US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders delivers a campaign speech at the Iowa State Fair on August 11. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty/AFP

A decision by Israel to bar two American congresswomen from embarking on a highly sensitive tour of the country has over the past 24 hours prompted US lawmakers to call for scrutiny of billions in annual aid to the Jewish state.

“The idea that a member of the United States Congress cannot visit a nation, which – by the way – we support to the tune of billions and billions of dollars, is clearly an outrage,” Senator Bernie Sanders told MSNBC on Thursday night.

Sanders is currently among the frontrunners in the Democratic presidential primary race and consistently out-polls the incumbent Donald Trump. In a Fox News poll released Thursday, Sanders was projected to beat Trump by a 9% margin.

And he came out swinging after the Israeli decision against the tour by his junior colleagues Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan was announced.

“If Israel doesn’t want members of the United States Congress to visit their country to get a firsthand look at what’s going on – and I have been there many many times – but if [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] doesn’t want members to visit, maybe he can respectfully decline the billions of dollars that we give to Israel.”

His fellow presidential hopefuls – Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Joe Biden – also condemned the move by Israel but did not touch on aid.

Tlaib, who often refers to Senator Sanders as “aamu (uncle) Bernie”, using the Arabic term of endearment, is of Palestinian heritage.

Both she and Omar, who immigrated from Somalia to the United States, have been vocal critics of Israeli policies. But they wanted to defy accusations of anti-Semitism with a visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, where they were slated to meet with Jewish and Arab activists and politicians.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the savvy rising star of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, hailed Sanders’ position on Twitter. “This statement is a big deal,” she said. “He’s not just standing up for two members – he’s standing for the integrity of the entire US Congress.”

Political persuasion

Sanders, a senator from Vermont, was not the only US lawmaker to raise the specter that longstanding financial aid to Israel – averaging $3 billion annually over the last decade – could become a target of progressives in the future.

Marc Pocan, the Democratic representtive for Wisconsin, told Politico that delegations to Israel should be halted and financial aid re-examined after the barring of his colleagues.

“No more members of Congress, no delegations, should be going to Israel unless this decision is reversed. And I think we’re going to have to have some serious conversations even about financial support,” said Pocan, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, seen as the ascendant wing of his party.

“You can’t have a respectful relationship, and give the amount of billions of dollars that we give to a country like Israel, but at the same time have them denying members of Congress – I don’t care where their political persuasion comes from – access into the country,” he told the outlet.

Another progressive Democrat, Ro Khanna of California, also touched on the issue of financial largesse, without directly threatening to withhold aid.

“The US is 24% of world GDP; Israel is .44%. We give Israel and other nations billions in aid. Do you see why it’s insulting to the American people for you to deny entry to Congresswomen?” he tweeted to Israel’s envoy in Washington.

Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer had earlier issued assurances that his government would not bar any American lawmaker “out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.”

But Prime Minister Netanyahu reversed course following a tweet from President Trump, in which the US leader said Israel would “show great weakness” if it allowed a visit by the vocally critical congresswomen.

Netanyahu’s office said the reversal was made on the recommendation of his Interior Ministry, which concluded: “The itinerary of the two Congresswomen reveals that the sole purpose of their visit is to harm Israel and increase incitement against it.” 

‘Special relationship’ stands

It is unlikely that American support for Israel, long considered an indispensable Middle East ally, would be put in jeopardy anytime soon over the spurning by one Israeli government of two freshmen US representatives.

Even the administration of President Barack Obama, whose ties with Netanyahu were famously strained, facilitated a record-busting $38 billion military aid package in 2016 to be dispersed over a period of a decade.

And over the summer, multiple delegations of US lawmakers visited Israel.

But for pro-Israel lobbying groups, intelligentsia, and Democratic lawmakers, the move by Israel has raised concerns that the “special relationship” is increasingly being consigned to the divisive persona of Trump.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose annual conference has long been viewed as a critical stop for US politicians from across the spectrum, came out against the barring of the congresswomen.

“We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib’s support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement, along with Rep. Tlaib’s calls for a one-state solution. We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand,” the pro-Israel group said.

Later, on Friday, Israel’s Interior Ministry approved a visa for Tlaib to visit her grandmother, who is in her 90s and lives in the occupied West Bank. The permission appeared to be contingent on a written pledge by Tlaib not to engage in activism against Israeli policies.

Tlaib, however, announced the withdrawal of her request.

I have decided that visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions stands against everything I believe in,” she tweeted, saying that she would not be silenced. 

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