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JERUSALEM — Israel said Thursday that it was barring two pro-Palestinian Democratic congresswomen from visiting the country, in a move that could strain relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Democrats in Washington.
Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan have both been outspoken critics of Israel, and President Donald Trump tweeted shortly before the announcement that they should be prohibited from entering the country.
In a reversal of Israel's position that all American lawmakers would be allowed to visit, Netanyahu said in a statement that the country had decided not to allow Tlaib and Omar to enter. The lawmakers, the first two Muslim American women elected to Congress, had been expected to arrive on Sunday.
"Only a few days ago, we received their visitation plan, and it became clear that they were planning a campaign whose sole purpose was to strengthen the boycott and negate Israel's legitimacy," Netanyahu said, referring to the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, known as BDS.
"For example, they defined their visit destination as 'Palestine' rather than 'Israel,' and unlike all Democratic and Republican congressmen to date, they have avoided seeking any meeting with an official Israeli official in both the government and the opposition," the prime minister added. "A week ago, Israel welcomed some 70 Democratic and Republican congressmen who expressed broad bipartisan support in Israel, expressed just a month ago in overwhelming opposition to the congressional vote against the BDS. By contrast, the two-member congressional visitation plan shows that their intent is to hurt Israel and increase its unrest against it."
But the itinerary of the two lawmakers involved no meetings with Israeli or Palestinians officials. They were instead planning to meet exclusively with human rights organizations and NGOs from both sides to get a non-political assessment of the situation on the ground.
In a statement, Omar slammed Netanyahu's decision as an "affront" and accused him of bowing to pressure from Trump. A spokesman for the Israeli embassy refused to say if pressure from Trump influenced their decision to ban the congresswomen. Talking to reporters later on Thursday, Trump said he "did speak to people over there," though he declined to say if he and Netanyahu spoke directly.
Omar and Tlaib have voiced their support for BDS; under Israeli law, supporters of the movement can be denied entry to Israel.
Referring to BDS as "economic warfare," U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said that the administration "supports and respects" Israel's decision.
"Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!," Trump said in a tweet later on Thursday.
Omar has also been criticized by House Democratic leaders for promoting "anti-Semitic tropes" and in February was forced to apologize for tweets about the pro-Israel lobby in the United States.
In one tweet, she said money was driving U.S. lawmakers to defend Israel and that AIPAC — the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee — was paying politicians to support Israel. AIPAC on Thursday criticized Netanyahu's decision, saying in a tweet that, while they disagreed with the lawmakers' views on Israel, "we also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand."
Last month, Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, told the Times of Israel that the country would not block their trip.
"Out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel," Dermer told the Israeli newspaper.
A group of House Democrats— including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Md. and House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey— had urged Dermer to allow the two congresswomen to visit, sources familiar with the discussion told NBC News.
Netanyahu held consultations with members of his Cabinet Wednesday about the congresswomen's visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, a government official said in a statement earlier Thursday. Hoyer said in a statement that he spoke with the prime minister on Wednesday, urging him to reconsider his decision.
Barring the congresswomen from entering risks further straining relations between Israel’s right-wing government, which has stressed its close ties with the Trump administration, and Democrats in Congress.
Tlaib, 43, was born in the U.S. but draws her roots from a Palestinian village in the West Bank where her grandmother and extended family still live. The congresswoman said she had hoped to visit her family during the trip.
Reacting to Thursday's news, Tlaib paid tribute to her grandmother and said that Netanyahu's choice "is a sign of weakness."
Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian politician, called it an “outrageous act of hostility against the American people.”
"This is a dangerous precedent that defies all diplomatic norms and an assault on the Palestinian people’s right to engage with the rest of the world,” she said in a statement.
Trump has repeatedly attacked Tlaib and Omar, including a series of tweets last month in which he said they should "go back" to the "broken" countries they came from. Trump's comments drew sharp criticism from Democrats.
Both are U.S. citizens and are members of "the squad" of two other newly elected left-wing Democratic representatives, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
Lawahez Jabari reported from Jerusalem, and Saphora Smith from London.