President Donald Trump is under fire after demanding that Israel block a pair of Muslim-American Democrats from visiting. Congressional lawmakers wasted no time Thursday to rebuke the president, warning that the highly unusual move threatens to upend relations between the United States and its long-standing Middle East ally.
Trump has long feuded with Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), two outspoken progressive freshmen, over their criticisms of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in disputed territories it occupies, including the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
But even by Trump’s combative standards, siding with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to block two sitting U.S. members of Congress, who had planned a trip to Israel next week, marked a startling departure from traditional foreign-policy protocols, sparking a fierce backlash on Capitol Hill.
“Israel should stand up to President Trump and allow our colleagues to visit,” tweeted Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a Palestinian American who left the Republican party this year after declaring Trump should be impeached.
“Nobody has to agree with their opinions, but it will inevitably harm U.S.-Israel relations if members of Congress are banned from the country,” Amash added. “We must find ways to come together; there’s enough division.”
Democrats quickly piled on, issuing waves of statements blasting the decision — and Trump’s advocacy for it — as a dangerous development that only empowers “those who seek to create a wedge between our two countries,” in the words of Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the Jewish chairwoman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
“This is a grave mistake by the Israeli government,” echoed Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.), the head of the Democrats’ messaging arm, who is also Jewish. “Democracy is about accepting that others don’t always share your views and respecting the right to disagree.”
A number of 2020 Democratic hopefuls, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), also raised objections.
“Israel doesn’t advance its case as a tolerant democracy or unwavering US ally by barring elected members of Congress from visiting because of their political views,” Warren tweeted. “This would be a shameful, unprecedented move. I urge Israel’s government to allow @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib entry.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group, blasted both Trump and Netanyahu, saying the decision to block the lawmakers’ visit is “dangerous, unacceptable and wrong.”
“As sitting Members of Congress representing hundreds of thousands of Americans in their districts, Reps. Omar and Tlaib have the same right as every one of their colleagues to visit Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory,” Ben-Ami said in an email.
“It is an affront to Congress and the American people and does severe damage to the US-Israel relationship — and it must be reversed immediately.”
Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and Omar, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Somalia, were scheduled to visit Israel on Sunday, as part of a fact-finding trip that would include stops in regions controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The decision to block their entrance into Israel, finalized Thursday morning, marked a stunning reversal for Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who vowed last month to allow their visit “out of respect for the U.S. Congress.”
Trump’s tweet also was an embarrassment for two top House leaders — Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — who earlier this week stood shoulder-to-shoulder at a Jerusalem news conference and agreed that Israel should not block Omar and Tlaib from visiting.
Democrats rushing to their defense on Thursday said those policy differences should have no bearing on the pair’s right to visit Israel.
Netanyahu is facing a new election in just over a month, leading to suggestions that he barred the visit by Tlaib and Omar simply to curry favor from his fractured conservative base.
“The close relationship enjoyed by the United States and Israel should extend to all its government representatives, regardless of their views on specific issues or policies,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).