Trump urges Israel to bar visit by US congresswomen

Jerusalem (AFP) –


US President Donald Trump on Thursday called on Israel to bar a looming planned visit by two US congresswomen who have expressed support for a boycott of the Jewish state.

An Israeli government official said earlier in the day that the country may prevent the visit despite having signalled previously the congresswomen would be allowed in.

Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who is of Palestinian origin, are expected at the weekend for a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

"It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit," Trump wrote on Twitter.

"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!"

Tlaib is from Michigan and Omar from Minnesota.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held consultations on the visit on Wednesday and a final decision is being weighed, the government official said on condition of anonymity.

"There is a possibility that Israel will not allow the visit in its current proposed format," the official said, in comments prior to Trump's tweet.

"Professional teams and legal counsel in various government ministries are continuing to examine the decision. According to Israeli law, the authority lies with the minister of the interior."

The official, however, added that "if Congresswoman Tlaib makes a humanitarian request to visit her family, the decision on her matter will be considered favourably".

In 2017, Israel passed a law banning entry to foreigners who support boycotting the country.

The law was passed in response to a movement to boycott Israel as a means to pressure the country over its treatment of the Palestinians.

Israel sees the movement as a strategic threat and accuses it of anti-Semitism -- a claim activists deny, saying they only want to see the occupation end.

Prominent Arab Israeli parliament member Ayman Odeh said: "A state that has nothing to hide would not think of preventing the arrival of two members of Congress."

"Another desperate attempt to hide the reality to the world," he wrote on Twitter.

- Outspoken Trump critics -

Both Omar and Tlaib have been critical of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and treatment of Palestinians.

The Democrats have also faced accusations of anti-Semitism, which they firmly deny.

The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, had previously signalled the two congresswomen would be allowed to visit out of respect for Washington, Israel's most important ally.

But the two are also outspoken political opponents and critics of Trump, who has a close relationship with Netanyahu.

Known as "the squad," the congresswomen -- along with two other progressive congressional allies, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley -- have been in Trump's crosshairs.

He has taken aim at the four in a series of xenophobic comments, telling them to "go back" where they came from and accusing them of having "love" for America's "enemies like Al-Qaeda," among other remarks.

Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old of Puerto Rican ancestry, is the youngest member of the House of Representatives, while Pressley is the first African American elected to Congress from Massachusetts.

Tlaib and Omar, who fled war-torn Somalia as a child and arrived in the United States as a refugee, are the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.

Tlaib is also the first woman of Palestinian descent in Congress.

Members of Congress are regular visitors to Israel and the Palestinian territories and blocking them would be a highly unusual move.

It would occur at a time when Jewish groups in the United States have expressed concern over whether bipartisan support for Israel in Washington is eroding.

Democratic candidates for president in the United States have openly criticised Netanyahu, who is seeking re-election in Israel on September 17 after polls earlier this year failed to yield a coalition.