Democrats split over whether to attend Netanyahu’s upcoming Congress address

While some feel obligated to show up to July 24 session despite disagreements with PM, more Democrats are expected to skip upcoming speech over Gaza war than avoided 2015 address

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves following his address to a joint session of the US Congress on March 3, 2015 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (Mandel Ngan / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves following his address to a joint session of the US Congress on March 3, 2015 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (Mandel Ngan / AFP)

WASHINGTON — The last time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the US Congress, nearly 60 Democrats skipped his speech nine years ago, calling it a slap in the face to then-US president Barack Obama as he negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran.

With Netanyahu scheduled to address US lawmakers on July 24 and his government now at war with Hamas in Gaza, the number of absences is likely to be far greater.

Congressional Democrats are wrestling with whether to attend. Many are torn between their long-standing support for Israel and their anguish about the way Israel has conducted military operations in Gaza.

While some Democrats are saying they will come out of respect for Israel, a larger and growing faction wants no part of it, creating an extraordinarily charged atmosphere at a gathering that normally amounts to a ceremonial, bipartisan show of support for an American ally.

“I wish that he would be a statesman and do what is right for Israel. We all love Israel,” former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said recently on CNN about Netanyahu. “We need to help them and not have him stand in the way of that for such a long time.”

She added, “I think it’s going to invite more of what we have seen in terms of discontent among our own.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat, from left, speaks alongside Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, Rep. Jonathan Jackson, an Illinois Democrat, and Rep. Cori Bush, a Missouri Democrat, during a vigil with state legislators and faith leaders currently on hunger strike outside the White House to demand that US President Joe Biden call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, on November 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

Tensions between Netanyahu and Democratic President Joe Biden have been seeping into the public, with Netanyahu last week accusing the Biden administration of withholding US weapons from Israel — a claim he made again Sunday to his cabinet. After the prime minister leveled the charge the first time, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “We genuinely do not know what he’s talking about. We just don’t.”

The invitation from House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, to Netanyahu came after consultation with the White House, according to a person familiar with the matter who was granted anonymity to discuss the sensitive subject. As of now, no meeting between the leaders during Netanyahu’s Washington visit has been scheduled, this person said.

Netanyahu said in a release that he was “very moved” by the invitation to address Congress and the chance “to present the truth about our just war against those who seek to destroy us to the representatives of the American people and the entire world.”

Republicans first floated the idea in March of inviting Netanyahu after Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in the United States, gave a speech on the Senate floor that was harshly critical of the prime minister. Schumer, a New York Democrat, called the Israeli leader “an obstacle to peace” and urged new elections in Israel, even as he denounced Hamas and criticized Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, poses for a picture with then-Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

Republicans denounced the speech as an affront to Israel and its sovereignty. Johnson spoke of asking Netanyahu to come to Washington, an invitation that Schumer and House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York ultimately endorsed, albeit reluctantly. Pelosi, who opposed the invitation to Netanyahu in 2015 when she was Democratic leader, said it was a mistake for the congressional leadership to extend it again this time.

Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who attended the 2015 address as a House member, said he saw no reason why Congress “should extend a political lifeline” to Netanyahu.

Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it would be “healthy” for members of both parties to attend. “I think that a lot of Americans are getting a one-sided narrative, especially the younger generation, and I think it’s important they hear from the prime minister of Israel, in terms of his perspective,” said McCaul, a Texas Republican.

Interviews with more than a dozen Democrats revealed the breadth of discontent over the coming address, which many feel is a Republican ploy intended to divide their party. Some Democrats say they will attend to express their support for Israel, not Netanyahu.

New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he has an “obligation” to attend because of that position.

“It should not have taken place,” he added. “But I can’t control that. And I have to do my job.”

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has signaled he will be there. Cardin said that what he’s looking for in Netanyahu’s speech is a “type of message that can strengthen the support in this country for Israel’s needs,” but also lay the groundwork for peace in the region.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, right, asks a question as Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, left, listens during a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

Other Democrats are waiting to see whether Netanyahu will still be prime minister by the time he is supposed to speak to Congress.

There have been open signs of discontent over the handling of the war by Netanyahu’s government, a coalition that includes right-wing hardliners who oppose any kind of agreement with Hamas, which sparked the ongoing war when it launched the October 7 massacre on southern communities, murdering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 251 hostages to Gaza.

National Unity chair Benny Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, withdrew from Netanyahu’s war cabinet this month, citing frustration over the prime minister’s conduct of the war. Last week, Netanyahu dissolved that body. Meantime, a growing number of critics and protesters in Israel have backed a ceasefire proposal that would bring home hostages taken by Hamas.

It is believed that 120 hostages are still held in Gaza, 116 of whom were kidnapped on October 7, in addition to two civilians and the bodies of two soldiers held there for nearly a decade.

Rep. Seth Magaziner, a Rhode Island Democrat, said he stands with those “who hope that he’s not prime minister by the time late July rolls around. I think that he has been bad for Israel, bad for Palestinians, bad for America.” But, he added, he believes it his job to show up when a head of state addresses Congress, “even if it’s someone who I have concerns about and disagree with.”

Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat, attended the 2015 speech and described it as “among the most painful hours” he has spent while in Congress. He plans to boycott unless Netanyahu becomes a “champion for a ceasefire.”

A large portion of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — lawmakers who are among the most critical of Israel’s handling of the war — is expected to skip. Among them is Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the caucus, who told The Associated Press that it was a “bad idea,” to invite Netanyahu.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, speaks during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, December 5, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

“We should be putting pressure on him by withholding offensive military assistance so that he sticks to the deal that the president has laid out,” she said.

Netanyahu’s visit is expected to draw significant protests and some members of Congress are planning an alternative event.

Rep. Jim Clyburn said he is in the early stages of bringing “like-minded” people together to exchange ideas about a path forward for Israelis and Palestinians that includes a two-state solution. The senior Democrat from South Carolina was a vocal critic of Netanyahu’s 2015 address, which he and several prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus viewed as an affront to Obama.

“I just think that, rather than just say, ‘I’m not going to go, I’m going to stay way,’ I am saying ‘I’m going to stay away with a purpose,'” he said. “I’m not going to listen to his foolishness. But here are some ideas that we have that might be a way forward.”

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 37,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far. The toll, which cannot be verified and does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, is thought to include some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Three hundred and fifteen troops have been killed during the ground offensive against Hamas and amid operations along the Gaza border. The toll includes a police officer killed in a hostage rescue mission. A civilian Defense Ministry contractor has also been killed in the Strip.

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