Israel said Thursday it will bar two Democratic congresswomen from the country ahead over their support for a Palestinian-led boycott movement after President Donald Trump tweeted it would “show great weakness” to allow them in.
The move to bar Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota appeared to be unprecedented. It marked a deep foray by Israel into polarized U.S. politics and an escalation of Israel’s campaign against the boycott movement. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine joined a small group of Republicans to criticize Trump over his urging, calling it “a mistake.”
The two newly elected Muslim members of Congress are outspoken critics of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and have repeatedly sparred with Trump over a range of issues. Tlaib’s family immigrated to the United States from the West Bank, where she still has close relatives.
They had planned to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank on a tour organized by a Palestinian organization aimed at highlighting the plight of the Palestinians. It was not immediately clear if they had planned to meet with Israeli officials, and spokespeople for the two congresswomen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is “open to critics and criticism,” except for those who advocate boycotts against it, saying Tlaib and Omar “are leading activists in promoting the legislation of boycotts against Israel” in Congress.
Omar denounced the decision as “an affront” and “an insult to democratic values,” and said Netanyahu 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.”
Shortly before the decision was announced, Trump had tweeted that “it would show great weakness” if Israel allowed them to visit. “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.” He went on to call the two congresswomen “a disgrace.”
The U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, endorsed the decision after it was made, saying Israel “has every right to protect its borders” against promoters of boycotts “in the same manner as it would bar entrants with more conventional weapons.”
Collins, who is running for re-election in 2020, said on Twitter the Trump administration “made a mistake in urging Israel to prevent them from entering the country” and it should have been treated as an opportunity for the congresswomen to “learn from the Israeli people.”
“We have to be willing to talk if we want people to change their views,” Collins tweeted.
In July, Trump tweeted that Omar, Tlaib and two other progressive congresswomen should “go back” to their countries, though only one — Omar — was born abroad. Collins hit both the “far-left” congresswomen and Trump in a statement then, calling his rhetoric “over the line.”
“We have to be willing to talk if we want people to change their views,” Collins said.
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 any activist who “knowingly issues a call for boycotting Israel.”
Trump’s decision to urge a foreign country to deny entry to elected U.S. officials was a striking departure from the long-held practice of politicians from both parties of leaving their disputes at the water’s edge. The move could further sharpen divisions among Democrats over Israel ahead of the 2020 elections.
Republicans have amplified the views of left-wing Democrats like Tlaib and Omar to present the party as deeply divided and at odds with Israel. Democratic leaders have pushed back, reiterating the party’s strong support for Israel, in part to protect representatives from more conservative districts.
Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. Congress denounced Israel’s decision. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said it was a sign of weakness instead of strength and “will only hurt the U.S.-Israeli relationship and support for Israel in America.”
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.