Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Israel's ban on US congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar widely condemned

President Trump also faces flak for urging Israel to bar vocal supporters of Palestinian rights

Israel's decision to bar two Muslim members of the US Congress drew widespread criticism from politicians in the United States as well as an influential pro-Israel lobby group.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, widely supported by Democrats and Republicans alike in Washington, led a collection of pro-Israel groups in denouncing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's block of the anti-Trump lawmakers' visit, a move encouraged by President Donald Trump himself.

The group's members "disagree" with support by House Democrats Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib for a boycott on Israel, but "we also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand", AIPAC said.

More than 70 House and Senate Democrats denounced Israel's rejection, although Republican legislators were largely silent following the announcement.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a staunch Israel ally, called the decision "a sign of weakness (that) will only hurt the US-Israeli relationship and support for Israel in America".

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, called the travel ban "beneath the dignity of the great state of Israel".

Israel scrapped the visit shortly after Mr Trump weighed in on Twitter to say it would be showing "great weakness" if Ms Taliab and Ms Omar were allowed into the country, leading to suspicion that Mr Netanyahu acted only after receiving approval from the US president, whose support is a key plank in his bid for re-election next month.

That notion was reinforced by Israel's former ambassador to Washington Danny Ayalon, who tweeted that his government had "rightfully decided to accept that recommendation" from Mr Trump.

Ms Omar, a Somali refugee, and Ms Tlaib, born in Detroit to Palestinian immigrants, have faced censure from colleagues in Congress over comments deemed to be anti-semitic and anti-Israel.

The House of Representatives voted to condemn anti-semitism in March after a series of remarks by Ms Omar that were criticised as offensive to Israel and Jews.

But colleagues rushed to their defence on Thursday, angrily opposing the Israeli ban that Ms Omar herself described as "chilling".

The two congresswomen did not have an official meetings scheduled during their planned trip but reportedly were to hold talks with young Palestinians, Israeli and Palestinian civil society groups, and humanitarian workers in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron and Jerusalem.

Ms Tlaib had also planned to spend time with her grandmother, who still lives in the family's home in the village of Beit Ur Al Fauqa near Ramallah.

Several US politicians expressed alarm at Mr Trump's deviation from diplomatic protocol, saying his interference would only drive a wedge between the two countries and undermine bipartisan support for Israel in Congress.

"The Trump administration made a mistake in urging Israel to prevent them from entering the country," said Senator Susan Collins, one of the only Republican politicians to openly break with Mr Trump over the incident.

Several Democratic presidential candidates joined in the criticism of the move, including frontrunner Joe Biden, who attacked Mr Netanyahu's decision and Mr Trump's public meddling in a sovereign nation's affairs.

Mr Trump insisted it was Israel's call.

"What they've said is disgraceful, so I can't imagine why Israel would let them in," he told reporters. "But if they want to let them in, they can."

While most Republicans refrained from comment, some support for Mr Netanyahu's move, and Mr Trump's intervention, trickled out.

Congressman Mo Brooks tweeted that Ms Omar and Ms Tlaib "hate, want to hurt, maybe even destroy" Israel.

"Israel bars enemies from entering Israel," the Alabama Republican added. "How can anyone disagree with that?"

Condemnation also came from outside political circles, with the singer John Legend describing Israel's and Mr Trump's actions as "shameful".

Updated: August 16, 2019 11:43 AM

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