Bowing to pressure from President Donald Trump, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced on Thursday that Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar would be barred entry to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinian territories that the Muslim-American lawmakers planned to visit this weekend.
The decision to bar the Democrats, who have been outspoken in calling for an end to the occupation, was quickly condemned by the two most progressive contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
“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,” Warren wrote on Thursday morning, before the ban was confirmed. “This would be a shameful, unprecedented move.”
“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,” Sanders wrote 30 minutes later, when the news became official. “The Israeli government should reverse this decision and allow them in.”
Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, then added that Trump and Netanyahu were “afraid” of letting Tlaib and Omar “witness first-hand the brutality & dehumanization Israel’s occupation inflicts on the Palestinian people.” McCollum, who introduced legislation in May to ban Israel from using U.S. military aid to detain, interrogate, or torture Palestinian children, added that “This bigoted president is working to extend his Muslim travel ban to Members of Congress.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi waited nearly three hours after Warren’s tweet to add her condemnation. “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 that focused more on Trump than Netanyahu. “The President’s statements about the Congresswomen are a sign of ignorance and disrespect, and beneath the dignity of the Office of the President,” she added.
“I don’t believe any nation should deny entry to elected Members of Congress, period,” Kamala Harris wrote at about the same time on Thursday afternoon. “It’s an affront to the United States. Open and engaged foreign relations are critical to advancing U.S. interests. Trump is playing politics as he weakens our global leadership.”
Later still on Thursday, after even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had condemned the decision, Joe Biden, the former vice president who is the leading moderate in Democratic presidential field, finally weighed in. “I have always been a stalwart supporter of Israel — a vital partner that shares our democratic values,” Biden tweeted. “No democracy should deny entry to visitors based on the content of their ideas — even ideas they strongly object to. And no leader of the free world should encourage them to do so.”
As the statements rolled in throughout the morning and afternoon, Daniel Seidemann, the director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, noted that Democrats appeared more willing to criticize Trump than Netanyahu. The words of Democrats and American Jewish groups should be studied carefully to detect “the relative integrity vs. spinelessness” of those offering them, Seidemann suggested.
“Do you mention Netanyahu and Israel by name, or only Trump?” Seidemann asked. “Do you cover ass by emphasizing how much you disagree with Omar and Tlaib? Do you say this is really bad because it tarnishes Israel’s otherwise sterling image? Do you find awkward opportunities to use profusive adjectives for Israel (our great ally)? The tone used to condemn Trump and Netanyahu should not diverge.”
Reports from Israel suggested that the decision was an abrupt reversal, taken only after the U.S. president had pushed the Israeli leader into a corner by writing on Twitter on Thursday morning, “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit.”
Last month, Israel’s American-born ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, a former Netanyahu aide, said that “out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel.”
In a statement issued shortly after Pelosi condemned the about-face, Omar called Netanyahu’s decision, made “under pressure from President Trump,” an affront.
Tlaib tweeted a photograph of her grandmother, who lives in the occupied West Bank, and called the decision “a sign of weakness [because] the truth of what is happening to Palestinians is frightening.”
This woman right here is my sity. She deserves to live in peace & with human dignity. I am who I am because of her. 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. pic.twitter.com/GGcFLiH9N3— Rashida Tlaib (@RashidaTlaib) August 15, 2019
The lawmaker also expressed her disappointment that she would not be able to tour the West Bank city of Hebron with Avner Gvaryahu, a former Israeli soldier who leads the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence.
.@AGvaryahu I was looking forward to it & can't thank you enough for being on the right side of history. As an American who grew up embracing justice & equality, I appreciate your courage & hope that one day my Congressional colleagues are given the opportunity to hear you. https://t.co/wbboQEUHge— Rashida Tlaib (@RashidaTlaib) August 15, 2019
Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress, conceived of the trip late last year as an alternative to a junket to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby group — a decades-old tradition for newly elected members of Congress.
Since then, she and Omar have been regularly slandered as anti-Semites by supporters of Israel in both the Republican and Democratic parties for their criticism of Israel’s far-right government and their support for the Palestinian-led movement to use boycotts, divestment, and sanctions to press Israel to end the occupation and annexation of Palestinian land.
At rallies and in tweets, Trump has been seeking to demonize the two members of Congress, who are outspoken critics of his administration and of the Israeli occupation, both to fuel his nativist campaign against immigration — Omar is a refugee from Somalia and Tlaib is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants — and to deepen divisions between progressive and moderate Democrats over unconditional American support for Israel.
In his first tweet on Thursday, the U.S. president repeated the false slur that the two lawmakers “hate Israel & all Jewish people.”
Two hours later, Trump made the primarily political nature of his attack even more transparent, by tweeting, “Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!”
Sanders, the only Jewish American among the leading presidential contenders, responded forcefully to Trump’s attempt to smear his colleagues. “It is disgusting that a bigot like Trump is attacking @RashidaTlaib and @IlhanMN in this way,” he tweeted back. “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 U.S. and everywhere.”
