Liberal Democrat eyes aid cuts to Israel after Omar, Tlaib denied entry

A leading progressive lawmaker is eyeing funding cuts to Israel to protest the country’s stunning decision to bar entrance to Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.).

Citing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “disrespect” for the U.S. Congress, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said the move to block Omar and Tlaib from their scheduled visit on Sunday is “outrageous” and deserves a congressional response — including the possibility of cutting foreign aid.

{mosads}”No more members of Congress, no delegations, should be going to Israel unless this decision is reversed. And I think we’re going to have to have some serious conversations even about financial support,” Pocan, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Thursday by phone.

“You can’t have a respectful relationship, and give the amount of billions of dollars that we give to a country like Israel, but at the same time have them denying members of Congress — I don’t care where their political persuasion comes from — access into the country,” he added. “I mean, at that point, this highly political move by Netanyahu could have a very serious impact, and could [lead to] far more scrutiny on what we’re doing financially.”

Omar and Tlaib last year became the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Both lawmakers have made past comments critical of Israel.

Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said the country would not “allow those who deny our right to exist in this world to enter,” The Times of Israel reported, citing a broadcast interview.

Several congressional delegations have visited Israel this month, amid the August recess, with lawmakers from both parties offering glowing assessments of the strong relations between the United States and its democratic ally in the Middle East.

But Netanyahu’s decision Thursday to bar entrance to Tlaib, of Palestinian descent, and Omar, a native of Somalia, immediately strained the alliance, particularly in the eyes of Democrats, who quickly rushed to the defense of their colleagues while warning that politicizing such visits could erode the decades-long tradition of bipartisan support Israel has enjoyed from Congress.

“If Israel’s government hopes to win the support of American lawmakers across the political spectrum, then this visit could have been an opportunity to share views and make a case for why American support for Israel is so important,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a strong Israel supporter.

“Instead, refusing entry to members of Congress looks like Israel closing itself off to criticism and dialogue,” he added.

The notion of cutting U.S. aid for Israel is unlikely to gain traction in a Congress where both parties have a long track record of supporting that funding, citing the need to protect Israel militarily and cement shared strategic goals in a hostile region of the world. But Pocan’s suggestion signals that such proposals could surface when Congress returns to Washington next month facing the task of funding the government before an Oct. 1 shutdown deadline.

“We really do have to have bigger conversations about if any country would show that much disrespect to U.S. lawmakers after having the relationship we do, [it] would certainly have all sorts of possible ramifications,” he said.

Supporters of cutting Israel aid would have a big target to hit. For the current fiscal year, Congress allotted $3.3 billion to Israel, almost all of it in the form of military aid, and another $500 million for missile defense systems, according to a report published this month by the Congressional Research Service. President Trump’s requested budget for fiscal 2020 proposed keeping those numbers intact.

The partisan nature of the debate was fueled Thursday by Trump, a longtime critic of Tlaib and Omar for their positions on Israel, who appeared to nudge Netanyahu into applying the travel ban on the two freshman lawmakers.

“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning. “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!”

Netanyahu’s decision, announced shortly after Trump’s tweet, stunned Democratic leaders who have been in close contact with Israeli officials and thought the trip was already approved. Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., said last month that “we would not deny entry to any member of Congress” based on Israel’s “respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who recently led a lawmaker visit to Israel, said he spoke directly with Netanyahu and Dermer on Wednesday seeking to secure passage for Tlaib and Omar. He appeared stunned that Dermer’s previous assurances were not kept. 

“I call on the Prime Minster to reconsider this decision and ensure that all Members of Congress who wish to visit Israel and/or the West Bank will be received with the proper respect and recognition they are due,” Hoyer said.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump Eliot Engel Ilhan Omar Mark Pocan Rashida Tlaib Steny Hoyer

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