Benjamin Netanyahu has barred two Muslim-American Democrat congresswomen from entering Israel after Donald Trump said it would show “great weakness” if he allowed them in.
The move will inflame tensions between the Israeli prime minister and the Democratic Party but will also delight Mr Trump, who has repeatedly targeted both women with racial attacks.
It may also set a precedent that could see Jeremy Corbyn barred from visiting Israel or the Palestinian territories because he supports boycotting Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim women in Congress, were due to arrive this weekend for a tour of Jerusalem and several West Bank Palestinian cities.
Both have expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, which encourages boycotts of Israel in protest of its treatment of the Palestinians.
Under Israeli law, BDS supporters can be barred from entering the country. But Israel’s ambassador in Washington said previously that Ms Omar and Ms Tlaib would be allowed in “out of respect for the US Congress”.
Israel’s government reversed course amid pressure from Mr Trump, who made it clear he wanted the women to be barred.
“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit,” he said on Twitter. “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.”
Mr Netanyahu called the congresswomen “leading activists in promoting the legislation of boycotts against Israel in the American Congress”.
“The itinerary of the two congresswomen reveals that their sole purpose is to harm Israel and increase incitement against it,” he said.
Miftah, a Palestinian group helping to organise the trip, said Israel was trying to “impose a blackout on reality in occupied Palestine and prevent Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar from having direct contact with Palestinian people”.
“This ban is a clear case of discrimination and hostility based on political views and ethnic background, deserving of moral indignation and unequivocal condemnation in Palestine and the United States,” the group said.
Ms Omar released a statement comparing the ban to Mr Trump’s ban on people from Muslim-majority countries entering the US. “It is an affront that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from President Trump, would deny entry to representatives of the US government,” she said.
“Trump’s Muslim ban is what Israel is implementing, this time against two duly elected Members of Congress.”
David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, gave Mr Netanyahu America’s full backing.
“In contrast to the nearly 70 freshmen members of Congress who just recently completed, or who are currently pursuing, a balanced visit to Israel that includes meetings with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Tlaib/Omar Delegation has limited its exposure to tours organized by the most strident of BDS activists,” he said.
“This trip, pure and simple, is nothing more than an effort to fuel the BDS engine that Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar so vigorously support.”
He said the BDS movement was “no less than economic warfare designed to delegitimise and ultimately destroy the Jewish State.”
He added: “Israel properly has enacted laws to bar entry of BDS activists under the circumstances present here, and it has every right to protect its borders against those activists in the same manner as it would bar entrants with more conventional weapons.”
Ms Omar and Ms Tlaib were among a wave of Left-wing Democrats elected in the 2018 midterm elections. Ms Tlaib is of Palestinian origin and both women are strong supporters of Palestinian rights. However, both have also been accused of veering into anti-Semitism while criticising Israel.
Mr Trump has taken aim at both women in a series of tweets, suggesting that they “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”.
Mr Trump’s supporters chanted “send her back” about Ms Omar at a recent rally, a chorus that the president later distanced himself from.
Mr Netanyahu’s decision was immediately condemned by Democrat presidential candidates. “This would be a shameful, unprecedented move,” said Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat senator who is among the leading candidates for president.
Democrats have become openly critical of the Right-wing Israeli leader in recent years and several Democrat presidential candidates have accused him of racism.
Many Democrats have not forgiven Mr Netanyahu for a 2015 speech he gave in Washington lambasting Barack Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran. The speech was seen by Democrats as disrespectful of Mr Obama.
Thursday’s decision has potential implications for any future visits to Israel by Mr Corbyn, who has called for boycotts of Israeli settlements and for a halt to arms sales to the Jewish state.
Israeli officials had previously said that an exception would be made for Mr Corbyn out of respect for the British-Israeli partnership. However, if Israel is prepared to risk a confrontation with the Democratic Party it seems they could also bar the Labour leader.
Mr Netanyahu’s decision was criticised by some Israeli liberals.
“A country with a smart foreign policy would invite members of congress who do not like its positions and make sure that the visit exposes the complexity of the conflict,” said Stav Shaffir, an opposition MP.
“The cowardly Netanyahu slams the door and gives a gift to BDS, who gives back to Bibi gift: fear and disconnection.”