Sanders expanded on that defense in a video message recorded later in the day, in which he rejected attempts by Netanyahu and Trump to accuse critics of Israel’s far-right policies of anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism is not some abstract idea to me. It is very personal. It destroyed a good part of my family,” Sanders said. “I am vigorously opposed to the reactionary, racist and authoritarian policies of Donald Trump. That does not make me anti-American. And I am not anti-Israel because I oppose Netanyahu’s policies.”
If Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s government “doesn’t want members of the United States Congress to visit their country to get a first-hand look at what’s going on,” Bernie Sanders told MSNBC Thursday night, “maybe he can respectfully decline the billions of dollars that we give to Israel.”
WATCH: Bernie Sanders on Israel’s decision to deny entrance to two elected U.S. officials: “If Israel doesn’t want members of the United States Congress to visit their country…maybe they can respectfully decline the billions of dollars that we give to Israel.” #inners pic.twitter.com/m48djEhZjU— All In w/Chris Hayes (@allinwithchris) August 16, 2019
Trump’s public intervention on Thursday morning was reportedly prompted by private frustration that Israeli officials were planning to permit the visit, despite a law barring supporters of the BDS movement from entering Israel or the Israeli-controlled territories.
Barak Ravid of Israel’s Channel 13 reported for Axios that Netanyahu had been looking for a way to “address the pressure from the White House” without totally barring Omar and Tlaib. As Ravid noted after Netanyahu caved to that pressure, the idea that the visit had been blocked at the last moment because the two members of Congress support the boycott movement made little sense, since their positions were well known months ago.
I want to tell you a secret: A month ago when Netanyahu decided to allow Omar and Tlaib into the country they alreadty supported BDS and he knew it back then. There is only one reason for Netanyahu's backtracking today - the pressure from Donald Trump— Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) August 15, 2019
Netanyahu, who is boasting of his close alliance with Trump on billboards ahead of Israeli elections next month, made no mention of the U.S. president in a statement justifying the decision to block two sitting members of Congress from visiting the nation that is the largest recipient of U.S. aid.
“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,” Netanyahu wrote. “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.”
The two lawmakers had planned to visit the West Bank cities of Hebron, Ramallah, and Bethlehem, as well as the Al Aqsa Mosque in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, on a tour sponsored by Miftah, a Palestinian rights group led by the veteran Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi.
According to Netanyahu, that itinerary “reveals that the sole purpose of their visit is to harm Israel and increase incitement against it.”
In what looked more like political trolling than a serious offer, Netanyahu finished his statement by suggesting that Tlaib, whose maternal grandmother lives in the occupied West Bank, could be permitted to visit her family there, if she first agrees to surrender her right to free speech while in Israeli-controlled territory. If Tlaib “submits a humanitarian request to visit her relatives,” Netanyahu wrote, “the minister of interior has announced that he will consider her request on the condition that she pledges not to act to promote boycotts against Israel during her visit.”
Israel's "exemption" for @RashidaTlaib doesn't convey generosity, it only highlights a disconcerting reality where an American lawmaker must restrict her free speech in order to be allowed to visit her family in lands unlawfully controlled by Israel. #FreePalestine— Omar Baddar (@OmarBaddar) August 16, 2019
Late on Thursday, Tlaib did request permission to visit her grandmother in a letter to Israel’s interior minister in which she promised to “respect any restrictions” and pledged not to “promote boycotts against Israel during my visit.” That letter prompted a wave of criticism from Palestinian activists, who argued that she would set back their struggle against the occupation by forfeiting her right to free speech.
What is truly upsetting is that @RashidaTlaib fell in this trap and accepted to demean herself and grovel. Israel is the oppressor and its racist attitude towards Palestinians is established policy. Rashida should have known better. She should have acted with more dignity & pride https://t.co/ahAJ0s9Vg9— Nour Odeh (@nour_odeh) August 16, 2019
On Friday, Tlaib reversed herself, rejecting the offer and cancelling her trip.
Silencing me & treating me like a criminal is not what she wants for me. It would kill a piece of me. I have decided that visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions stands against everything I believe in--fighting against racism, oppression & injustice. https://t.co/z5t5j3qk4H— Rashida Tlaib (@RashidaTlaib) August 16, 2019
On Thursday, Miftah called the decision to block the visit “an affront to the American people and their representatives” and “an assault on the Palestinian people’s right to reach out to decision-makers.” The Palestinian organization also noted that Israel had just welcomed dozens of American lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, on a tour organized by AIPAC.
Netanyahu’s decision to side with Trump was deplored by Palestinian-Americans and seen as shortsighted by some supporters of Israel, who noted that nearly three-quarters of Jewish Americans are Democrats and the Democratic Party could soon be back in control of the White House as well as Congress.
“What should not get lost in this story is the degree to which Israel controls Palestinian lives,” the Palestinian-American lawyer Huwaida Arraf observed. “Palestinians cannot travel anywhere without Israel’s permission and no one, not even members of the U.S. Congress, can visit Palestinians without Israel’s permission.”
Last Updated: Friday, Aug. 16, 4:46 p.m. EDT
This article was updated with a new headline, revised chronology and the addition of a video message from Sen. Bernie Sanders, in which he rebutted Donald Trump’s claim that Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are anti-Semites for criticizing Israel’s ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories it seized in 1967. It was later updated to report Tlaib’s decision to cancel her trip.