White House

House Democrats weigh action against U.S. and Israel ambassadors over banned visit

Trump says alliance between US and Israel has ‘never been stronger’

President Donald Trump reinforces the close relationship between Israel and the United States during a ceremony at the White House on March 25, 2019 to sign a proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
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President Donald Trump reinforces the close relationship between Israel and the United States during a ceremony at the White House on March 25, 2019 to sign a proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Senior Democratic members of Congress are considering action against top emissaries of the Israeli government and the Trump administration for their roles in Israel’s decision to bar two House members from entering the country.

About a dozen lawmakers, including senior Jewish members, began discussions on Friday morning over ways to communicate a “deep lack of confidence and trust” in Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.

The group is weighing issuing a statement of no confidence in Dermer and opening an inspector general investigation into Friedman’s conduct, the sources said.

Israel banned Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from a planned visit to Israel and the West Bank this weekend, provoking outrage among Democrats and several Republicans, including some who have harshly criticized the two lawmakers on policy grounds.

“We are reviewing all of our options,” a senior congressional source told McClatchy. “With Dermer, the issue is that there already was a severe lack of trust. But now there is a severe lack of confidence. It is completely unclear that he represents his government given he has made promises that he has not kept and wasn’t clear if he ever had any chance of keeping.”

The Democratic lawmakers include Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel of New York and Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey of New York. Two congressional sources said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland was also part of the talks, but his spokeswoman Katie Grant said he is not involved.

In a statement, Hoyer referred to Israel’s decision on Tlaib and Omar as “deeply disappointing,” “disrespectful,” “unacceptable” and a “self-inflicted wound” on the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Dermer had assured Hoyer in recent weeks that, “out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any Member of Congress into Israel.”

But the Israeli government reversed course on Thursday under pressure from President Donald Trump, who is campaigning to portray the freshman congresswomen’s policies as the future of the Democratic Party.

Trump tweeted: “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit” and that “They are a disgrace!”

Many Democrats have viewed Dermer skeptically since 2015, when the top Netanyahu confidante orchestrated the prime minister’s controversial address to Congress targeting then-President Barack Obama’s nuclear talks with Iran. In a rare move, Netanyahu requested last month to extend Dermer’s term for a third time due to his close ties both with his office and the Trump administration.

Adding to their concern over Dermer’s handling of the congresswomen’s visit, Democrats were further angered after the Israelis released Omar and Tlaib’s planned itinerary and a letter from Tlaib in a public justification of the move. That action raised concerns over whether U.S. lawmakers can trust their communications with Israel’s embassy will remain private going forward.

“Dermer is saying privately that he expects this to go away within a day – it’s a real lack of understanding on the consequences of this,” one congressional source said.

On Sunday evening, Trump reacted to the Democrats’ potential plans.

“House Democrats want to take action against Israel because it is fighting back against two (maybe four) people that have said unthinkably bad things about it & the Israeli people,” the president tweeted. “Dems have such disdain for Israel! What happened?”

The group of Democrats is also considering action against Trump’s ambassador to Israel, who issued a public statement defending Israel’s decision on Thursday, citing the country’s laws against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Both Omar and Tlaib support the BDS movement.

In the morning talks, lawmakers recalled a 1975 incident in which Henry Waxman, a longtime Democratic congressman from California, was banned from Saudi Arabia after listing his Jewish background on his visa application. The State Department intervened at that time in order to ensure all members of Congress could conduct business on behalf of the government, and Waxman was allowed in.

Friedman is breaking with that precedent, they argue, by failing to stand up for members of Congress.

The group of Democratic lawmakers may call for a formal inspector general investigation “into the role the ambassador played in barring them from entering the country,” another congressional source said.

“Committees can make it very difficult for ambassadors to do their jobs,” the source continued, “if he makes it very difficult for our members to do our jobs.”

Lesley Clark contributed reporting.

Updated with a reaction on Twitter from President Donald Trump.

Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.