By ILAN BEN ZION and LISA MASCARO Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — With a push from President Donald Trump, Israel on Thursday barred two Muslim-American congresswomen from entering the country for a visit, an extraordinary step bringing the longtime U.S. ally into Trump's domestic fight against political rivals at home.
The U.S. president is essentially relying on Israel to retaliate against two freshman lawmakers, Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who are both outspoken critics of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. They are also part of the "squad" of liberal newcomers -- all women of color -- whom Trump has labeled the face of the Democratic Party as he runs for reelection.
It's a glaring departure from the tradition of American politicians leaving domestic disputes at the water's edge.
For Israel, the willingness to side so pointedly with Trump marks a deeper foray into America’s bitterly polarized politics and risks its relationship with Congress. Blocking the visits of two lawmakers appears to be unprecedented.
Israel announced the ban shortly after Trump tweeted that "it would show great weakness" if the two were allowed to visit. Asked later if he had spoken to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said, "I did talk to people over there," but he declined to say to whom.
In Israel, Netanyahu said his country remains "open to critics and criticism," except for those who advocate boycotts against it. The congresswomen support a Palestinian-led boycott and divestment movement.
Netanyahu said Tlaib and Omar were leaders in promoting boycott legislation and their itinerary "revealed that they planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel's legitimacy."
Democrats in Congress denounced his move as a reversal of previous assurances by the Israeli ambassador to the United States that, "out of respect for the U.S. Congress," no lawmakers would be denied entry.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the snub "beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel." The California Democrat, long a supporter of Israel, called the decision "deeply disappointing."
Shortly before the decision was announced, Trump said the congresswomen "hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds." He called them "a disgrace," an insult he has used repeatedly for them.
Top ranking Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York said Israel's action was a sign of weakness instead of strength — the reverse of Trump's judgment — and "will only hurt the U.S.-Israeli relationship and support for Israel in America."
Trump's GOP allies in Congress were more muted, with few raising objections. Republicans have joined the president in trying to stamp Omar, Tlaib and other members of the "squad" of four new, liberal lawmakers as the heart of the Democratic Party.
The influential pro-Israel American lobby group, AIPAC, suggested the action Thursday was a step too far.
"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," AIPAC said on Twitter. "We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand."
The two lawmakers had planned to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank on a tour organized by a Palestinian organization aimed at highlighting the plight of the Palestinians. It was not immediately clear if they had planned to meet with Israeli officials, and spokespeople.
Omar denounced the decision as "an affront" and "an insult to democratic values."
"This is not a surprise given the public positions of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has consistently resisted peace efforts, restricted the freedom of movement of Palestinians, limited public knowledge of the brutal realities of the occupation and aligned himself with Islamophobes like Donald Trump," she said in a statement.
Tlaib, whose family immigrated to the United States from the West Bank, where she still has close relatives, tweeted a photo of her grandmother and said she has the right to live "in peace & with human dignity."
Israel said it would consider any request from Tlaib to visit relatives on humanitarian grounds.
The U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, endorsed the decision after it was made, saying Israel "has every right to protect its borders" against promoters of boycotts.
Blocking them is the latest escalation of Israel's campaign against the BDS movement, which advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israeli businesses, universities and cultural institutions.
Supporters of the boycott movement say it is a non-violent way to protest Israeli policies and call for Palestinian rights. Critics say the effort aims to delegitimize Israel and ultimately erase it from the map, replacing it with a binational state.
The controversy could further sharpen divisions among 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. The Democratic-led House voted overwhelmingly in July in favor of a resolution against the BDS movement.
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. Israel controls entry and exit points to the West Bank. The Palestinians seek these territories for a future state.
MIFTAH, the Palestinian organization that was to host Tlaib and Omar in the West Bank, issued a statement saying that Israel's decision was "an affront to the American people and their representatives" and "an assault on the Palestinian people's right to reach out to decision-makers and other actors from around the world."
Tlaib and Omar have been the target of repeated verbal attacks by Trump, including a series of tweets in which he said they should "go back" to the "broken" countries they came from. Both are U.S. citizens and Tlaib was born in the U.S.
Lisa Mascaro reported from Washington.