Netanyahu will ‘soon’ address joint session of US Congress, House speaker announces

Mike Johnson doesn’t reveal when speech will be, but says Schumer backs invite; official tells ToI that PM looking to make case for Israel, isn’t moved by potential fallout in US

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

US House Speaker Mike Johnson announced Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will “soon” give an address to a joint session of Congress.

“This will be a timely and a very strong show of support to the Israeli government in their time of greatest need,” Johnson said in a speech at the Israeli Embassy in Washington’s annual Independence Day event.

Johnson did not elaborate as to when Netanyahu’s speech will be, but the speaker told reporters on the sidelines of the event that US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer informed him that he would sign off on the invitation.

Schumer’s apparent cooperation comes just one month after he called for early elections in Israel to replace Netanyahu who he branded an obstacle to peace.

Even if an invitation is formally extended, it is not entirely clear whether Netanyahu will choose to accept, given the divisive nature of such a speech.

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 in order for the Israeli premier to lobby against the nuclear deal that Washington wound up signing with Iran later that year.

US House Speaker Mike Johnson addresses the Israeli Embassy in Washington’s Independence Day event on May 23, 2024. (Screenshot: Facebook, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

A much larger number of Democrats could boycott a Netanyahu speech that comes amid Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, which 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 threatened for the first time earlier this month to withhold weapons from Israel if it launched a massive offensive in the civilian areas of Rafah.

While Netanyahu appears to have shored up an invite from Congress, he has not yet received one from the White House and making the trip to Washington without one would only further highlight this divide.

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 and 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.

An official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu has been speaking in recent weeks with interest to Republican Congressional leaders about a potential joint session address, viewing it as an opportunity to make Israel’s case on the global stage and is less concerned about some of the political fallout within the US.

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.

Johnson has led criticism of Biden for what Republicans have depicted as an abandonment of Israel after his far-reaching support in the aftermath of October 7.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat-New York, arrives as the Senate prepares to advance the $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan passed by the House, at the Capitol in Washington, April 23, 2024. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Democrats and Republicans have intensified their campaigns for Jewish and pro-Israel votes, to the point where the campaigns almost daily lacerate one another as borderline antisemitic.

The speech by Netanyahu would come as Israel faces growing international pressure over the war in Gaza, after a groundswell of goodwill right after Hamas massacred some 1,200 people — mostly civilians — on October 7 and took 252 hostages. Israel launched counterstrikes and eventually a ground offensive, and since then more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, whose unverified figures do not distinguish between combatants and civilians. They include at least 15,000 Hamas gunmen Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

286 soldiers have been killed during the ground offensive against Hamas and amid operations along the Gaza border. A civilian Defense Ministry contractor has also been killed in the Strip.

Netanyahu is also under political siege in Israel, where tens of thousands of protesters, including some families of 128 hostages still held in Gaza have called for new elections. His poll numbers have dropped precipitously since the war’s launch and on Thursday he was fending off damaging claims by the army that he was warned four times last year about how Hamas and other enemies saw Israel’s domestic unrest.

Also speaking at the Israeli Embassy’s Independence Day event was California representative, Pete Aguilar, the fourth-ranked Democrat in the House, in an attempt by organizers to highlight the bipartisan nature of support for Israel in Congress.

Israelis call for the release of hostages held by terrorists in Gaza since Hamas’s October 7 massacre, outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem on May 22, 2024. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Michael Herzog, the Israeli ambassador said the US force that led a coalition of allies last month in repelling an Iranian missile and rocket attack on Israel was the true emblem of the relationship between the countries. “When our two nations are united and together, nothing can stop us and nothing can beat us,” he said to applause inside the massive National Building Museum main hall.

Herzog notably made no mention of Biden in his speech, but the envoy did hail the support Israel has received from his administration since October 7.

The embassy kept the party’s location under wraps until the last day. A few dozen pro-Palestinian protesters shouted slogans outside the event and a few lay on the ground stained with fake blood.

October 7 and its horrors permeated the event. There were 128 empty chairs on a platform in the center of the hall, symbolizing the hostages still held in Gaza.

Attendees walked by massive photos of residents and soldiers in the communities devastated by the Hamas attack and ate foods created from recipes by people from the areas bordering Gaza.

JTA contributed to this report.

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