Democrats divided over Johnson’s Netanyahu invite

Even in Israel, many of those sympathetic to the prime minister don’t think it would be helpful for him to speak before Congress

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint session of Congress in the House chamber as Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) left, and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) president pro tempore of the Senate on March 3, 2015.

Democrats are split on how to react to House Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-LA) plan to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is facing pressure on all sides over the invitation.

Johnson told reporters this week that Schumer had privately indicated to him that he plans to sign off on the invite, though the Democratic leader has only confirmed publicly that he is in talks with the speaker’s office on the matter. 

“Yes,” Schumer said last Wednesday when asked if he supports Johnson inviting Netanyahu to speak before a joint session. “I’m discussing that now with the speaker of the House, and as I’ve always said, our relationship with Israel is ironclad and transcends any one prime minister or president.”

While it remains unclear if Netanyahu will even accept the invitation to speak, the issue has sparked a range of reactions from congressional Democrats. 

Progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) have vowed to boycott the speech, and a number of their like-minded colleagues are considering following suit. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) replied with a “no,” when asked if Schumer should sign his name to the invitation. Other Democrats who have been critical of Netanyahu expressed more openness to the idea. 

“Israel is an ally of ours, our only Democratic ally in the region. I’d be interested in hearing what he has to say in a joint session,” Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) told Jewish Insider on Thursday. 

Democrats across the ideological spectrum bemoaned the timing of Johnson’s invitation, noting that it would take place as Israel ramps up sensitive military efforts in Rafah, and a time when Netanyahu is facing growing criticism back home over his handling of the war. 

“I don’t know why we would give him a platform right now when he’s failing to lead,” one Democrat said on condition of anonymity. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told JI, “I’m not sure about the timing here. I don’t know, I’m not sure when the visit is supposed to be. If you think about it, it’s Israel, it’s a head of state. It’s understandable.”

“One thing we have to be careful [about is] that we don’t get engaged in domestic politics and the Israelis don’t get involved in our domestic politics. We’ve got to be careful,” he continued.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a close ally of President Joe Biden, said that he would urge Netanyahu to use the address as a way to detail his plan to achieve peace in the Middle East. 

“What I think would be a good idea would be for Prime Minister Netanyahu to make clear what his plan is for defeating Hamas, what his plan is for the future of Gaza, and why he seems inclined to reject a path forward that we’ve invested a lot of time and effort in that would deliver genuine security for Israel with regards to Iran and with regards to the region by normalizing the Saudis,” Coons told JI. 

If Netanyahu accepts Johnson’s invitation to address a joint session of Congress, he will be the first head of state to have done so four times. He is currently tied with Winston Churchill, in addressing Congress three times.

In 2015, Netanyahu spoke out against the Obama administration’s planned nuclear deal with Iran before a joint session of Congress at the invitation of a Republican speaker and despite the opposition of then-President Barack Obama. Many Democrats chose not to attend the speech, describing it as an insult to the president, and the speech remains controversial nearly a decade later. Netanyahu, however, described the address in his memoir as his “finest hour,” quoting a friend’s complimentary remark.

But even among sympathetic center-right analysts in Israel, few thought it would be a good idea for Netanyahu to speak to Congress if he did not receive a bipartisan invitation. 

Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Danny Ayalon warned that accepting Johnson’s invitation without a concurrent one from President Joe President Joe Biden would be “the same mistake as March 2015.”

“The Democrats turned their back to [Netanyahu] and it turned Israel into a partisan issue, put us in the line of fire of the Democrats and it caused great damage to U..S..-Israel relations,” Ayalon said.

Ayalon was also skeptical that a speech could make a difference in Israel’s favor. In 2015, he said, “it didn’t help; it did damage. What happened was that Obama did the deal [with Iran] without Israeli input.”

“Netanyahu has to understand that talk doesn’t change reality,” Ayalon said. “Actions change reality… He is not taking action. He is like a deer in headlights, paralyzed, and the two lights in the advancing car are [far-right ministers] Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.”

David M. Weinberg, senior managing fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, said that it would be incumbent on Netanyahu to speak before Congress if the invitation is from Johnson and Schumer. 

Asked if the same is true of an invitation only from Johnson, Weinberg lamented that “both Democrats and Republicans have acted to make U.S.-Israel relations a partisan issue” and said that “Israel ought not to play into this dynamic, as much as possible.”

Israel Policy Forum’s senior director of policy research, Shira Efron, said the effect of a Netanyahu speech will depend on whether Schumer joins Johnson in inviting him, but it was likely the prime minister would accept regardless.

A bipartisan invitation to Netanyahu would hurt the political opposition in Israel, Efron said, because Netanyahu would be able to make the argument that there is still bipartisan support for Israel in Congress.

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