Democrats Divided Over Netanyahu’s Upcoming Speech, Get The LATEST Scoop On Who's Boycotting...

By Maria Angelino | Monday, 24 June 2024 05:15 AM
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Image Credit : Pew Research Center

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is set to address the U.S. Congress on July 24, a situation that is causing a stir among Congressional Democrats.

As reported by The Associated Press, the last time Netanyahu addressed the Congress, nearly 60 Democrats boycotted his speech, viewing it as a direct affront to then-President Barack Obama who was in the midst of negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. This time around, with Israel at war with Hamas in Gaza, the number of absences is predicted to be significantly higher.

The Democratic lawmakers are grappling with the decision of whether to attend the address or not. Their dilemma stems from the conflict between their long-standing support for Israel and their distress over Israel's military operations in Gaza. The Health Ministry in Hamas-run territory reports that over 37,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the Hamas attack on October 7 that sparked the war. However, the ministry does not distinguish between civilian and combatant casualties in its data.

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While some Democrats have pledged to attend out of respect for Israel, a larger and growing faction is opting out, creating a highly charged atmosphere at an event that typically serves as a ceremonial, bipartisan show of support for an American ally. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., expressed her sentiments on CNN, stating, "I wish that he would be a statesman and do what is right for Israel. We all love Israel. We need to help them and not have him stand in the way of that for such a long time." Pelosi further added, "I think it’s going to invite more of what we have seen in terms of discontent among our own."

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The strained relationship between Netanyahu and Democratic President Joe Biden has become increasingly public. Netanyahu accused the Biden administration of withholding U.S. weapons from Israel, a claim he reiterated to his Cabinet. In response to the initial accusation, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stated, "We genuinely do not know what he’s talking about. We just don’t."

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The invitation to Netanyahu from House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., came after consultation with the White House, according to an anonymous source familiar with the matter. As of now, no meeting between the leaders during Netanyahu’s Washington visit has been scheduled.

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Netanyahu expressed his gratitude for the invitation to address Congress, stating that he was “very moved” by the opportunity “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.”

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The idea of inviting Netanyahu was first proposed by Republicans in March after Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in the United States, gave a speech on the Senate floor that was highly critical of the prime minister. Schumer, D-N.Y., labeled the Israeli leader “an obstacle to peace” and called for new elections in Israel, even as he denounced Hamas and criticized Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

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Republicans condemned Schumer's speech as an insult to Israel and its sovereignty. Johnson suggested inviting Netanyahu to Washington, an invitation that Schumer and House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York ultimately endorsed, albeit reluctantly. Pelosi, who opposed the invitation to Netanyahu in 2015 when she was Democratic leader, said it was a mistake for the congressional leadership to extend it again this time.

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Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who attended the 2015 address as a House member, said he saw no reason why Congress “should extend a political lifeline” to Netanyahu.

Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it would be “healthy” for members of both parties to attend. “I think that a lot of Americans are getting a one-sided narrative, especially the younger generation, and I think it’s important they hear from the prime minister of Israel, in terms of his perspective,” said McCaul, R-Texas.

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Interviews with more than a dozen Democrats revealed the breadth of discontent over the coming address, which many feel is a Republican ploy intended to divide their party. Some Democrats say they will attend to express their support for Israel, not Netanyahu.

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New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he has an “obligation” to attend because of that position. “It should not have taken place,” he added. “But I can’t control that. And I have to do my job.”

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Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has signaled he will be there. Cardin said that what he’s looking for in Netanyahu’s speech is a “type of message that can strengthen the support in this country for Israel’s needs,” but also lay the groundwork for peace in the region.

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Other Democrats are waiting to see whether Netanyahu will still be prime minister by the time he is supposed to speak to Congress. There have been open signs of discontent over the handling of the war by Netanyahu’s government, a coalition that includes right-wing hard-liners who oppose any kind of settlement with Hamas.

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Benny Gantz, a former military chief and centrist politician, withdrew from Netanyahu’s war Cabinet this month, citing frustration over the prime minister’s conduct of the war. On Monday, Netanyahu dissolved that body. Meanwhile, a growing number of critics and protesters in Israel have backed a cease-fire proposal that would bring home hostages taken by Hamas.

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Rep. Seth Magaziner, D-R.I., said he stands with those “who hope that he’s not prime minister by the time late July rolls around. I think that he has been bad for Israel, bad for Palestinians, bad for America.” But, he added, he believes it his job to show up when a head of state addresses Congress, “even if its someone who I have concerns about and disagree with.”

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Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., attended the 2015 speech and described it as “among the most painful hours” he has spent while in Congress. He plans to boycott unless Netanyahu became a “champion for a cease-fire.”

A large portion of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — lawmakers who are among the most critical of Israel’s handling of the war — is expected to skip. Among them is Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the caucus, who told The Associated Press that it was a “bad idea,” to invite Netanyahu.

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“We should be putting pressure on him by withholding offensive military assistance so that he sticks to the deal that the president has laid out,” she said.

Netanyahu’s visit is expected to draw significant protests and some members of Congress are planning an alternative event.

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Rep. Jim Clyburn said he is in the early stages of bringing “like-minded” people together to exchange ideas about a path forward for Israelis and Palestinians that includes a two-state solution. The senior Democrat from South Carolina was a vocal critic of Netanyahu’s 2015 address, which he and several prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus viewed as an affront to Obama.

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“I just think that, rather than just say, ‘I’m not going to go, I’m going to stay way,’ I am saying ‘I’m going to stay away with a purpose,’” he said. “I’m not going to listen to his foolishness. But here are some ideas that we have that might be a way forward.”

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