Despite mounting opposition, US House leader moves to invite Netanyahu to Congress

Republican Mike Johnson sets deadline for Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer to sign on and make it a joint session or will proceed alone; Democrats divided

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, a Republican of Louisiana, meets with reporters following a Republican strategy session, at the Capitol in Washington, May 22, 2024. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, a Republican of Louisiana, meets with reporters following a Republican strategy session, at the Capitol in Washington, May 22, 2024. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

WASHINGTON — The Republican leader of the US House of Representatives said on Tuesday he was close to inviting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address lawmakers even if the Senate’s Democratic leader did not go along.

House Speaker Mike Johnson told reporters at the Capitol he had given Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer until Tuesday to sign a letter inviting Netanyahu to address a joint meeting.

“If not, we’re going to proceed and invite Netanyahu just to the House,” Johnson said.

Schumer confirmed that he was talking to Johnson. “I’m discussing that now with the speaker of the House and, as I’ve always said, our relationship with Israel is ironclad. It transcends any one prime minister or president,” Schumer told reporters at his weekly news conference.

Johnson told reporters that though he hadn’t spoken directly with Schumer, “our staffs have communicated and it seems as though he wants to sign on,” the Axios website reported.

However, members of Schumer’s Democratic party have reportedly pushed back hard against a Netanyahu speech to both houses and are urging the top lawmaker to not sign the invitation letter.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican-Kentucky, speaks to reporters following a Republican strategy session, at the Capitol in Washington, May 21, 2024. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Rep. Dan Kildee from Michigan, a senior party member told Axios, “I don’t think it’s a good time… let’s not complicate an already complicated situation.”

House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Jim Himes of Connecticut was cited as saying Netanyahu “should be focused on freeing hostages, not on charming legislators,” while former House speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said of the invitation idea, “No.”

Other Democrats also weighed in on the developments.

Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, panned the invitation as a “political gesture.”

Netanyahu, he told Axios, is “dividing this country… in a similar way he’s divided Israel, and I think that’s awfully dangerous.”

Rep. Scott Peters from California agreed, saying, “I think it’s a strange time to invite Netanyahu, it’s a really divisive kind of move.”

Two other House Democrats, speaking on the condition of anonymity, highlighted the potential political fallout from a speech. One noted that a “huge issue” for Democrats is concern that inviting Netanyahu to give a speech in Washington would give legitimacy to the Israeli leader at home and undermine the local opposition, while the other said, “It’s a very politically thorny exercise.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a video address on May 20, 2024. (Screenshot/GPO)

Yet some Democrats urged Schumer to sign the invitation.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz of Florida said the summons “should be bipartisan” even if the party has “policy disagreements” with Netanyahu.

Rep. Annie Kuster of New Hampshire pointed out that Congress “can recognize heads of state without agreeing with everything they say” and that inviting Netanyahu “could create dialogue” between the prime minister and some of his critics.

Axios noted that many progressive US lawmakers told the website they would boycott a Netanyahu speech if it went ahead.

Fox News quoted Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York saying that “Republicans are playing politics again with Israel, which is the wrong thing to do.”

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, Democrat-Florida, speaks during a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 20, 2024. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who met with Netanyahu in Israel earlier this week, said Wednesday that the Israeli leader has not spoken to the White House about a speech, Axios said. Two of Netanyahu’s aides, speaking anonymously, told the website they had no update about an invitation.

The possible divide between the two parties over the issue underscored the politicization of policy on Israel, months before a November presidential election in which Democratic US President Joe Biden is running against Republican former president Donald Trump.

Republicans have criticized Biden for holding up a weapons shipment to Israel, although other US arms shipments to the Middle East country remain in the pipeline.

Israel launched an assault on Hamas in the Gaza Strip after the terror group led a devastating October 7 attack on the country, killing 1,200 people and abducting 252 people as hostages to Gaza.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 35,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far, though only some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals. The toll, which cannot be verified, includes some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel says it killed another 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on Oct. 7.

With humanitarian aid deliveries disrupted by the fighting, welfare groups report malnutrition is widespread, much of the coastal enclave’s population has been left homeless, and a major swath of infrastructure has been destroyed.

Troops of the Nahal Brigade operate in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in a handout image published May 22, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Biden’s handling of the war has sparked protests from many of his fellow Democrats and at college campuses across the US. Biden has urged Netanyahu to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza and has opposed a large-scale attack on Gaza’s southernmost city, Rafah.

Netanyahu, who has long aligned himself with US Republicans, in March, addressed party members in the Senate via a video link, nearly a week after Schumer gave a Senate speech branding the prime minister an obstacle to peace and urging new elections in Israel.

Netanyahu could suffice by only addressing the Republican-controlled House, but that would only highlight further the division that he has sparked in Washington where support for Israel was once a matter of bipartisan consensus.

Addresses to joint meetings of Congress by foreign leaders are a rare honor generally reserved for the closest US allies or major world figures. Netanyahu has already given such addresses three times, most recently in 2015.

That year, Republican congressional leaders invited Netanyahu to address a joint meeting without consulting Democratic then-president Barack Obama, as Netanyahu joined Republicans in opposition to Obama’s international nuclear deal with Iran.

Netanyahu would be the first foreign leader ever to address joint meetings of Congress four times. He is currently tied at three with Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill.

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