Dozens of House Democrats are privately threatening to skip the March 3 address, according to lawmakers and aides, in in what’s become the lowest point of a relationship between the Israeli prime minister and President Barack Obama that’s never been good.
Democrats have had to balance publicly supporting Israel with backing Obama, who’s trying to close a deal with Iran to curb its nuclear programs over vehement opposition from Netanyahu, who has expressed concerns that the U.S. president is being naive. Negotiations are facing a deadline at the end of March for a political framework.
The speech was devised by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer to provide Netanyahu a prominent Washington platform to warn about the dangers of the proposed deal with Iran. But it also appeared to be based on an Israeli perception that Obama was weakened after midterm elections gave control of both houses of Congress to Republicans, and timed to take place just two weeks before Netanyahu faces re-election on March 17 — and footage of American officials applauding him couldn’t hurt his prospects.
But that reading of Obama seems to have not been updated since November, when Obama’s own poll numbers started moving up again, and — though Netanyahu’s Likud Party is still leading in Israeli polls — miscalculated the backlash back in Israel from putting his relationship with the American president on the line.
Netanyahu’s already been denied an Oval Office meeting with Obama. Secretary of State John Kerry has no plans to meet with him while he’s in town, a State Department official told POLITICO on Tuesday.
The showdown puts the White House in a position it isn’t much used to with Netanyahu: appearing to have the political edge. Throughout Obama’s time in office, the prime minister has elbowed his way into American politicsto corner and game the president. This time, without much nudging from the White House beyond a complaint about breached protocol, Netanyahu’s speech has sparked criticism across Washington and in the American Jewish community — as well as among diplomats, Israeli officials and domestic political opponents who include his own former ambassador to Washington.
After feeding an anonymous, unquoted complaint about Dermer to the New York Times last week, the White House has stepped out of the way.
The president and his aides won’t tell Democrats to skip the speech. But they aren’t telling Democrats to go, either.
“We defer to Democratic members if they’d like to attend or not,” a White House aide said Tuesday.
Biden’s office wouldn’t comment on the decision-making process about attending the speech. As the president of the Senate, he usually takes a seat beside Boehner behind the podium for addresses by foreign leaders.
Though some may abandon the threat, as of Tuesday, many Democrats on the Hill — including several Jewish members — said they’re likely to leave the prime minister looking at some empty seats.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said he’s considered not going, and has discussed it with his colleagues.
“I just don’t know if it’s the proper response or not,” he said. “But I just think it’s a mistake and it might be a proper protest. But I haven’t made that definite decision.”
Cohen added, “With his election being so soon, and with the negotiations we have going on with Iran, he’s put himself in a political situation here that’s probably adverse to the best interest of Israel.”
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said in an interview he “hadn’t thought about” whether he will go or not.
“I don’t even know what else is on my schedule,” he said. “It wouldn’t be an official boycott. I wouldn’t announce that I wasn’t going. But I don’t really blame Netanyahu — although I’m not a fan of Netanyahu — but I don’t blame him for coming.”
Ever since the uproar over the invitation first exploded two weeks ago, the Israelis have worked to try to quash any question of partisan maneuvering. On Tuesday, an Israeli official said they’re hoping the situation will be resolved by the time Netanyahu arrived in Washington.
“We appreciate the great bipartisan support for Israel in Congress and hope that members of Congress will be willing to listen to the prime minister on an issue which threatens America’s national security, and Israel’s very survival,” the official said.
Boehner’s office says he doesn’t plan to reschedule the speech, which had already been moved from Feb. 11 to March 3 so Netanyahu can attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference.
Though J Street, the left-leaning Israel advocacy group, has not been telling members of Congress to skip the speech, it has sent two mass emails to members promoting a letter written by Cohen and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) urging Boehner to reschedule the speech until after the Israeli elections.
“Momentum is on our side — and it’s growing,” J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote in an email asking members to get their representatives to sign the Cohen-Ellison letter. “Make it clear that Netanyahu’s speech shouldn’t go forward as planned.”
AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, is backing the speech. “We encourage all members of Congress to attend this important speech by the Israeli Prime Minister,” said AIPAC’s Marshall Wittman.
Not all Democrats are backing away from the speech. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who last week criticized Boehner for inviting Netanyahu without first informing the White House, would go, said her spokesman Drew Hammill — though he hedged, holding out the possibility that the speech may yet be canceled.
“The leader attends every joint meeting and, of course, will attend should this speech take place,” Hammill said.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he’ll attend. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, also said he’ll be there.
“Frankly, the strong U.S.-Israel relationship, bipartisan relationship through the years, is stronger than any perceived slight or dispute,” Engel said. “I care about the U.S.-Israel relationship. It has always been bipartisan and will continue to be.”
Meanwhile, Republican Reps. Trent Franks (Ariz.), Leonard Lance (N.J.) and Lee Zeldin (N.Y.) — who’s the only Jewish Republican in Congress — circulated a letter of their own among members Tuesday, backing Boehner’s invitation.
That created a new wave of criticism.
“It’s noteworthy that outside of Congress, Democratic and Republican figures are both saying Netanyahu’s address should be delayed,” said Dylan Williams, J Street’s director of government affairs. “It’s fairly clear this isn’t about honoring the U.S.-Israel special relationship. It’s about abusing it in order to undermine the president and his foreign policy.”