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Israel Banning U.S. Reps. Had A Political Cost, U.S. Jewish Advocacy Group Says


Israel decided to allow a visit by one of the two Democratic congresswomen it had previously prevented from entering the country. But it is unclear whether she'll actually go. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan had been granted permission for a limited humanitarian trip to see her grandmother in the West Bank. But this morning, she said in a tweet that she, quote, "won't be treated like a criminal." And she says she won't visit her grandmother under these conditions.

Tlaib had planned a broader trip to Israel with her colleague Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Both have been highly critical of the Israeli government's policies, and they support a controversial boycott against Israel. And at first, it appeared Israel was going to be OK with this. Then, President Trump tweeted that letting the American lawmakers in would make Israel look weak. Not long after that, Israel's prime minister banned them. In a statement yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the sole purpose of their visit was to, quote, "strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel's legitimacy."

The announcement drew some unusual criticism from U.S. pro-Israel groups, including the American Jewish Committee. The group's CEO, David Harris, joins us now on the line from New York. Mr. Harris, thanks for being here.

DAVID HARRIS: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Why do you think this was the wrong call by the prime minister to issue this ban against the two congresswomen?

HARRIS: I think it was a tough call to begin with for all the reasons you mentioned at the outset. But at the end of the day, in our judgment, the risks and cost to Israel of barring them entry were potentially even higher than the risks of allowing them to come in and do their thing. Their...

MARTIN: How so?

HARRIS: Well, because - look, they would come. They alleged that they were there to learn about Israel. But in reality, their itinerary showed that they had no meetings planned with any mainstream Israeli official from civil society or from the government. So if in fact it was a propaganda exercise, it would have been exposed to the world. But on the other hand, what happened as a result was they were barred entry. The Democratic Party rallied around the two of them, sort of elevated their status. And it became an issue in U.S.-Israel relations. So there was a political cost to it.

At the same time, I'm happy that Congresswoman Tlaib resubmitted her request, indicated it was solely for humanitarian and family purposes. In her request, she said, I'm not going to engage in boycott activities. And I'm pleased that the Israeli government quickly gave her permission to go and visit her grandmother in the West Bank.

MARTIN: I mean, you note that the official itinerary didn't have them meeting with any Israeli authorities. However, Ilhan Omar had said that they were - those plans were in the works, that they were still trying to set up those meetings. I mean, you can believe her or not. But who should they have met with?

HARRIS: Well, I think if they were going to learn about Israel - especially Ilhan Omar having never been to Israel, I believe - then they should have met with a broad spectrum of Israeli officials, both those who support the government and those who oppose the government. Israel is a robust democracy (laughter), and anyone who's been to Israel knows that no one is shy to speak to anyone about their political views. But if they're going simply to the state of Palestine, as they called it, and there was nothing on the itinerary involving any mainstream Israeli organization or government official, then I think it revealed what their real purpose was. And that's why Israel was in a dilemma.

MARTIN: Well, what do you make of Netanyahu saying that it's part - it's Israel's policy. We are all about freedom of speech. People can come here, except anyone who supports this boycott. I mean, is - does that fly in the face of freedom of speech laws?

HARRIS: No, I don't think it does actually, in the sense that every government, every democratic country that I know of exercises the right to restrict entry to certain categories of people, including the United States, including the United Kingdom. There are categories of people that are not admitted to the United States based on their political beliefs or activities or their perceived connection to terrorism or what have you.

MARTIN: Although these are not women who are in that category, and the fact remains that they are political rivals of President Donald Trump. Do you feel comfortable with the idea of the Israeli prime minister doing something that would help President Trump in a domestic political dispute as opposed to doing something that's best for Israel?

HARRIS: Under Israeli law, first of all, if you support a boycott of Israel, you're effectively calling for the destruction of the state, whether by violent or non-violent means, in this case non-violent means. And under Israeli law, that is a category. We urged the prime minister to bypass that law and allow the two of them to come in. And even if their itinerary did not include meetings with Israeli officials, then perhaps they would nonetheless see something on the ground for themselves rather than simply from a distance.

As for the president, I regret the fact that he chose to get involved in this issue and do so so publicly. It put the prime minister, again, in a difficult position. This is Israel's most important ally, so I wish we could have depoliticized this and simply focused on the two members. Again, at the end of the day, we wish they had been admitted. We're pleased that Congresswoman Tlaib has been admitted. And we hope we can move on from here.

MARTIN: David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee. Thank you so much for your time.

HARRIS: My pleasure, Rachel. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.