Israeli officials have vigorously defended the decision to ban two pro-BDS congresswomen from entering the country, which triggered an outpouring of condemnation from Democratic leaders and left-wing Jewish groups in the United States, as well as Arabs and leftists in Israel.
Answering charges that Rep. Ilan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaid should be allowed to visit Israel because of their status as members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said:
“There is no country on Earth that respects America and the American Congress more than the state of Israel. Israel is open to all critics and any criticism, with one exception: the law in Israel that prohibits entry to people calling and advocating for boycotting the country, just like in other democracies that bar entry to those who they believe will do harm to their nation,” he said in a statement.
“Several days ago, we received [Omar and Tlaib’s] trip itinerary,” Netanyahu’s statement continued, “which clarified that they planned a visit whose sole purpose was to support boycotts and deny Israel’s legitimacy. For example, they called their destination ‘Palestine’ and not ‘Israel,’ and unlike all Democratic and Republican members of Congress before them, they did not seek any meeting with any Israeli official, whether government or opposition.”
Interior Minister Rabbi Aryeh Deri, whose office is directly responsible for issuing entry permits to visitors from abroad, issued a statement saying the decision was supported by Netanyahu, and was made in consultation with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.
“The state of Israel respects the American Congress as part of the close alliance between the two countries. But it is inconceivable that Israel would be expected to let into the country those who wish to hurt it, including by means of the visit itself,” the statement said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely had earlier confirmed the decision on Army Radio, saying “We won’t allow those who deny our right to exist in this world to enter Israel.”
Hotovely defended it as “a just, ethical, and important decision.”
“Whoever sees this visit as a journey to occupied Palestine and its whole purpose is to provoke provocations cannot enter Israel. The United States would also not allow anyone who acts against it publicly and demonstratively, to enter,” she said.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, in a letter voicing support for Israel’s decision, noted that initially Israel had intended to allow Tlaib and Omar into the country. It was seen as an opportunity for them to learn firsthand of the reality of religious tolerance and robust democracy in the country.
But unlike the bipartisan congressional delegation currently visiting, who held meetings with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Tlaib-Omar trip was being organized by “the most strident BDS activists, indicating that the trip is “nothing more than to fuel the BDS engine that they so vigorously support.”
Meanwhile, in the U.S., presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren denounced the ban in ferocious language shortly after the announcement was made on Thursday:
“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. This would be a shameful, unprecedented move. I urge Israel’s government to allow Rep. Ilan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaid entry.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer characterized Israel’s decision as a “sign of weakness, not strength,” and warned that “it will only hurt the U.S.-Israel relationship and support for Israel in America.”
In an unusual expression of criticism of Israel, AIPAC disagreed with the decision:
“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. We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand,” they said according to AFP.
J Street asserted: “As sitting Members of Congress representing hundreds of thousands of Americans in their districts, Reps. Omar and Tlaib have the same right as every one of their colleagues to visit Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.
“We may disagree with the views that the Members hold on such questions as BDS or with Rep. Tlaib on the two-state solution, but the right approach for a state that values democracy is to welcome criticism and debate, not to shut it down.”
It also slammed the President Donald Trump for backing the ban: “The fact that President Trump has already tweeted out his own call for these representatives to be denied entry illustrates that this decision is motivated purely by politics and ideology – not by the interests of the State of Israel. It is an affront to Congress and the American people and does severe damage to the US-Israel relationship – and it must be reversed immediately,” it said in a statement.
The Jewish Democratic Council of America said: “As strong supporters of Israel and of the U.S.-Israel relationship, we urge the government of Israel to reject President Trump’s unprecedented and ill-advised recommendation to deny Congresswomen Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) entry into Israel.”
Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) called it “utterly egregious for the Israeli government to deny entry to two sitting members of the United States Congress. The close relationship enjoyed by the United States and Israel should extend to all its government representatives, regardless of their views on specific issues or policies. This decision undermines the ability for our two allied countries to have the frank, open and, at times, difficult discussions that we must have in order to ensure Israel remains a secure and democratic nation.”
In Israel, the leaders of Labor, Meretz and the Joint (Arab) list joined the chorus of condemnation.
MK Tamar Zandberg of the left-wing Democratic Camp party called the move “both fundamentally wrong and diplomatically foolish.”
“A democratic country can’t deny entry to elected officials of a friendly democracy, let alone the immense damage already caused — not only image-wise, but also to the important relations with the Democratic Party,” Zandberg said in a statement.
Democratic Camp chair Nitzan Horowitz called the reported decision a “grave mistake.”
The leftist New Israel Fund issued a statement saying the decision was “irresponsible and demonstrates the deterioration of strategic relations between Israel and the US during the Netanyahu-Trump’s tenure. The two have transformed the long-standing relationship between Israel and the US, which has been supported by both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party based on narrow political interests that amount to pictures in election campaigns, “they said.