Netanyahu to defend ‘just war’ in July 24 speech to joint session of US Congress

Address to come a month later than initially planned, creating major questions regarding the kind of message PM will give as Israel awaits Hamas response to hostage deal proposal

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of US Congress, Washington DC, March 3, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of US Congress, Washington DC, March 3, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress on July 24, top US lawmakers announced on Thursday, locking down a speech that is slated to further drive the wedge between Democrats and Republicans regarding support for Israel.

“The bipartisan, bicameral meeting symbolizes the US and Israel’s enduring relationship and will offer Prime Minister Netanyahu the opportunity to share the Israeli government’s vision for defending their democracy, combatting terror and establishing just and lasting peace in the region,” Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a joint statement, which notably did not include the Democratic Congressional leaders whose approval was also needed to extend the invitation to the Israeli premier.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had delayed the invite for weeks and in March gave a speech in which he called Netanyahu an obstacle to peace and advocated early elections in Israel in order to replace him.

But Schumer — the highest ranking Jewish lawmaker in US history — ultimately acquiesced to the Republican initiative, ostensibly not wanting to be seen as obstructionist, particularly given his longstanding support for Israel.

“I have clear and profound disagreements with the prime minister, which I have voiced both privately and publicly and will continue to do so. But because America’s relationship with Israel is ironclad and transcends one person or prime minister, I joined the request for him to speak,” Schumer said in a Thursday statement.

The announcement from Johnson and McConnell also included a statement from Netanyahu, which was a repeat of the one he issued after the invitation was extended last week.

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (left) and House Speaker Mike Johnson listen to remarks during a Hanukkah gathering at the Capitol in Washington, December 12, 2023. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

“I am very moved to have the privilege of representing Israel before both Houses of Congress and 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,” Netanyahu said.

The premier had hoped to speak as early as next week, though, and was forced to wait another month after the initially agreed-upon date conflicted with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

The one-month gap leaves significant question marks regarding the nature of the speech Netanyahu will give.

In the coming days, Hamas is expected to respond to the hostage deal proposal Israel made last week, which would bring about a permanent end to the war if fully implemented.

A Hamas rejection would likely mean the war would be nearing its tenth month by the time Netanyahu arrives in Washington. While the Biden administration has repeatedly placed the blame on the terror group for the lack of success in previous rounds of talks, patience with Israel among Democrats has thinned due to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The premier could therefore be entering an even more hostile environment by the end of July.

If Hamas accepts the proposal, Netanyahu could well be facing the collapse of his government, given that his far-right partners have vowed to bring down the coalition if the deal is implemented. The Knesset’s summer session ends on July 28, and the lead-up would likely be used to determine when early elections would be held if parliament is indeed dissolved.

Palestinians mourn during a family funeral at the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on June 3, 2024 (Bashar Taleb / AFP)

“It’s very difficult to know what will be happening in the war a week from now, let alone a month from now and July 24 might not end up being an ideal time for him, but he’s not one to ever turn down an opportunity to get this kind of face time,” a Republican Congressional aide told The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity.

Netanyahu will become the first foreign leader to address Congress four times.

Republicans have been eager to display their support for Netanyahu and expose the Democratic divisions over Israel.

Nearly 60 Democrats boycotted Netanyahu’s last joint session address in 2015, which was organized by Republican Congressional leaders behind the back of then-president Barack Obama for the Israeli premier to lobby against the nuclear deal that Washington wound up signing with Iran later that year.

A much larger number of Democrats would likely boycott a Netanyahu speech, as the war in Gaza has become increasingly unpopular among progressives.

The war sparked by Hamas’s October 7 atrocities has also led to a rupture in Netanyahu’s relationship with US President Joe Biden, who in May threatened for the first time to withhold weapons from Israel if it launched a massive offensive in the civilian areas of Rafah.

While Netanyahu has shored up the invite from Congress, he has not yet received one from the White House.

Even before October 7, Netanyahu had not received an invite to the White House since his return to office in late 2022, as he quickly drew Biden’s ire over his efforts to radically overhaul Israel’s judiciary along with actions seen as harming the US administration’s attempt to preserve prospects for a two-state solution. Biden visited Israel shortly after the Hamas-led attack, in the first-ever trip a US president has made to the Jewish state amid a war.

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