Thursday, August 15, 2019

Netanyahu appears poised to block Omar, Tlaib from entering Israel ahead of a planned weekend visit

JERUSALEM - A forthcoming trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories by Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., will possibly be blocked by Israel in its current proposed format, a senior Israeli government official told The Washington Post on Thursday.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, the official said that if Tlaib, an American of Palestinian heritage, made a special humanitarian request to visit her family in the occupied West Bank, then "it would be considered favorably."
Omar and Tlaib, who have both been outspoken critics of Israel and support a boycott movement against the country, are slated to arrive Sunday. Their trip is being planned by Miftah, a nonprofit organization headed by Palestinian lawmaker and longtime peace negotiator Hanan Ashrawi.
Denying entry for Omar and Tlaib would likely deepen the divide between the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Democrats, who have privately said such moves are not emblematic of a country that prides itself as a democracy tolerant of political expression.
Informed Wednesday that Israel would formally deny entry for Omar and Tlaib, Democrats in Congress quietly braced for a new public fight with the long-serving Israeli leader, said several congressional aides familiar with the discussions.
It is still unclear whether Netanyahu will follow through on that decision, however, after a private backlash from the Democratic leadership and some U.S.-based pro-Israel groups, who warned against barring sitting members of Congress from entering Israel because of their political beliefs, said the aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive discussions.
With three weeks to go before a repeat election on Sept.17,Netanyahu is fighting a bitter battle to stay in office and needs to appear strong to his fractured right-wing support base.
Barring entry for Omar and Tlaib, however, would amount to an about-face for Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who said last month that Israel would not deny entry to any U.S. lawmakers "out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America."
The question about their entry status arose because of Omar and Tlaib's upcoming visit to Israel and the West Bank slated for Sunday and 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.
President Donald Trump, who maintains a close relationship with Netanyahu, was reportedly disappointed in Israel's announcement that it would permit Tlaib and Omar to visit. Trump 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 criticized Israel's human rights record and treatment of Palestinians.
Neither of their offices responded to requests for comment.
Democrats, lead by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, pressed Israeli officials Wednesday to reconsider their decision to block Omar and Tlaib, but congressional aides said it remained unclear if Israel had changed its decision.
Hoyer, who just returned from a trip to Israel sponsored by the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization 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 criticize Israel than Tlaib or Omar, and many have spoken out against their remarks criticizing 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 color from traveling 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 U.S.-Israel 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 authorized to talk to the media said the congresswomen are hoping to arrive in the region Sunday, depending on Israel's final decision.
The private trip is slated to run from Aug. 18-22. Tlaib is hoping to stay some extra days to see her grandmother, who lives in a West Bank village. No official meetings are scheduled for the U.S. lawmakers, but they are planning to travel to the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah, and spend time in Jerusalem.
During their stay, they are scheduled to meet with Israeli and Palestinian civil society groups, humanitarian workers, young people and see one of the East Jerusalem hospitals affected by recent cuts in American aid to the Palestinians.
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The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.

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