Even talk of a Netanyahu visit stirs firestorm of controversy

The prospect that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might soon address a joint session of Congress is already stirring a storm of controversy on Capitol Hill, where liberal Democrats — up in arms over Israel’s conduct in the war with Hamas — are already vowing a boycott.

The bitter conflict has been an ongoing headache for President Biden and other Democratic leaders, who are attempting a delicate balance between supporting America’s closest Middle Eastern ally in a time of war while denouncing elements of Netanyahu’s military strategy, which has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza.

The dynamics mirror those that accompanied Netanyahu’s last joint address to Congress, in 2015. The Israeli leader, at the invitation of former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), used the lofty stage to attack then-President Obama over his nascent nuclear deal with Iran — an extraordinary rebuke by a foreign leader on a sitting president’s home turf that was widely denounced by Obama’s Democratic allies.

Nine years later, some of those same Democrats are voicing concerns that Netanyahu would again use the platform to advance his own political agenda, even if it means going after the Biden administration.

“I boycotted his last visit. I certainly will not attend this one,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a Jewish Democrat who characterized Netanyahu as “a menace.”

“It’s not going to help move us forward — it’s a detriment,” she added. “Should he come for any reason, in any venue, I am not going to be there.”

The pushback comes three days after the International Criminal Court (ICC), an international body based in The Hague, charged Netanyahu and his defense minister with war crimes for their military operations in Gaza following Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attacks. Among the charges, the ICC has accused the Israeli leaders of directly targeting civilians and using starvation as a weapon of war — allegations that have only fueled the liberal opposition to Netanyahu’s potential visit.

“He appears hell-bent on wiping out the population of Gaza,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “I don’t see what would necessitate … a joint address to the Congress by a man who has been charged internationally for committing crimes against humanity.”

“I think it would be inappropriate for me to come and turn my back to the prime minister,” Johnson added, “so I would probably decide to not attend, so as not to be disruptive and unduly disrespectful.”

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a former head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a sharp Netanyahu critic, said the ICC charges have drained Netanyahu of any credibility, joint address to Congress or not.

“I don’t expect much from Netanyahu anymore,” Pocan added. “I barely consider him a world leader. I consider him a war criminal, at this point.”

Other liberals are piling on, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus who are furious that Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is pushing for Netanyahu to address Congress but declined that honor for the president of Kenya, William Ruto, who is visiting Washington this week.

Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.) called that discrepancy “an abomination.”

“We should have a real conversation about which nations we are giving any sort of respect and deference to, and which ones we are giving cover to when they are subject to International Criminal Court investigations,” she added.

“I don’t think it makes sense to have him address Congress right now, especially in light of the Speaker denying the Kenyan president the opportunity to address Congress,” Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) echoed. “We haven’t had an African head of state address us in decades. So it’s a little upsetting, I think it’s a slap in the face too to our African countries.”

While Netanyahu’s address to Congress appears likely to happen, the event is not set in stone. Johnson drafted a formal letter inviting the Israeli leader to Capitol Hill and sent it to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer weeks ago, but the New York Democrat has yet to sign on.

Johnson’s effort to invite Netanyahu to address Congress comes weeks after Schumer — the highest-ranking Jewish official in U.S. history — slammed Netanyahu in a high-profile floor speech, calling for new elections in the country and claiming that the longtime conservative Israeli leader had “lost his way.”

But despite those comments, Schumer is poised to join Johnson. His office told The Hill earlier this month that the leader “intends to join the invitation, the timing is being worked out,” and Schumer himself told reporters Wednesday — after Johnson said he must sign the invitation or the House will proceed alone — that he supports having Netanyahu address Congress.

“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,” Schumer said.

On Thursday, Johnson said he expects to see movement on Schumer’s part “as soon as possible.”

“Our staffs are communicating, and it seems as though he wants to sign on,” Johnson told reporters. “I expect it to happen today or as quickly as possible because we have to get the letter sent out.”

Republicans, who have rushed to the defense of Israel’s conduct during the war with Hamas, are eager to have the conservative Netanyahu appear in the Capitol to make his case. And House Democratic leaders, despite their reservations with Netanyahu and his far-right government, are also welcoming the Israeli leader.

“When world leaders come and speak to a joint session of Congress, it is an important reflection,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said Wednesday. “We pay our respects. We participate. We listen.”

But the thorny issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations has long divided Democrats, pitting Israel’s staunchest defenders — who argue the importance of maintaining a strong Jewish state in a hostile region of the world — against liberals critical of Israel’s human rights record.

Republicans have tried to exploit those dynamics on a handful of occasions since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and Democrats say the Netanyahu address is their latest offensive in that mission.

“This is obviously politically charged. I think it’s a political ploy by Republicans. I think the timing is atrocious for reasons I think we should all understand,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who noted that despite his criticism, he plans to attend Netanyahu’s speech.

“Knowing the divisions within the Democratic caucus, it is designed to expose those,” he later added. “And as I’ve said a thousand times before, the weaponization of Israel as a political tool is as dangerous as antisemitism itself.”

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