Israel weighs barring visit by U.S. congressional critics: Israeli official

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel is considering barring a visit by two of its sharpest critics in the U.S. Congress, Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who plan to tour the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, an Israeli official said on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) questions Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan as he testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on “Trump Administration’s Child Separation Policy” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

Tlaib and Omar, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and members of the Democratic party’s progressive wing, have voiced support for the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

No date has been formally announced for their trip, but sources familiar with the planned visit said it could begin at the weekend.

Israel’s Channel 12 television said a decision to ban their entry had been made and that it would be announced after a review by government legal experts. An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

U.S. President Donald Trump has vented in recent months against Omar, Tlaib and two other Democratic congresswomen of color, accusing them of hostility to Israel in what has widely been seen as a drumming up of Republican votes for his 2020 reelection bid.

Under Israeli law, backers of the BDS movement can be denied entry to Israel. But Israel’s ambassador in the United States, Ron Dermer, said last month Tlaib and Omar would be let in, out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

An Israeli official said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior members of his cabinet held consultations on Wednesday on a “final decision” about the visit.

Denying entry to elected U.S. officials could further strain relations between Netanyahu, who has highlighted his close ties with Trump in his current re-election campaign, and the Democratic leadership in Congress.

“The possibility exists that Israel will not allow the visit in its current form. Professional and legal teams in the government ministries are continuing to examine the material,” the official said.

Political commentators said a reversal of Israel’s original intention to approve the legislators’ entry likely stemmed from a desire to mirror Trump’s hard line against them.

The Axios news site reported on Saturday that Trump had told advisers that he thinks Netanyahu should use the anti-boycott law to bar Tlaib and Omar. It quoted the White House as saying it was fake news.

HOLY SITE

A planned tour by the two lawmakers of the holy compound in Jerusalem that houses al-Aqsa mosque, and which is revered by Jews as the site of two biblical Jewish temples, has turned into an issue of contention, according to sources familiar with preparations for the visit.

The flashpoint site is in an area of Jerusalem that Israel captured along with the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally.

An official in Israel’s internal security ministry said any visit by Tlaib and Omar to the complex, revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount, would require Israeli security protection.

Violence erupted there on Sunday between Israeli police and Palestinians amid tensions over visits by Jewish pilgrims on a day when the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av overlapped.

FILE PHOTO: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) holds a news conference to discuss legislation creating “a federal grant program to help local governments invest in waste reduction initiatives”, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., July 25, 2019. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert/File Photo

Tlaib, 43, who was born in the United States, draws her roots to the Palestinian village of Beit Ur Al-Fauqa in the West Bank. Her grandmother and extended family live in the village.

Ilhan Omar, who immigrated to the United States from Somalia as a child, represents Minnesota’s fifth congressional district.

In February, Omar, 37, apologized after Democratic leaders condemned remarks she made about the pro-Israel lobby in the United States as using anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Reporting by Rami Ayyub and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Frances Kerry

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