Israel will block Tlaib, Omar from visiting country

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Israel said Thursday it would bar U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from the country ahead of their planned trip next week to the Palestinian territories, reversing a previous decision.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is "open to critics and criticism," with the exception of supporters of the Israel boycott movement.

Netanyahu said in a statement that a review of the itinerary for the congresswomen's trip "revealed that they planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel’s legitimacy." 

He noted that Tlaib and Omar — the first Muslim women elected to Congress — had not requested to meet with any Israeli officials.

"The itinerary of the two congresswomen reveals that the sole purpose of their visit is to harm Israel and increase incitement against it."

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, at President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech.

Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, responded Thursday by tweeting a photo of her grandmother, who lives in a small farming village in the West Bank. 

"This woman right here is my sity. She deserves to live in peace & with human dignity. I am who I am because of her," Tlaib wrote.

"The decision by Israel to bar her granddaughter, a U.S. Congresswoman, is a sign of weakness b/c the truth of what is happening to Palestinians is frightening."

Omar, who represents Minnesota in Congress, said Israel’s move to keep her and Tlaib from visiting is “an insult to democratic values.”

"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," Omar said. 

Israel's decision came shortly after President Trump had openly urged Israel to block the congresswomen from entering. 

Trump, who has sparred in the press with Tlaib and Omar in recent weeks, tweeted Thursday morning that it would show "great weakness" on Israel's part if it allowed in the lawmakers. 

"They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds," Trump wrote. "Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!"

Trump wouldn't say Thursday evening whether he spoke to Netanyahu about Tlaib and Omar, "but I did speak to people over there," he said on his way to a campaign rally in New Hampshire.

"What they've said is disgraceful, so I can’t imagine why Israel would let them in, but if they want to let them in, they can," Trump said. "I don't encourage or discourage (Israel). ... I really believe that it would be a terrible thing for Israel. I think it would show a terrible sign."

Both Omar and Detroit's Tlaib have criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and support the movement to boycott, divest and impose sanctions against Israel. 

Israel in 2017 passed a law allowing the government to deny entry to boycott advocates.

Tlaib and Omar were expected to arrive in Israel this weekend for a five-day trip that would have included 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 five-day journey wouldn't have included meetings with government officials but instead with students, human rights activists, humanitarian aid workers and business owners and investors. 

Tlaib said Thursday she wanted to visit her grandmother but also hear directly from Israelis and Palestinians “about their struggles and the fact that we haven’t been able to have peace in the region.”

Tlaib said she wants to still make an attempt to go and visit with her grandmother, who is in her 90s.

“Her granddaughter is a United States congresswoman,” she said after a Thursday town hall in Canton.

“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.”

Netanyahu said in his statement that if Tlaib submitted a "humanitarian" request to visit her relatives in the West Bank, the minister of interior would consider it "on the condition that she pledges not to act to promote boycotts against Israel during her visit."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who had pressed the Israeli government to allow Tlaib and Omar to enter the country, said Thursday discussions were underway to ensure that Tlaib would at least be able see her family.

Hoyer also urged Netanyahu to reconsider blocking the full trip, calling the decision "wrong," "unwarranted and self-destructive."

His efforts included speaking directly on Wednesday to Netanyahu and Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, who said last month ​that no member of Congress would be denied entry to Israel.

“The decision of the Israeli government to deny entry to Israel by two members of Congress is outrageous, regardless of their itinerary or their views," the Maryland Democrat said in a statement.

"This action reflects weakness, not strength. Instead, the Israeli government should seek to engage these members of Congress in a dialogue regarding Israel’s security and the future of both Israelis and Palestinians."

"When members of Congress visit Israel, they gain a stronger appreciation for its unique challenges and the existential threats that endanger Israel’s survival as a Jewish, democratic state," he added. 

Israel often hosts delegations of members of Congress, who typically meet with Israeli officials as well as Palestinian officials in the West Bank.

Tlaib's planned trip was to follow on the heels of just such a visit to Israel by 70 members of Congress as part of the annual delegation sponsored by the pro-Israel group AIPAC’s educational arm. 

Neither Tlaib nor Omar went on the AIPAC trip, but they should have, said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California. 

"They should’ve come together where they can have a meeting with Israel, with the Palestinian Authority, with those who were running against Netanyahu at the same time," McCarthy told Fox News on Wednesday. 

"As long as you come with an open mind, open eyes and open ears, I think you have a responsibility to come here to have an understanding."

AIPAC joined a number of other American Jewish groups saying Thursday that Tlaib and Omar should be allowed entry into Israel. 

"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," AIPAC said in a statement.

"We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand."

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 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. 

"The fact that they are Muslim women has zero to do with this," said Rep. Liz Cheney, who chairs the House Republican Conference. "The issue is their vile anti-Semitism and support of a movement dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel."

Several of Tlaib and Omar's other colleagues, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, condemned the decision to bar the congresswomen from Israel. 

“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," said Pelosi, calling the decision "deeply disappointing."

"The president’s statements about the congresswomen are a sign of ignorance and disrespect, and beneath the dignity of the Office of the President."

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, said Israel's was a "completely misguided decision that reeks of political motivation." He said Israel should reject Trump's "bigoted, wedge-driving political tactics."

"This decision pulls at the seams of our two countries’ important relationship and endangers Israel by attempting to politicize American support for the country," said Levin, who is Jewish and sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, chairman of the Foreign Affairs panel, said he told Dermer on Wednesday it was "a mistake" to block members of Congress from visiting Israel.

He suggested the decision would further politicize support for Israel in the U.S. and strengthen anti-Israel movements and arguments that "many of us find so troubling."

“It won’t surprise anybody that I have disagreements with Reps. Omar and Tlaib when it comes to Israel. I probably wouldn’t have planned the same trip they did," said Engel, a New York Democrat.

"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."

Rep. Justin Amash, an independent representing the Grand Rapids area, said 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," tweeted Amash, whose parents are from Palestine and Syria.

"We must find ways to come together; there’s enough division."

David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group, said Israel "did not choose wisely" in refusing entry to the congresswomen, but that their exclusion of "any Israeli perspectives whatsoever" suggests the trip was a "propaganda exercise" rather than a fact-finding mission. 

"They went so far as to call the trip a 'Delegation to Palestine,' making it clear that they were not coming to hear from various points of view, but rather to undermine the very legitimacy of the State of Israel," Harris said in a statement. 

"While we fully respect Israel’s sovereign right to control entry into the country, 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 U.S. of barring the entry of two members of Congress may prove even higher than the alternative."

One of the trip's sponsors, the Palestinian Initiative for Global Dialogue and Democracy known as MIFTAH, defended the congresswomen's agenda.

The group said Thursday it had organized a "well-rounded visit" for Tlaib and Omar "to facilitate their engagement with Palestinian civil society" and provide an opportunity to witness "the reality of occupation."

"Like all prolific human rights abusers, Israel wants to impose a blackout on the reality in occupied Palestine and prevent Congresswomen Tlaib, Omar from having direct contact with the Palestinian people, who are subject to Israel’s cruel regime of colonization, oppression and land grab," MIFTAH's board of directors said in a statement.

"This ban is a clear case of discrimination and hostility based on political views and ethnic background, deserving of moral indignation and unequivocal condemnation in Palestine and the United States."

Organizers of the trip were still waiting Thursday on the required approval of the House Ethics Committee. 

Under House rules, the lawmakers needed the go-ahead of the committee because the journey is privately funded. In addition to MIFTAH, the other sponsor was the Forum for Cultural Engagement.

Associated Press contributed.