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Israel says it will bar two U.S. congresswomen from entering the country. At President Trump's urging, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed his earlier decision to allow Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, both Muslims critical of Israeli policies, to visit. Amna Nawaz talks to Danny Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., and Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif.
We return to our top story, Israel banning two Muslim-American congresswomen from entry. In a tweet this morning, President Trump said Israel would show, quote, great weakness by allowing the congresswomen to enter. He added that the representatives, quote, hate Israel and all Jewish people. The president has targeted the two representatives repeatedly, as part of a four-woman freshman Democratic group that's dubbed itself "The Squad."
Representatives Tlaib and Omar have faced criticism in the past for their statements on Israel, which some critics have called anti-Semitic, and their support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS movement, designed to pressure Israel to leave the Palestinian lands and recognize their rights by targeting Israeli companies, as well as international companies, universities and other groups that invest in Israel.
In 2017, Israeli lawmakers passed a law that can bar entry to people considered advocates of the international BDS movement. Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the BDS movement as one that, quote, promotes principles of collective guilt, mass punishment and group isolation.
President Trump's stance puts him at odds with Republican congressmen, like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy who was in Israel this week.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.:
Speaking with the president, he knows there are people who have differences of opinion. I think it would be healthy for anyone who has that opinion, should come just as all these members have, to see, and I feel very secure in this, anyone that comes with open ears, open eyes and an open mind will walk away with an understanding, just as all these members here do, that this bond is unbreakable.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the middle of a close election campaign, and critics say he can't afford to appear weak while facing criticism of Israel.
And now for reaction from a former top Israeli diplomat. Danny Ayalon served as deputy foreign minister from 2009 to 2013, and as Israeli ambassador to the United States from 2002 to 2006.
Ambassador Ayalon, welcome back to the "NewsHour".
I want to ask you about what the Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer said last month. He said the lawmakers would be allowed to visit, quote, out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.
That was last month. What changed between then and now?
All right. Yes, well, thank you, Amna.
I would say two things. First of all, there was an invitation by the bipartisan delegation, and we have had here last week, basically 70 members of Congress from both parties headed by both majority and minority leader, and it would have been much better for them to come then. They refused.
And not only that, they have decided on their own accord to actually ignore Israel, to go only to the Palestinian side. They are sponsored by an organization, Palestinian one, which is called MIFTAH which supports terrorism. And I think that by the latest analysis, the reason for this visit was just a clear provocation and really to harm and hurt Israeli interests.
I want to be clear about something, Ambassador. You mention they had been invited previously. You are saying if they had visited with that other delegation, they would have been welcome in Israel?
By all means. And, you know, Israel is a free country. We're a democracy.
We are not afraid of criticism. If anything, you know, Israelis are the most severe and fierce critics of themselves and of our own government.
You tweeted that the Israeli government accepted the U.S. administration's suggestion, their recommendation, and that's what led to the ban. So how is this to be seen? Is this the Israel guy government taking orders from President Trump and the U.S. administration on who is allowed in and who is not?
I believe that the main issue was on the merit of the provocation. However, what added I'm sure to the decision, although from Jerusalem I hear otherwise, but nobody can deny the president's tweet, once there is a request from the president of our best friend and ally, you know, the United States of America, certainly you have to heed or you have to take into consideration their request. So, I'm sure this was also added into the mix. And you can here invoke what we call a waiver because of national interest.
Mr. Ambassador, as part of the justification for denying them entry, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that their support for this BDS movement was part of that decision. Israel has long held itself up as a bastion of democracy in the region.
Doesn't this send the message that anyone who is critical of the government won't be welcome?
Well, Amna, there is a difference between a criticism and undermining the very legitimacy and existence of a state. And democracies also have the right, I would say the obligation to, defend themselves.
