At a press conference in front of the Minnesota State Capitol building on Monday Aug. 19, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D – Minn.) said that the decision to bar her and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D – Mich.) from visiting Israel last week was an unprecedented step in the U.S.-Israel relationship. She suggested that Congress should consider this incident when allotting the approximately $3 billion in aid the U.S. supplies to Israel every year.
“Denying a visit to duly elected members of Congress is not consistent with being an ally,” she said.
“[Lawmakers] have a responsibility to conduct oversight over our government’s foreign policy and what happens with the millions of dollars we send in aid.”
Omar said she believes President Donald Trump influenced Israel into making the decision to draw a wedge between Muslim and Jewish Americans. She added that she is “grateful for the solidarity” shown by some of her congressional colleagues.
Israeli officials, including Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and Foreign Minister Yaakov Katz, have denied that Trump’s call via Twitter for the two lawmakers to be banned influenced Netanyahu’s decision to block their visit.
Katz also said that Dermer did not consult with Israeli leaders before he announced last month that Tlaib and Omar would be allowed into the country.
“It was not with my blessing. He gave his opinion,” Katz said of Dermer in an Aug. 17 interview on Israeli TV show “Meet the Press.”
According to Katz, Netanyahu made the decision to ban the congresswomen after meeting with members of his Cabinet on Aug. 13 and 14. President Trump’s tweet on the 15th did not have an effect on the decision because the decision had already been made, Katz said.
“The decision was an Israeli one. I don’t think that a country that respects itself would allow in Congress members that act in such a harsh way against the State of Israel,” he added.
The Trip Not Taken
In his announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the Democratic congresswomen would not be allowed to make their scheduled visit because of their declared support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and their plans to meet with anti-Israel entities during their visit. A 2017 law entitles the state to deny entry to boycott activists.
Tlaib spoke after Omar at the press conference in Minnesota and broke into tears midway through her remarks.
“All Americans should be deeply disturbed,” Tlaib said of Israel’s decision.
Though their planned trip was blocked, the Israeli government accepted a humanitarian request from Tlaib to visit her Palestinian grandmother in the West Bank. Tlaib subsequently declared she would not travel to the West Bank to visit family, despite getting permission hours before from Israel’s interior
Omar said the original plan was to meet directly with Israeli members of the Knesset, the Israeli legislature, and with Israeli security officials during the trip, which would have taken them to Palestinian population centers in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Omar has not specified which Knesset members she would have met with.
New Shots Fired
In the aftermath of Netanyahu’s announcement and Omar and Tlaib’s response, President Donald Trump had harsh words for Jews who support the Democratic Party.
“I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” the president told reporters on Tuesday Aug. 20 during an Oval Office meeting with President Klaus Iohannis of Romania.
Aaron Keyak, former executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said a move by Democrats to withdraw aid to Israel is unlikely.
“Fundamentally, the security assistance to Israel is mutually beneficial to both our countries,” he said in a phone interview. “The military aid to Israel is not a gift, it’s something that reinforces our interest in the region as well as keeping Israel secure and save lives.”
“The truth is it’s so rare that we have this sort of diplomatic feud with one of our closest allies. It’s something that normally would be handled by the State Department. Not only is the State Department not standing up for duly elected members of Congress, the administration is actively cheerleading for this policy,” he said.
Trump backed the decision to bar Omar and Tlaib but denied any role to the press on Tuesday.
“I have nothing to do with it,” Trump said, “but I don’t blame them for doing what they did. I think it would’ve been very bad to let them in.”
The president added that he would not cut off aid to Israel.
JTA writers Gabe Friedman, Marcy Olster and Josefin Dolsten, along with Washington Jewish Week staff writer Jacqueline Hyman, contributed to this report.