Israel bars entry to US congresswomen, risks showdown with Democrats

“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit,” - Trump wrote on Twitter.
Saturday 17/08/2019
US Representative Ilhan Omar (R) speaks as US Representative Rashida Tlaib listens during a news conference at the US Capitol in Washington, last July.  (AP)
Unprecedented. US Representative Ilhan Omar (R) speaks as US Representative Rashida Tlaib listens during a news conference at the US Capitol in Washington, last July. (AP)

LONDON/WASHINGTON - After announcing its decision to bar two outspoken US Muslim congresswomen from visiting the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel seemed to be heading towards a confrontation with US Democratic lawmakers a month before Israeli elections.

Experts saw the move to bar US Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from entering Israel as unprecedented and as marking a deep foray by Israel into the United States’ bitterly polarised politics.

Analysts said US President Donald Trump was appealing to his base of conservative voters with staunchly pro-Israel stances. Trump’s aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press: “Trump is banking that his loud support for Israel will attract more Jewish and evangelical Christian supporters.”

The move was also a sharp escalation of Israel’s campaign against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its supporters on the American left.

Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri issued a statement August 15 saying that, after consultations with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials, he decided not to allow Tlaib and Omar to enter because of “their boycott activities against Israel.”

Also unprecedented was the call by Trump on Israeli leaders to bar the two Democratic congresswomen from entering the country. “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

“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 two Muslim members of Congress, elected in 2018, are outspoken critics of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. They have been at the centre of a US debate fuelled in July when Trump called on four progressive congresswomen, including Tlaib and Omar, to “go back” to the countries they came from instead of “loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States” how to run the government.

Both are US citizens. Tlaib was born in the United States after her family immigrated from the West Bank. Omar, a native of Somalia, has lived all her adult life in Minnesota.

The two are members of the so-called “Squad” left-wing Democrats, along with Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.

In a statement August 15, Omar said: “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.”

American Jewish organisations had objected to barring the two Democrats from entering Israel. David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, expressed the belief that “the costs in the US of barring the entry of two members of Congress may prove even higher than the alternative.”

Politicians and former diplomats also spoke out against barring the congresswomen from visiting.

Former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro wrote on Twitter that the decision to bar their entry “harms Israel’s standing in the US, boosts BDS.”

Israeli lawmaker Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of Arab parties, wrote that “Israel has always banned Palestinians from their land and separated us from other Palestinians but this time the Palestinian is a US congresswoman.”

Israel has sought to combat the BDS movement, which advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israeli businesses, universities and cultural institutions. The country passed a law permitting a ban on entry to activists who “knowingly issue a call for boycotting Israel.”

Israeli leaders seemed aware of the possible repercussions of their decision on their relations with the US Congress and quickly engaged in damage control. Deri, in a statement, said: “The state of Israel respects the American Congress, in the framework of the close alliance between the two countries, but it’s unacceptable to allow the entrance to the country of those who wish to harm the state of Israel, especially during their visit.”

Arthur Lenk, a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, said barring Omar and Tlaib “would be sinking us deeper into US domestic political quagmire.”

Israel often hosts delegations of US representatives and senators, who usually meet with senior Israeli officials as well as Palestinian officials in the occupied West Bank.

MIFTAH, the Palestinian organisation that was to host Tlaib and Omar in the West Bank, issued a statement saying that Israel’s decision was “an affront to the American people and their representatives” and “an assault on the Palestinian people’s right to reach out to decision-makers and other actors from around the world.”

The decision to bar the congresswomen could sharpen divisions among US Democrats over Israel ahead of the 2020 elections.

US Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate and stalwart defender of Israel in Congress, described Israel’s decision as “a sign of weakness, not strength.”

“No democratic society should fear an open debate,” he posted on Twitter. “Many strong supporters of Israel will be deeply disappointed in this decision, which the Israeli government should reverse.”

Republicans have amplified the views of left-wing Democrats to present the party as deeply divided and at odds with Israel. Democratic leaders reiterated the party’s strong support for Israel, in part to protect representatives from more conservative districts.

In July, the Democratic-led House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution against the BDS movement.