By Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller and Rami Ayyub
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will bar a visit by U.S. Democratic Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday, shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump called on Israel not to let them in.
The pair, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, are members of the Democratic party’s progressive wing and sharp critics of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians.
Democrats in the United States, and Palestinians strongly condemned Israel’s decision.
Israel had initially chosen to allow the visit. But on Wednesday Netanyahu held consultations with cabinet members and advisers revisiting the decision. A source who took part in the consultation told Reuters that Israel backtracked because of pressure from Trump.
“In a discussion held two weeks ago all the officials were in favour of letting them in but after Trump’s pressure they reversed the decision,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Tlaib and Omar have voiced support for the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Under Israeli law, BDS backers can be denied entry to Israel.
Trump has vented in recent months against Tlaib, Omar and two other Democratic congresswomen of colour, accusing them of hostility to Israel in what has widely been seen as a drumming up of Republican votes for his 2020 reelection bid.
In a tweet on Thursday, he urged Israel not to allow the visit, saying “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit … They are a disgrace!”
Israel’s ambassador in the United States, Ron Dermer, had said last month Tlaib and Omar would be let in, out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
The Axios news site reported on Saturday that Trump had told advisers that he believed Netanyahu should use the anti-boycott law to bar Tlaib and Omar. It quoted the White House as saying it was fake news.
No date had been formally announced for the congresswomen’s trip, but sources familiar with the planned visit said it could begin at the weekend. They had planned to tour East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war, which Palestinians want for a state.
Netanyahu said that Israel had the utmost respect for the U.S. Congress but that Tlaib and Omar were promoting legislation of boycotts against Israel.
“Only a few days ago, we received their itinerary for their visit in Israel, which revealed that they planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel’s legitimacy,” Netanyahu said.
Barring Omar and Tlaib may play well with Netanyahu’s right-wing voter base as he heads for a national election on Sept. 17.
The move also displayed Israeli support for Trump’s tough line on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party as he seeks a second term in office.
However, denying entry to elected U.S. officials further strained relations between Netanyahu, who has highlighted his close ties with Trump in his current re-election campaign, and the Democratic leadership in Congress.
“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. This would be a shameful, unprecedented move,” Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, a U.S. senator, said on Twitter.
Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate, said in a statement:
“Denying entry to members of the United States Congress is a sign of weakness, not strength. It will only hurt the U.S.-Israeli relationship and support for Israel in America.”
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official with the PLO and founder of Miftah, a West Bank-based NGO that is co-sponsoring the trip, called the decision to block it “an affront to the American people and their representatives.
“This ban is a clear case of discrimination and hostility based on political views and ethnic background, deserving of moral indignation and unequivocal condemnation in Palestine and the United States,” Ashrawi said in a statement.
The Palestinians have broken off diplomatic ties with the Trump administration over what they see as its heavy pro-Israel bias.
Tlaib, 43, who was born in the United States, has roots in the Palestinian village of Beit Ur Al-Fauqa in the West Bank. Her grandmother and extended family live in the village.
“We were surprised today that they banned Rashida. It is unfair and racist that they banned her from visiting her country Palestine and her family in Palestine,” said her uncle, Bassam Tlaib.
Netanyahu said that if Tlaib submitted a request to visit family on humanitarian grounds, Israel would consider it as long as she promised not to promote a boycott against Israel.
Omar, who immigrated to the United States from Somalia as a child, represents Minnesota’s fifth congressional district.
In February, Omar, 37, apologised after Democratic leaders condemned remarks she made about the pro-Israel lobby in the United States as using anti-Semitic stereotypes.
The BDS movement denounced Israel’s decision as “McCarthyite”.
(Reporting by Maayan Lubell Rami Ayyub, Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Makini Brice and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Frances Kerry)