BDS, unfortunately, is not just calling for boycotts and sanctions against Israel, it's not just criticizing any Israeli policy, which is, of course, fair and legitimate, but actually they are undermining the very existence. The battle cry of the BDS movement is basically from the river to the sea, Palestinian will be free. And if you look at the map, from the river to the sea of the land of Israel, there is no room for any other state, let alone the Jewish state.
Let me ask you: Israel has also welcomed people who have clearly used anti-Semitic rhetoric in the past. I'm talking about Hungary's leader Viktor Orban, also an Italian leader, Matteo Salvini. Both of them have been anti-Semites in some of their political language. They were welcomed to Israel.
So, what's the difference?
They respect the country. They promote cooperation with our country. And if they did have anti-Semitic — any references, of course, we would not — we would not condone it and we would call them out.
Former Ambassador Danny Ayalon joining us tonight — thank you very much for your time.
For a lawmaker's perspective now, we turn to Representative Brad Sherman, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a Democrat from California.
Congressman Sherman, welcome back to the "NewsHour".
I want to ask you to respond to what you just heard from Ambassador Ayalon there. He says, look, both Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar would have been welcome had they travelled with that bipartisan delegation. He saw this visit setup as a provocation.
What do you say to that?
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif.:
Well, he's trying to put perhaps a better face on it, an Israeli pride face on it. The Israeli government were going to let my two colleagues in until they were pressured by Trump.
Now, it's tough for any country to say they're bending to that kind of pressure. But when you're a tiny country with one friend in the world, and you get that kind of pressure from the president, and especially, foreign countries tend to look at our executive as the main source of our power, they don't fully understand the role of Congress under our Constitution, when you're under that kind of coercive power, you respond to it.
The fault here is Donald Trump, because while he claims to be a friend of Israel, he is trying to delegitimize Israel or at least hurt Israel with about half the population of the United States, including those who support the role of Congress, its oversight and fact-gathering responsibilities.
So Trump claims to be a friend of Israel. I call him a pseudo-Zionist.
Well, let me ask you about this. There is a law on the books in Israel from 2017. It allows them to ban entry to anyone who is seen as a supporter of this BDS movement. They have barred from entry other people before.
Is it different somehow now because it's two members of Congress?
Israel has welcomed Muslim leaders, Muslim officials from all over the world, including those who are nominally in support of the Arab boycott of Israel. Israel rolled out the red carpet for President Sadat when he came to Jerusalem at a time when his country was at war with Israel technically and certainly supported the boycott of Israel.
The Israelis have made the right decision, which was to let my two colleagues in. And they were forced out of that in a way that is harmful to Israel by the coercive pressure of the president.
But let's also put in context, and I think Danny did this well, this is not your regular boycott movement. I mean, I've got a friend or two who won't buy a Toyota because they want Japan to stop harvesting whales or stop killing whales. They're not trying to force every Japanese citizen out of Asia and to be killed or somehow drifted into the Pacific.
But the international leaders of the BDS movement are trying — not the try to get Israel to change this or that policy, but to try to remove every Jew from the Middle East. Just as Hitler wanted a Jewish-free Europe, this BDS group wants a Jewish-free Middle East.
Well, let me ask you about that, sir. Do you believe your colleagues have the right to support that BDS movement?
I think that my colleagues support changes in the policy of Israel. I have no reason to think that they support the idea of excluding every Jew and every Israeli from the Middle East.
Sir, before I let you know —
But there are supporters.
I do know your time is limited, and I want the make sure I ask this of you. Do you worry today's decision to ban both those members of Congress from entry will have an impact on U.S.-Israeli relations?
Israel has one friend in the world. It cannot afford to have only one half of one friend in the world. Trump is a pseudo-Zionist who has forced in the name of helping Israel, which is most pernicious part of it, has forced the Israeli government to take an action which will slightly weaken Israeli support here in the United States. I think we can recover from this, but it clearly is not a day when the Israeli government was able to do what it had decided to do, which was to admit my two colleagues.
Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman of California, thank you very much for your time.
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