“Any sitting member of Congress should be welcome to visit Israel as official representatives of Israel’s closest ally and most critical source of international support,” said the Israel Policy Forum, a New York-based Jewish organisation. “We strongly urge Prime Minister Netanyahu to reconsider.”
Last month, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer said the two congresswomen would be allowed to visit Israel “out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.” But on Wednesday, local time, Israeli officials informed congressional leaders that Netanyahu had changed his mind and Israel would prohibit the two vocal critics of Israel from entering the country, congressional aides said. Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations.
Israeli officials told US lawmakers said they would formally announce the decision to bar Omar and Tlaib on Wednesday, but after a private backlash from Democratic leadership and some US-based pro-Israel groups, the announcement was moved to Thursday, initially leaving lawmakers uncertain about whether Netanyahu had changed his mind.
Trump weighed in on Thursday morning on the impending decision on on Twitter.
The lawmakers have repeatedly denied harbouring any animus toward Jews or Israelis and have said their criticisms of the Israeli government are based on policy differences.
With three weeks to go before a repeat election on September 17, Netanyahu is fighting a bitter battle to stay in office and wants to appear strong to his fractured right-wing support base.
Omar and Tlaib’s trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank was planned by Miftah, a non-profit organisation headed by Palestinian lawmaker and longtime peace negotiator Hanan Ashrawi.
The question about their entry status arose because of a recently passed Israeli law that denies entry visas to foreign nationals who publicly back or call for any kind of boycott – economic, cultural or academic – against Israel or its West Bank settlements.
The goal of the measure is to battle the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which protests Israeli treatment of the Palestinians and has found growing support in Europe and the United States in recent years.
Trump, who maintains a close relationship with Netanyahu, has said the lawmakers should “go back” to the countries they came from in remarks widely condemned as racist. Tlaib was born in Michigan, and Omar was born in Somalia. Both have loudly criticised Israel’s human rights record and treatment of Palestinians.
Neither of their offices responded to requests for comment.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer took the issue up with Israeli officials on Wednesday on behalf of the Democratic leadership, but congressional aides said it remained unclear if his discussions had any impact.
Hoyer, who just returned from a trip to Israel sponsored by the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organisation AIPAC, was seen as an obvious point person for the dispute, given his close relationship with the Israeli government.
Most Democrats in Congress are far more reluctant to criticise Israel than Tlaib or Omar, and many have spoken out against their remarks criticising Israel’s policies and influence on Capitol Hill. But congressional aides said many in the party would forcefully oppose an Israeli decision to block two women of colour from travelling to the country.
It’s unclear what might have changed the Israeli position from last week, when Axios reported that an interagency meeting was held in which all government agencies agreed the visit should be allowed in order to avoid damaging the US-Israeli relationship.
Anticipation for the visit has generated significant media attention in Israel. This week, Knesset member and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat said he would be willing to meet the freshman lawmakers but not if “they come with their opinion and create propaganda or make havoc in our country.”
A person involved with the trip who was not authorised to talk to the media said the congresswomen hoped to arrive in the region Sunday, depending on Israel’s final decision.
Tlaib hoped to stay some extra days to see her grandmother, who lives in a West Bank village.
No official meetings were scheduled for the US lawmakers, but they were planning to travel to the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah and spend time in Jerusalem.
They were scheduled to meet during their stay with Israeli and Palestinian civil society groups, humanitarian workers and young people and see one of the East Jerusalem hospitals affected by recent cuts in US aid to the Palestinians.
The Washington Post