The politics of Israel are beginning to grow divisive in the Democratic Party, after decades of near-unanimous support. But, like many intra-party disputes, nothing brings the family together like an attack by President Donald Trump.
Earlier this year, Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail faced the uncomfortable task of responding to comments made by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) that were perceived by many inside the caucus as anti-Semitic. But months and several sustained attacks by the president later, Democrats have increasingly put aside their disagreements to instead train their rhetorical fire at him.
Thursday was no exception.
“Appalling,” “shameful” and “unAmerican,” were just a few of the words 2020 Democrats used to describe the Israeli government’s decision--and subsequent praise of it from Trump—to bar Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), the first two Muslim women in Congress, from embarking on a scheduled trip there this weekend.
The decision not to permit the American lawmakers to enter the country was announced hours after Trump tweeted that Israel would show “great weakness” if it allowed the two women in. He added that he viewed both Democrats as a “disgrace.”
“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!” Trump tweeted.
Progressive contenders were the first to react.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the decision would be a “a shameful, unprecedented move” even before it was finalized. “Israel doesn't advance its case as a tolerant democracy or unwavering US ally by barring elected members of Congress from visiting because of their political views,” she tweeted, urging the Israeil government to allow their entrance into the country.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) expressed a similar sentiment: “Banning Congresswomen Omar and Tlaib from entering Israel and Palestine is a sign of enormous disrespect to these elected leaders, to the United States Congress, and to the principles of democracy,” Sanders tweeted after the ban was announced. “The Israeli government should reverse this decision and allow them in.”
Other leading Democratic candidates also strongly criticized the move, while taking stabs at the president’s foreign policy missteps. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) said “Trump is playing politics as he weakens our global leadership,” while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) called the move “appalling” and added that “Trump's behavior is unacceptable, dangerous, and un-American.”
Foreign policy experts said the president co-signing a foreign country’s decision to keep American citizens out was unprecedented, and that the move was made by an ally that has traditionally had bipartisan support made the move even more striking.
“It’s not unprecedented for countries to try and keep members of Congress out, but they’re not countries that have serious, close relationships with Washington,” said Heather Hurlburt, a director at New America and former senior White House and State Department official under President Bill Clinton. “They’re countries that place a stronger value on whatever way they want to remain in control. That’s a real change in how the Israeli government sees its relationship with the U.S.”
Kelly Magsamen, vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, added the move can be distilled to one basic idea for voters on the campaign trail: “An American president is telling a foreign country to ban members of an opposition party,” Magsamen said. “It creates a really terrible precedent beyond Israel.”
Away from the campaign trail on Capitol Hill—where Omar’s comments have put Israel politics front-and-center all year, to the dismay of most House Democrats—the party was eager to set aside its internal fights and put forward a unified front in opposition to Trump.
A range of Democrats, from staunchly pro-Israel leaders of the party to liberals who often echo Omar’s critical language, quickly slammed Israel’s decision.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who is closely aligned with the views of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups, said Israel’s decision was “outrageous” regardless of Omar and Tlaib’s views. Hoyer helped lead a congressional delegation to Israel just last weekend, and on Thursday said he’d received personal assurances from Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., that Omar and Tlaib would be allowed in the country in a gesture of respect to Congress.
“I call on the Prime Minister 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,” said Hoyer. An aide to the number two House Democrat added that Hoyer believes Israel’s move reveals weakness and threatens to undermine the “bipartisan consensus” on U.S.-Israel ties.
A fellow member of the so-called “Squad,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), called on the U.S. to reevaluate its relationship with its close ally after this decision.
“They are duly elected members of Congress and we cannot allow them to be marginalized, discriminated against, nor targeted because of their gender, their religious beliefs, nor their ethnicity,” said Pressley.
But it was perhaps Israel’s most vocal critic in the House, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), who framed Israel’s move in a completely different light from her Democratic colleagues.
“Trump & Netanyahu are afraid to have @reprashida & @ilhan witness first-hand the brutality & dehumanization Israel’s occupation inflicts on the Palestinian people,” tweeted McCollum. “This bigoted president is working to extend his Muslim travel ban to Members of Congress.”
While Democrats went on a unified attack Thursday, Republicans headed to the bunkers, with few in the party willing to say anything at all about the news—much less call out Israel and, by extension, Trump.
A few days ago, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was in Israel alongside Hoyer urging the government to allow Omar and Tlaib to visit. But McCarthy’s office did not return a request for comment from The Daily Beast about Israel’s decision, nor did House GOP leadership members Reps. Steve Scalise (LA) and Liz Cheney (WY).
One of the few Republicans to publicly criticize Israel was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who tweeted that it was a mistake for the government to deny them entry. “Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state,” he tweeted.
The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), tried to stake out something of a middle ground; in a statement to The Daily Beast, he said it was for Israel to decide if Omar and Tlaib should be allowed in the country but said he believes “a visit could have been a good opportunity for Reps. Tlaib and Omar to gain a better understanding of the Israeli experience and culture.”
In their responses, the congresswomen reserved harsh words for Netanyahu and Trump, who Omar blamed for conspiring to block them from the country.
"The irony of the 'only democracy' in the Middle East making such a decision is that it is both an insult to democratic values and a chilling response to a visit by government officials from an allied nation," said Omar.
On Twitter, Tlaib posted a photo of her grandmother–who lives in the Palestinian territories and who she intended to visit on this trip. "The decision by Israel to bar her granddaughter, a U.S. Congresswoman, is a sign of weakness b/c the truth of what is happening to Palestinians is frightening,” Tlaib wrote.