The Israeli government said Thursday it would bar two Democratic congresswomen who support the Palestinian-led boycott movement from entering the country, a move that drew swift rebukes from Democratic leaders in Congress as well as the leading pro-Israel lobbying group in the U.S.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country's interior minister had decided to deny entry to Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who were scheduled to visit next week. He said he supported the decision.
"As a free and vibrant democracy, Israel is open to critics and criticism, with one exception: Israeli law prohibits the entry into Israel of those who call for and work to impose boycotts on Israel," Netanyahu said in a statement. "Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar are leading activists in promoting the legislation of boycotts against Israel in the American Congress."
Netanyahu said the pair's itinerary "revealed that they planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel's legitimacy."
In a statement posted to Twitter, Omar called Netanyahu's decision "an affront."
"It is an affront that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, under pressure from President Trump, would deny entry to representatives of the U.S. government. Trump's Muslim ban is what Israel is implementing, this time against two duly elected Members of Congress," Omar said.
"The irony of the 'only democracy' in the Middle East making such a decision is that it is both an insult to democratic values and a chilling response to a visit by government officials from an allied nation," Omar continued.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi denounced the decision to bar them entry, calling it "a sign of weakness, and beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel." She also called President Trump's earlier statements about the congresswomen "a sign of ignorance and disrespect, and beneath the dignity of the Office of the President."
An aide to Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House majority leader, said he "believes refusing them entry is a grave mistake that undermines the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus." Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called on the government to reverse its decision, saying it "will only hurt the U.S.-Israeli relationship and support for Israel in America."
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most influential pro-Israel organization in the U.S., likewise said it disagreed with the move.
"We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib's support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement, along with Rep. Tlaib's calls for a one-state solution," the group said on Twitter. "We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand."
The first-term Muslim members of Congress are outspoken critics of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Tlaib's family immigrated to the U.S. from the West Bank. Omar has beenfor previous remarks about Israel, but has apologized for her incendiary comments.
Israel has sought to combat the "boycott, sanction and divest" movement, which targets Israeli businesses, universities and cultural institutions. The country passed a law permitting a ban on entry to any activist who "knowingly issues a call for boycotting Israel."
Last month, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer said Israel would not deny entry to any member of Congress.
On Thursday morning, Mr. Trump expressed support for the ban on Twitter before the move was announced.
"It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit," Mr. Trump wrote. "They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!"
Israel often hosts delegations of U.S. representatives and senators, who usually meet with senior Israeli officials as well as Palestinian officials in the occupied West Bank.
The decision to ban the congresswomen could further sharpen divisions among U.S. Democrats over Israel ahead of the 2020 elections. Republicans have amplified the views of left-wing Democrats like Tlaib and Omar to present the party as deeply divided and at odds with Israel. Democratic leaders have pushed back, reiterating the party's strong support for Israel, in part to protect representatives from more conservative districts.
In July, the Democratic-led House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution against the BDS movement.
In a speech defending the boycott movement in July, Tlaib called Israel's treatment of Palestinians "racist."
"I can't stand by and watch this attack on our freedom of speech and the right to boycott the racist policies of the government and the state of Israel," Tlaib said.
Tlaib and Omar have been the target of repeated attacks by Mr. Trump in recent months, including aon July 14 in which he said they should to the "broken" places they came from. Both are U.S. citizens and Tlaib was born in the United States. The two are of newly elected left-wing Democrats, along with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
Politicians and former diplomats spoke out against barring the congresswomen from visiting following an unconfirmed earlier report that Israel had resolved to bar Omar and Tlaib from entering the country.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, who has previously criticized Omar, tweeted that he "strongly condemn(s)" Israel's decision to bar the two congresswomen.
"I strongly condemn this decision by the Israeli government, which undermines the ability for our two allied countries to have the frank, open and, at times, difficult discussions that we must have in order to ensure Israel remains a secure and democratic nation," Nadler said.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro wrote on Twitter that any decision to bar their entry "harms Israel's standing in the U.S., boosts BDS."
Israeli lawmaker Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of Arab parties, criticized the move, writing that "Israel has always banned Palestinians from their land and separated us from other Palestinians, but this time the Palestinian is a U.S. Congresswoman."
Arthur Lenk, formerly Israel's ambassador to South Africa, said barring Omar and Tlaib "would be sinking us deeper into U.S. domestic political quagmire."