Trump fans flames behind Israel’s decision to bar visit by two Muslim House Democrats

By Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver  

President Trump successfully lobbied Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bar entry to two freshman members of Congress who planned to visit Israel next week to lodge complaints about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

The president’s unprecedented involvement and Netanyahu’s assent on Thursday to initially deny entry to two Democrats, Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, ignited another round of partisan tension in Washington and renewed debate on the world stage about what the president and the prime minister are trying to accomplish.

The Israelis backed off in part early this morning, allowing Tlaib to enter the Israeli-occupied West Bank on humanitarian grounds to see her 90-year-old grandmother in the region. Minister Aryeh Deri published a letter from Tlaib, saying she would respect any restrictions and would “not promote boycotts” during her visit. However, she is still not allowed to make the official visit as initially planned, and Omar remains barred from entering the region.

Trump — who campaigned Thursday in New Hampshire and mentioned Omar once in passing during his 95-minute rally — has tried to divide the Democratic caucus by branding Omar and Tlaib, both women of color and both Muslim, as far-left House extremists. “Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!” he tweeted. Both lawmakers are critics of the president and Netanyahu, support Palestinian rights and have backed the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel (The Hill).

“I can’t imagine why Israel would let them in. But if they want to let them in, they can,” the president told reporters before his rally began in New Hampshire.

The Washington Post: Governing by grievance, Trump wields official powers against political enemies.

Netanyahu, for his part, said he is complying with a law adopted in his country in 2017 that bars entry to foreign supporters of the global movement to boycott Israel (The New York Times). The prime minister also faces a critical election a month from now.

“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit,” Trump tweeted. “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!”

Netanyahu, in a statement, defended his blockade against Omar and Tlaib. “The two-member congressional visitation plan shows that their intent is to hurt Israel and increase its unrest against it.”

Tlaib, whose megaphone grew on Thursday as a result of the controversy, tweeted a photograph of her smiling Palestinian grandmother. “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,” she wrote.

Omar tweeted that as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, oversight of U.S. foreign aid and support for human rights are part of her job, woven into the trip she and Tlaib planned to make. Trump, she continued, exported his Muslim ban to Netanyahu, and the prime minister “has consistently resisted peace efforts, restricted the freedom of movement of Palestinians, public knowledge of the brutal realities of the occupation and aligned himself with Islamophobes like Donald Trump.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), one of a House foursome that includes Omar and Tlaib and is nicknamed “the squad,” tore into Netanyahu with the suggestion that unless all U.S. lawmakers are welcome in Israel, none should travel there (The Hill).

Democratic leaders and a few Republicans in Congress, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), protested on Thursday that treating elected members of Congress as threats to an ally because of their beliefs was a regrettable mistake between two stalwart democracies (The Hill).

Lawmakers running for president, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), also assailed Trump and said Israel should admit the lawmakers.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement that “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.”

Collins argued that if Trump had stayed out of the controversy and Israel had welcomed the two congresswomen next week for their planned itinerary, it would have sent a powerful message.

“Israel should allow U.S. Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar to visit. The Trump Administration made a mistake in urging Israel to prevent them from entering the country,” she tweeted. “Instead, the Administration should have encouraged Israel to welcome the visit as an opportunity for Reps. Tlaib, and Omar to learn from the Israeli people. We have to be willing to talk if we want people to change their views.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) noted that a bipartisan group of lawmakers traveled to Israel a few weeks ago, and he suggested Tlaib and Omar passed up an opportunity to join that group.

A record 70+ members of Congress—Reps and Dems—came to Israel this month with open minds, open eyes, and open ears. It’s unfortunate that a few freshmen members declined to join this opportunity to hear from all sides. They should have come,” he tweeted.

Perspectives & analysis:

The New York Times Editorial Board: What are Trump and Netanyahu afraid of?

The Washington Post Editorial Board: Barring Omar and Tlaib from Israel is un-Israeli. Trump’s cheering for it is un-American.

Jonathan Allen: Netanyahu takes a big loss for Trump’s little win against ‘the squad.’

Aaron Blake: Did Trump and Israel get played by Omar and Tlaib? Some conservatives think so.

Matthew Lee and Zeke Miller, The Associated Press: Trump uses Israel to fuel partisan fires.

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