In a surprise move, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee chided the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for barring two freshman Democratic congresswomen from entering the country ahead of a planned visit.
In a tweet, AIPAC stated that while the organization does not agree with the support Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota have voiced for a Palestinian-led boycott movement – or for Tlaib’s calls for a “one-state solution” to the decades-long conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians – it believes the two lawmakers should be permitted to enter Israel.
“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,” AIPAC tweeted on Thursday. “We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.”
AIPAC's nonprofit arm, the American-Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), hosts annual Israel trips for freshman lawmakers. Critics have argued those trips cast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a negative light for Palestinians.
The unprecedented move to bar Tlaib and Omar from visiting marks a deep foray by Israel into America's bitterly polarized politics. It came shortly after President Trump tweeted that the Israeli government would "show great weakness" if it allowed the lawmakers into the country. It is also a sharp escalation of Israel's campaign against the international boycott movement.
"They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds," Trump said before calling the two congresswomen "a disgrace."
In a statement, Netanyahu said Israel is "open to critics and criticism," except for those who advocate boycotts against it.
"Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar are leading activists in promoting the legislation of boycotts against Israel in the American Congress," Netanyahu said. He added that their itinerary "revealed that they planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel's legitimacy."
The two newly-elected Muslim members of Congress are outspoken critics of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Tlaib's family immigrated to the United States from the West Bank. Israel said it would consider any request from Tlaib to visit relatives on humanitarian grounds.
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."
The decision to ban the congresswomen could further sharpen divisions among Democrats over the issue of 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.
Other American Jewish organizations also have objected to barring the two lawmakers from entering the country. The American Jewish Congress said that despite Omar and Tlaib's planned "propaganda exercise," it believed that "the costs in the U.S. of barring the entry of two members of Congress may prove even higher than the alternative."
Dan Shapiro, U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, said that he knew of "no such precedent" for Israel barring an elected American official from entering the country. He called the government's decision "short-sighted."
"There's no reason to prevent members of Congress, including critical ones, from coming, seeing and learning, offering them every possible briefing," Shapiro said. "By refusing them entry, it will only fuel the very things that Israel claims to be unhappy about" when it comes to calls for boycotts.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.