Why Democrats may boycott Netanyahu speech to Congress

Democrats need to proceed carefully here because a full-on boycott of Netanyahu’s speech risks alienating an important constituency group in the Democratic Party.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP/File
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D) of North Carolina speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 6, 2015. Two prominent House Democrats said Thursday that they'll skip Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress next month, saying they disapprove of House Speaker John Boehner's decision to invite the Israeli leader without consulting the White House. Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, a hero of the civil rights movement, also said that he won't attend Netanyahu's March 3 speech.

There seems to be a growing movement on the part of some groups to persuade Democratic members of Congress to skip the speech that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be giving to a Joint Session of Congress early next month:

Vice President Joe Biden won’t commit to attending Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress next month.

He’s not the only one.

Dozens of House Democrats are privately threatening to skip the March 3 address, according to lawmakers and aides, in what’s become the lowest point of a relationship between the Israeli prime minister and President Barack Obama that’s never been good.

Democrats have had to balance publicly supporting Israel with backing Obama, who’s trying to close a deal with Iran to curb its nuclear programs over vehement opposition from Netanyahu, who has expressed concerns that the U.S. president is being naive. Negotiations are facing a deadline at the end of March for a political framework.

The speech was devised by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer to provide Netanyahu a prominent Washington platform to warn about the dangers of the proposed deal with Iran. But it also appeared to be based on an Israeli perception that Obama was weakened after midterm elections gave control of both houses of Congress to Republicans, and timed to take place just two weeks before Netanyahu faces reelection on March 17 – and footage of American officials applauding him couldn’t hurt his prospects.

But that reading of Obama seems not to have been updated since November, when Obama’s own poll numbers started moving up again, and – hough Netanyahu’s Likud Party is still leading in Israeli polls – miscalculated the backlash in Israel from putting his relationship with the American president on the line.

Netanyahu’s already been denied an Oval Office meeting with Obama. Secretary of State John Kerry has no plans to meet with him while he’s in town, a State Department official told POLITICO on Tuesday.


The president and his aides won’t tell Democrats to skip the speech. But they aren’t telling Democrats to go, either.

“We defer to Democratic members if they’d like to attend or not,” a White House aide said Tuesday.

Biden’s office wouldn’t comment on the decision-making process about attending the speech. As president of the Senate, he usually takes a seat beside Boehner on the podium behind the lectern for addresses by foreign leaders.

Though some may abandon the threat, as of Tuesday, many Democrats on the Hill – including several Jewish members – said they’re likely to leave the prime minister looking at some empty seats.

At the same time, other Democrats seem likely to attend the speech even as they are critical of Boehner for scheduling it:

Not all Democrats are backing away from the speech. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who last week criticized Boehner for inviting Netanyahu without first informing the White House, would go, said her spokesman Drew Hammill – though he hedged, holding out the possibility that the speech may yet be canceled.

“The leader attends every joint meeting and, of course, will attend should this speech take place,” Hammill said.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he’ll attend. Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also said he’ll be there.

“Frankly, the strong U.S.-Israel relationship, bipartisan relationship through the years, is stronger than any perceived slight or dispute,” Engel said. “I care about the U.S.-Israel relationship. It has always been bipartisan and will continue to be.”

To some degree, of course, Democrats need to proceed carefully here because a full-on boycott of Netanyahu’s speech risks alienating an important constituency group in the Democratic Party, although it’s admittedly true that it’s unlikely that Jewish-Americans are going to start voting Republican any time soon. Indeed, it seems as though conservative religious Republicans are more emphatic in their support of Israel in general, and the right wing policies of Netanyahu’s government in particular, than Jewish-Americans in general tend to be, or at least that they are less willing to entertain dissent from the idea that Israel is “our most important ally” and that we ought to be doing whatever it is that Netanyahu and his political supporters in Israel want us to do vis a vis Iran, the Palestinians, or the Middle East in general. The reality, of course, is that while the United States and Israel have many common interests, we also have areas where our interests do not necessarily converge, and one of those areas is the question of how to approach the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu has long adhered to the idea that a nuclear Iran would be an existential threat to Israel, notwithstanding Israel’s clear military superiority. Because of this, he has essentially taken the position that negotiations are not going to work and has been lobbying for war for several years now. No doubt, the Obama administration’s decision to continue with negotiations is a large cause of the tensions between him and President Obama.

As for this upcoming speech, as  noted last week, it seems clear that the Republicans in Congress and Prime Minister Netanyahu are engaging in actions that are designed to unduly politicize the relationship between the US and Israel. It’s unfortunate that Democrats are considering boycotting the speech, but it’s also understandable under the circumstances given the fact that the only purpose for the speech will be to give Netanyahu, who is running for reelection, a political boost back home by allowing him to criticize the US president from the floor of the House. That’s inappropriate and it would be best if Boehner rescheduled the speech until some time after the Israeli elections.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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