Democrats to respond to Netanyahu after Congress speech

Congressmen to hold press conference after address; Obama likely won’t watch speech, and White House invites Dems to meeting that clashes with it

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen during a hearing in Washington, February 4, 2014. (AP/Cliff Owen)
Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen during a hearing in Washington, February 4, 2014. (AP/Cliff Owen)

A group of Democratic lawmakers boycotting Tuesday’s congressional appearance by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plan on issuing a public response to the Israeli leader’s speech, a spokesman said Monday.

Representatives Steve Cohen and John Yarmuth will issue the response the controversial speech, in which Netanyahu is expected to make the case against a nuclear deal between the US and Iran.

The rebuttal will also be attended by Representatives David Price, Jan Schakowsky, Lloyd Doggett, Earl Blumenauer, Betty McCollum, Rep. Peter Welch and others.

The planned address to Congress has infuriated the White House and prominent Democrats because it was set up by congressional Republicans without consulting with the president, violating usual protocol.

Some 60 lawmakers, including several senators, plan on skipping the address to both houses of Congress, which is scheduled for 11 a.m. Washington time.

The response is scheduled for an hour and a half later.

On Monday night, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren added her name to the list of those boycotting the speech.

Those opposing the speech say Netanyahu’s determination to go ahead with the event has severely strained US-Israel relations, with National Security Adviser Susan Rice saying last week it was “destructive of the fabric of the relationship.”

Although the Obama administration has not publicly pushed lawmakers to not attend, the New York Times reported that late Monday night the White House emailed House Democrats inviting them to a trade meeting on Tuesday that clashed with the schedule of Netanyahu’s address.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday he did not believe President Barack Obama would watch the speech. Obama is not meeting with Netanyahu during his trip to Washington, though he said he would be willing to meet Netanyahu in the future should he remain prime minister after Israeli elections on March 17, dispelling reports of a personal rift between the two.

Netanyahu’s speech is controversial because it puts Israel on a collision course with the Obama administration as it negotiates with Iran over its nuclear program — talks that in their current form could lead to a deal that potentially poses an existential risk to Israel, Netanyahu has warned.

Thus, he intends to argue before Congress that the international community should increase its pressure on Iran, rather than ease sanctions against it under the reported terms of the emerging nuclear deal.

Last month both Cohen and Yarmuth were among 100 Democrat congressman who signed a letter to President Barack Obama
opposing any legislative action on Iran sanctions with talks underway.

“A bill or resolution that risks fracturing our international coalition or, worse yet, undermining our credibility in future negotiations and jeopardizing hard-won progress toward a verifiable final agreement, must be avoided,” said the letter that was signed by 100 Democrats as well as four Republicans.

The speech is set just two weeks before the prime minister faces elections back home, a fact that critics in Israel and the US have seized on to accuse Netanyahu of using the address to drum up support for his Likud party.

Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany — known as the P5+1 — have been seeking a comprehensive accord that would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb, in return for an easing of sanctions.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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