PM estimates 28,000 killed in Gaza - 4,000 fewer than Hamas claims

US speaker says House GOP weighing asking Netanyahu to address Congress

Johnson would need Schumer’s approval for joint session speech; PM talks to Republicans after being denied meet with Democrats by Schumer who says conversation shouldn’t be partisan

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

US House Speaker Mike Johnson speaks with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
US House Speaker Mike Johnson speaks with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

US House Speaker Mike Johnson confirmed on Wednesday that the legislative chamber’s Republican caucus is considering inviting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress, amid a deepening divide between the premier and Democrats over the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

“It’s one of the things that we have in mind, and we may try to arrange for that,” Johnson told reporters. “I think it’s very important for us to show solidarity and support for Israel right now in their time of great struggle, and we certainly stand for that position and we’ll try to advance that in every way that we can.”

The House speaker said he’d had a “lengthy conversation” with Netanyahu earlier in the day, and “reiterated to him the House Republicans’ strong support for Israel.”

To address a joint session of Congress, though, Netanyahu would also need buy-in from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who just last week gave a lightning-rod speech declaring that the Israeli premier has lost his way and should be replaced in early elections.

Schumer’s office confirmed on Wednesday that he had declined a request by Netanyahu to speak at the Senate Democratic Caucus about the war in Gaza, with the Senate majority leader’s spokesperson asserting that the conversation should not be a partisan one.

As a result, Netanyahu only spoke to Senate Republicans on Wednesday, doing so via video linkup during their weekly lunch gathering.

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

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)

The controversial move would also be for largely symbolic purposes, given that Congress plays less of a role in US policy regarding the war in Gaza.

While there are parallels to the last speech Netanyahu gave to a joint session of Congress in 2015, that address was aimed at swaying lawmakers on an issue over which they had direct influence: the Iran nuclear deal being advanced by then-US president Barack Obama, which needed Senate ratification.

That speech was organized by then-Republican speaker John Boehner with Netanyahu’s aides behind Obama’s back, infuriating Democrats, who boycotted the address by the dozens. Organizers had the benefit of a Republican-controlled Senate as well, with then-majority leader Mitch McConnell helping advance the initiative.

Some Democrats warned that the 2015 speech risked irrevocably harming the US-Israel relationship.

It did not end up being enough to block the Iran deal as Netanyahu might’ve hoped, but the Democratic party’s leadership fundamentally remained in Israel’s corner, with Schumer being among four Democrats who voted against the deal. The party has maintained criticism of Israel’s settlement movement, but also nominated Joe Biden, who proudly identifies as a Zionist.

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks on the Senate floor on March 14, 2024. (Video screen capture)

While Biden, Schumer, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and others in the party continue touting their pro-Israel bonafides, many of them have increasingly sought to draw a line between Israel and its current government with whom they are at irreconcilable odds.

Johnson could publicly express his willingness to welcome Netanyahu for a joint session address and dare Schumer to block the effort after the Senate majority leader just cited partisanship as the reason he declined a request by the premier to speak with Senate Democrats.

But the number of Democrats who would agree to attend such a speech could end up being in the single digits, as Netanyahu’s popularity in the party has plummeted further since 2015, with Schumer’s speech being the latest indicator.

Netanyahu made a point during a talk with Senate Republicans on Wednesday to again criticize Schumer for what he said was a “shocking” interference by the majority leader to call for early elections in Israel, according to a senator present at the lunch meeting.

During the conversation, the premier told them that Israel will continue its efforts to defeat Gaza terror group Hamas, senators told reporters.

“He’s going to do what he said he’s going to do. He’s going to finish it,” Senator Jim Risch said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky at the Capitol in Washington on March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Netanyahu updated the Republican senators “on the war, on the release of the hostages and on the efforts to defeat Hamas,” Senator John Barrasso said. “We told him Israel has every right to defend themselves and he said that’s exactly what they continue to do.”

Israel’s war with the Hamas terror group in Gaza began after the shock terror onslaught on October 7 in which some 1,200 people were slaughtered, most of them civilians, and 253 people were seized as hostages.

Of that number, 130 are still captive in Gaza, and military intelligence has determined that at least 33 are no longer alive.

Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Netanyahu had addressed civilian casualties and the need to get more aid into Gaza. He said Netanyahu was “very supportive” of plans to build a temporary pier and bring in aid by sea.

“He’s very sensitive to the fact that every civilian casualty is a very unfortunate event,” Risch said.

Sen. Josh Hawley recalled to The New York Times that Netanyahu estimated the total death toll in Gaza to be at roughly 28,000. The New York Times report did not indicate whether Netanyahu broke down that number into Hamas and other gunmen, civilians killed by the IDF and civilians killed by Hamas and other terror groups.

The latest death toll from the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza is just under 32,000. The Hamas toll does not distinguish between combatants and civilians, and is believed to include victims of terror groups’ own sniper fire and rocket misfires. Israel says the IDF has killed at least 13,000 gunmen in battle in Gaza from Hamas and other terror groups, as well as 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on or soon after October 7.

Hawley added that Netanyahu told the lawmakers that he wasn’t asking for US ground troops to fight Israel’s war. However, the premier did request financial assistance from Washington, urging the senators to support any bill that includes security assistance for Jerusalem. Such legislation has been held up for months by House Republicans over disagreements with Democrats regarding immigration and Ukraine.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Netanyahu had made a presentation and then taken questions from senators.

“I made it clear to him, that it’s not the business of the United States to be giving a democratic ally advice about when to have an election or what kind of military campaign they may be conducting,” McConnell told reporters, referring to Schumer’s comments.

Asked to weigh in on Netanyahu’s talk with Republicans, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, “The prime minister can decide for himself where he wants to talk… But I do think it’s important to remember that support for Israel… has been a long-standing bipartisan issue in this country.”

“It’s indicative of the broad support that the Israeli people know they can count on from the American people, and it’s important that that support stay bipartisan,” Kirby added.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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