Biden, other Democrats may skip Netanyahu’s speech

J Street lobby urges Boehner to postpone controversial Congressional address till after the Israeli elections

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Benjamin Netanyahu receiving a standing ovation from Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner during a speech to Congress on May 24, 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu receiving a standing ovation from Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner during a speech to Congress on May 24, 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

US Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats may boycott a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of Congress next month, as the administration stews over the appearance, which was planned against the White Houses wishes.

Biden, who also serves as Senate president, refused to confirm that he would attend the March 3 address, website Politico reported Tuesday. Biden normally sits behind the speaker of the House during addresses by foreign leaders so his absence during Netanyahu’s speech would be noticeable.

Several other Democrats also privately warned they may not attend the prime minister’s speech.

The address, about the importance of thwarting Iran’s march to nuclear weapons, has proved a major point of friction between Jerusalem and Washington, which called the timing “inappropriate” over its proximity to Israeli elections and said the visit was not arranged in accordance with proper protocol.

House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, invited Netanyahu to a joint session of Congress to speak about a potential deal being negotiated between Iran and the United States.

Netanyahu had been expected to urge US lawmakers to pass a new sanctions bill against Iran to force to it comply with international demands it curb its nuclear program — a bill Obama strongly opposes and has vowed to veto, saying that such a move would hinder the P5+1 negotiations under way to secure a deal with Tehran. Amid the controversy over his appearance, however, Netanyahu is now thought more likely to focus on the dangers posed by Iran and to argue against a bad deal with Tehran that would leave it with a breakout capacity.

Netanyahu’s relationship with US President Barack Obama had already been famously thorny before the affair, with the leaders butting heads over how to tackle Iran’s nuclear threat.

Last week at a retreat, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she didn’t know if most House Democrats would appear at the joint session of Congress.

“With all the respect in the world for the prime minister, and all the love in the world for the State of Israel, I don’t know that even everyone in Israel is supportive of the invitation,” Pelosi told journalists covering the retreat.

Pelosi was referring to claims that Netanyahu was addressing Congress in order to get a boost in the polls two weeks before Israelis cast their ballots. The leader of the Meretz party, Zahava Gal-on, even questioned the legality of Netanyahu’s trip so close to the March 17 elections.

Democrat Rep. Steve Cohen told Politico he’s considered not going because of both the current talks with Iran and the proximity of the speech to the elections.

“With his election being so soon, and with the negotiations we have going on with Iran, he’s put himself in a political situation here that’s probably adverse to the best interest of Israel,” Cohen said.

J Street, the left-wing Israel lobby group, has not encouraged Democrats to protest Netanyahu’s speech, but has backed postponing the prime minister’s visit until after March 17, emailing decision-makers a letter co-written by Cohen and Rep. Keith Ellison that urges Boehner to reschedule the speech.

The pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, which will host Netanyahu in its March 1-3 conference, came out in favor of the address.

“We encourage all members of Congress to attend this important speech by the Israeli Prime Minister,” AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman told Politico.

The White House has not publicly come out with an opinion on whether lawmakers should attend the speech or protest it. “We defer to Democratic members if they’d like to attend or not,” a White House aide said Tuesday.

Netanyahu last addressed Congress in May 2011, and was warmly received by a friendly crowd of lawmakers.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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