The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Months before blocking their entry into Israel, Netanyahu wrote letter opposing Reps. Omar and Tlaib

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), right, speaks as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) listens during a news conference at the Capitol in July. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Before his government barred Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from visiting Israel last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called them the “antithesis” of “strong bipartisan support for Israel in the United States Congress,” according to a letter he wrote to House Democrats this summer.

The letter, addressed to Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), was in response to a number of Democratic lawmakers who had been urging Netanyahu to reconsider an order to deport a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Jerusalem because of his alleged support for a movement to boycott Israel, which has become a flash point between Netanyahu’s right-wing government and supporters of Palestinian rights.

Netanyahu’s decision to block Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Omar (D-Minn.) from entering Israel was widely condemned by American lawmakers from both parties and Jewish groups that traditionally have been supportive of the Israeli prime minister.

For many, Netanyahu’s move to block the congresswomen was considered a capitulation to President Trump, who had said that allowing the lawmakers into Israel “would show great weakness.”

But the letter reveals that Netanyahu had long identified Tlaib and Omar — fierce critics of Israeli policy on Palestinians — as a problem for his government. At the heart of his opposition was the idea that they support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Netanyahu’s letter shows how the BDS movement and its growing support could become a wedge between the Israeli government and Democrats.

A copy of the letter from Netanyahu, dated June 2, was viewed by The Washington Post on Monday. A spokesman for McGovern later confirmed that the office had received the letter on Aug. 14.

The Israeli Embassy in Washington did not respond on Monday to a request for comment on the letter.

Seventeen Democratic lawmakers, including McGovern, Tlaib and Omar, had written to Netanyahu in May to ask the Israeli leader to intervene in the planned deportation of Omar Shakir, director of the Human Rights Watch office for Israel and the Palestinian territories, who had been accused of supporting the BDS movement.

“To carry out our own human rights work and responsibilities in the U.S. House of Representatives, we rely on the reports of Human Rights Watch for balanced accounts of human rights violations wherever they may occur, including here in the United States,” the letter said, arguing that deporting Shakir would “reinforce the impression that Israel is increasingly hostile to human rights defenders.”

Shakir, a U.S. citizen, had his Israeli work permit revoked in 2018 because of an amendment to the country’s immigration laws in 2017 that empowered the country to ban BDS supporters. The Palestinian-led campaign calls for various forms of boycott against Israel until it takes measures including a withdrawal from occupied territories and guaranteeing the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Shakir’s case was the first time Israel applied the law to a person already inside the country, provoking criticism from organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations.

Addressing McGovern, the lead author of the Democrats’ letter, Netanyahu wrote that the existence of a “strong and vibrant civil society is a fundamental component of any healthy democracy” and that thousands of nongovernmental organizations operate in Israel.

But he added that the Israeli state is concerned with those “that under the banner of justice and human rights actively work to delegitimize the State of Israel and negate its very right to exist.”

Netanyahu alleged that Shakir had been a “leading activist” in the BDS movement, whose goal, he said, is to “isolate and ultimately destroy the State of Israel.” The Israeli prime minister wrote that it has been “proven that Mr. Shakir continues to publicly call for a boycott against Israel, while at the same time expecting Israel to welcome him with open arms.”

Shakir remains in Jerusalem as he appeals the court decision to deport him. He has said that the allegations against him relate to his “long-past student-activist days” and that he has not promoted boycotts of Israel at any point during his work with Human Rights Watch.

Netanyahu’s letter concluded by pointing to Tlaib and Omar’s signatures on the letter from House Democrats: “I was surprised to see among the signatories of your letter two BDS supporters, whose repeated condemnations of Israel and calls to boycott the Jewish state are the antithesis of the strong support for Israel expressed in the beginning of your letter and the strong bipartisan support for Israel in the United States Congress.”

“The inclusion of BDS sympathizers in your plea can only blemish those esteemed representatives whose political integrity and genuine concern for international human rights is undeniable,” the letter concludes.

Tlaib and Omar had been planning to arrive in Israel on Sunday on a trip they said was focused on the impact of recent U.S. policies and aid cuts to Palestinians. After Trump tweeted that their visit would “show great weakness,” the Israeli government announced the following day that it would block their visit.

The Israeli government subsequently said that it would allow Tlaib to travel to Israel to visit her grandmother, who lives in the occupied West Bank. However, Tlaib rejected the offer, saying that visiting under “oppressive conditions meant to humiliate me would break my grandmother’s heart.”