denying Tlaib and Omar's entry, Netanyahu had also criticized one of the sponsors of the trip, the group MIFTAH, as an "avid supporter of BDS, and among whose members are those who have expressed support for terrorism against Israel."

But Israel previously admitted delegations of members of Congress whose visits were sponsored by MIFTAH, including a trip that Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, and four other House members took in May 2016. 

As first reported by Politico, the trip was also sponsored by the American Global Institute, according to trip disclosures, which report the destination as "Palestine-Jerusalem, Ramallah." The lawmakers stayed in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah, according to Kildee's report. 

The lawmakers met with MIFTAH board members, Palestinian officials, toured Jerusalem and Hebron and met with its mayor. The congressmen were also supposed to visit Gaza but were denied access by the Israeli government at the checkpoint, a Kildee spokeswoman said Friday. 

Israel’s decision to ban Omar and Tlaib prompted widespread criticism Thursday, including from Israeli and Jewish organizations that said it was an affront to U.S. institutions to bar the entry of members of Congress.

Kildee was among those who condemned the decision, saying that banning members of Congress from Israel "hurts our alliance and runs contrary to our shared democratic values." 

Netanyahu defended the move in a statement, saying that said Israel is "open to critics and criticism," with the exception of supporters of the Israel boycott movement.

"I disagree 100% with Reps. Tlaib & Omar on #Israel & am the author of the #AntiBDS bill we passed in the Senate," Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted. 

"But denying them entry into #Israel is a mistake. Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state."

In regard to her decision Friday, Tlaib said that being "silent and not condemning the human rights violations of the Israeli government is a disservice to all who live there, including my incredibly strong and loving grandmother." 

“When I won the election to become a United States congresswoman, many Palestinians, especially my grandmother, felt a sense of hope, a hope that they would finally have a voice. I cannot allow the Israeli government to take that away from them or to use my deep desire to see my grandmother, potentially for the last time, as a political bargaining chip," Tlaib said.

"My family and I have cried together throughout this ordeal; they’ve promised to keep my grandmother alive until I can one day reunite with her. 

"It is with their strength and heart that I reiterate I am a duly elected United States Congresswoman and I will not allow the Israeli government to humiliate me and my family or take away our right to speak out. I will not allow the Israeli government to take away our hope."

Detroit News Staff Writer Kalea Hall and Associated Press contributed.