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AIPAC, Democrats seethe as Israel bars US Muslim lawmakers

Israel's decision to bar two Muslim members of the US Congress drew strikingly sharp criticism from several allies to the Jewish state, including top Democratic lawmakers, presidential hopefuls and influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, widely supported by Democrats and Republicans alike in Washington, led a collection of pro-Israel groups in denouncing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's block of the anti-Trump lawmakers' visit, a move encouraged by President Donald Trump himself.

While the group's members "disagree" with support by House Democrats Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib for a boycott on Israel, AIPAC said "we also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand."

More than 70 House and Senate Democrats publicly denounced Israel's rejection, while Republican lawmakers were largely silent following the announcement.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a staunch Israel ally on Capitol Hill, called the decision "a sign of weakness (that) will only hurt the US-Israeli relationship and support for Israel in America."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi herself has clashed with Omar and Tlaib, who have been accused of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements.

But Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, called the travel ban "beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel."

Israel scrapped the visit shortly after Trump weighed in via Twitter to say it would be showing "great weakness" if the Jewish state allowed the lawmakers in, leading to suspicion that Netanyahu acted only after receiving ally Trump's imprimatur.

That notion was reinforced by Israel's ex-ambassador to Washington Danny Ayalon, who tweeted that his government had "rightfully decided to accept that recommendation" from Trump.

Omar, a Somali refugee, and Tlaib, born in Detroit to Palestinian immigrants, have faced censure from colleagues in Congress.

The House of Representatives voted to condemn anti-Semitism in March, after a series of Omar remarks that were criticized as offensive to Israel and Jews.

But colleagues rushed to their defense on Thursday, angrily opposing the Israeli ban that Omar herself described as "chilling." Several lawmakers expressed alarm at Trump's deviation from traditional diplomatic protocol, saying his interference will only drive a wedge between the longstanding allies and undermine the bipartisan basis for congressional support.

"The Trump Administration made a mistake in urging Israel to prevent them from entering the country," said Senator Susan Collins, one of the only Republican lawmakers to openly break with Trump over the incident.

Several Democratic presidential candidates piled on, including frontrunner Joe Biden, attacking Netanyahu's decision and Trump's public meddling in a sovereign nation's affairs.

Trump himself insisted it was Israel's call.

"What they've said is disgraceful, so I can't imagine why Israel would let them in," Trump told reporters of the lawmakers. "But if they want to let them in, they can."

While most Republicans laid low, some support for Netanyahu's move, and Trump's intervention, trickled out.

Congressman Mo Brooks tweeted that Omar and Tlaib "hate, want to hurt, maybe even destroy" the Jewish state.

"Israel bars enemies from entering Israel," the Alabama Republican added.