With dozens bailing, will PM address empty seats at Congress?

In 2011, Netanyahu received 29 standing ovations. This time, applause will be less overwhelming, underlining rift in bilateral ties, expert says

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the US Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the US Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

As of Sunday afternoon, more than 30 congressmen — five senators and 27 members of the House of Representatives — have announced that they will not attend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming Congress speech, and the list continues to grow as the tension between Jerusalem and Washington intensifies.

The large number of American lawmakers snubbing a speech by an Israeli leader, which is unprecedented in history, has left some observers with the impression that Netanyahu will be forced to address a less-than-full house during his address, which, some have argued, would send a terrible message of discord between the two allied nations.

Such an embarrassing scenario would be the exact opposite of Netanyahu’s last speech to a joint meeting of Congress in 2011, when a packed house honored him with 29 standing ovations — four more than President Barack Obama received during his State of the Union address that year.

But while the prime minister will likely face a significantly less enthusiastic reception on Tuesday, he will probably be spared the humiliation of empty seats when he takes the podium for a historic third time.

Contrary to some reports, Republican congressmen — who generally support Netanyahu’s speech, in defiance of President Barack Obama — will not have to bring in their staffers to fill up the vacant chairs. The House Chamber, located in the center of the Capitol’s south wing, has 448 permanent seats, all of which will be taken by those congressmen in attendance, plus the members of the Israeli delegation, who also sit on the House floor.

There are 435 US representatives and 100 senators, which means that even if many more congressmen decide not to show up, Netanyahu will still be facing a capacity crowd. In addition, about 20-30 seats will be occupied by senior members of the Israeli delegation, such as Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer and other top officials from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry.

As opposed to the Senate, there are no assigned seats in the House, which means seats are occupied on a first-come, first-served basis.

Republican Utah senator Orrin Hatch (photo credit: US Congress)
Senator Orrin Hatch (photo credit: US Congress)

Vice President Joe Biden, who is also the president of the Senate and usually would sit behind Netanyahu, next to House Speaker John Boehner, will be in Guatemala at the time of Netanyahu’s speech, scheduled for Tuesday at 11:00 a.m. local time. But his seat will not remain unoccupied: it will be filled by Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, who as the Senate’s president pro tempore presides over the chamber in the vice president’s absence.

But the mere fact that Netanyahu will likely address a full house — in the physical sense — does not negate the obvious truth that the American political establishment is deeply divided over his speech, according to Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

“The video images from the session will show some Democratic defection. It will vividly demonstrate the breaking up of the bipartisan nature of support for Israel, and this is very critical,” he said.

Even if there are no empty seats, joint meetings of Congress are judged by a certain standard, for instance, how many standing ovations a speaker receives and how long they last, Gilboa added. “This is going to be counted. I think Netanyahu runs the risk of this speech being severely criticized for not being sufficiently supported in Congress. This is a problem.”

Despite all the hype, at the end of the day, the prime minister’s controversial speech will have little impact, predicted Gadi Wolfson, an Israeli expert in political communication. Neither the congressmen in Washington nor Israelis back home will change their minds about the Iranian nuclear threat or whom to vote for, he posited.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares for his upcoming speech in Congress, Jerusalem, February 27, 2015. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares for his upcoming speech in Congress, Jerusalem, February 27, 2015. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO)

“Israelis have heard hundreds of speeches from Netanyahu. There’s no literature to support the notion that a well-established opinion can be changed by one speech,” he said. A polished and emotional address that receives standing ovations from American congressmen could, in good days, perhaps move a few thousand people to vote for Netanyahu, but given the controversy surrounding Tuesday’s appearance, the prime minister should not expect to gain any sympathy, Wolfsfeld said.

“Most Israelis know how important relations with the US are, and they know Netanyahu’s presence in Washington is pissing off the Americans. He’s not gaining anything by going there. He might actually lose a few votes.”

Likewise, the idea that a speech could move American lawmakers into stopping a nuclear deal with Iran they would otherwise welcome is preposterous, Wolfsfeld said. Netanyahu has been “in politics for too long to know that he can’t change congressmen’s minds. His speech is not ‘I have a dream’ or the Gettysburg address — it’s one more speech about Iran. And it’s not like they don’t already know his position. There’s nothing new here. If he really thinks that the power of his words can have such an influence, he is stupider than I thought.”

Netanyahu’s Congress speech thus can be viewed as a classical example of a Rorschach test, Wolfsfeld said. “If you like Netanyahu, you will come away inspired by his words and believe he said what needed to be said before the [Iran] agreement is signed to protect Israel from disaster. And if you don’t like Netanyahu, the speech will be further proof of the man’s inability to maintain good relations with the US and that he’s a bull in a china shop.”

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