Israel says it will bar pair of U.S. congresswomen from entering country

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday that barring a visit by U.S. Democratic congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar was meant to prevent them harming Israel, a decision that will please President Donald Trump, who renewed his criticism of the pair.

Ilhan Omar, who has voiced support for pro-Palestinian BDS movement, calls move 'a chilling response'

Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and her Democratic colleague Rashida Tlaib of Michigan were expected to tour Israel this month. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday that barring a visit by U.S. Democratic congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar was meant to prevent them harming Israel.

"There is no country in the world that respects the U.S. and the American Congress more than Israel," Netanyahu said in a statement. "However, the itinerary showed that the congresswomen's sole intention was to harm Israel."

In a series of tweets, the prime minister's office also cited the fact that Omar and Tlaib had not yet requested to meet any Israeli officials as part of their itinerary.

Netanyahu's comments came soon after U.S. President Donald Trump urged Israel to bar them entry on Twitter, renewing his heated criticism of the first-term congresswomen, calling them "a disgrace." Trump has previously judged their criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, a characterization that has provoked backlash from Democrats.

Tlaib and Omar, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and members of the Democratic party's progressive wing, have voiced support for the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Tlaib called Israel's move a "sign of weakness."

Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, on Thursday tweeted a photo of her grandmother, who lives in the West Bank. She said her grandmother "deserves to live in peace & with human dignity," and barring her granddaughter from entering "is a sign of weakness" because "the truth of what is happening to Palestinians is frightening."

No date had been formally announced for their trip, but sources familiar with the planned visit had hinted it was possible this weekend.

The decision had been tipped earlier in the day by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, in an interview with Reshet Radio.

Omar, who immigrated to the United States from Somalia as a child, represents Minnesota's fifth congressional district.

In a statement, she called the decision "both an insult to democratic values and a chilling response to a visit by government officials from an allied nation.

"Sadly, this is not a surprise given the public positions of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who 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."

In February, Omar, 37, apologized after Democratic leaders condemned remarks she made about the pro-Israel lobby in the United States as using anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Netanyahu offers chance at conditional entry for Tlaib

Tlaib, 43, who was born in the United States, draws her roots to the Palestinian village of Beit Ur Al-Fauqa in the West Bank. Her grandmother and extended family live in the village.

Netanyahu said Tlaib could submit a request to visit family members in the occupied West Bank on humanitarian grounds and it would receive consideration as long as she promised not to promote a boycott against Israel.

Under Israeli law, backers of the BDS movement can be denied entry to Israel. But Israel's ambassador in the United States, Ron Dermer, said last month Tlaib and Omar would be let in, out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

While President Donald Trump has frequently criticized the leaders of U.S. allies, his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been steadfast. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

An Israeli official had told Reuters that Netanyahu and other senior members of his cabinet held consultations on Wednesday on a "final decision" about the visit.

Denying entry to elected U.S. officials could further strain relations between Netanyahu, who has highlighted his close ties with Trump in his current re-election campaign, and the Democratic leadership in Congress.

Political commentators said a reversal of Israel's original intention to approve the legislators' entry likely stemmed from a desire to mirror Trump's hard line against them.

White House denied it was pressuring Israel

The Axios news site reported on Saturday that Trump had told advisers that he thinks Netanyahu should use the anti-boycott law to bar Tlaib and Omar. It quoted the White House as saying it was fake news.

A planned tour by the two lawmakers of the holy compound in Jerusalem that houses al-Aqsa mosque, and which is revered by Jews as the site of two biblical Jewish temples, had turned into an issue of contention, according to sources familiar with preparations for the visit.

The flashpoint site is in an area of Jerusalem that Israel captured along with the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally.

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An official in Israel's internal security ministry said any visit by Tlaib and Omar to the complex, revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount, would require Israeli security protection.

Violence erupted there on Sunday between Israeli police and Palestinians amid tensions over visits by Jewish pilgrims on a day when the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish fast day of Tisha B'Av overlapped.

Members of Congress pan the decision

A number of members of Congress quickly criticized Thursday's move as a bad precedent, including Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Justin Amash — the congressman who entered this session of Congress as a Republican but declared himself an independent after earning umbrage from his colleagues for criticizing the president — also said it would be harmful to U.S.-Israel relations to bar members of Congress.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose speaker list at its high-profile annual conference in Washington has increasingly tilted Republican in recent years, said in a statement that "every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand."

Trump, while critical of nearly all Democrats, has reserved particular scorn for Omar, Tlaib and two other Democratic congresswomen of colour, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Earlier this summer, Trump accused the four women of "hating America" and suggested that the women should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez, like Tlaib, are U.S.-born.

At a rally in North Carolina last month, Trump remained silent as an unknown number of his supporters chanted "Send her back!" for several seconds after the president mentioned Omar by name.

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With files from CBC News and The Associated Press