Israeli Independence Day event in Washington to feature bipartisan speeches

FILE PHOTO: Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) speaks to the media after the Senate dismissed the House Republican impeachment charges against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in Washington

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Republican U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson and Democratic U.S. Representative Pete Aguilar will deliver keynote speeches at the Israeli embassy’s Independence Day reception on Thursday, headlining a more subdued event under the shadow of the Gaza war.

The diplomatic gathering comes amid tensions between U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over a U.S. push for Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilians in the war against Hamas militants in Gaza.

It will be a chance for Johnson, an outspoken critic of Biden’s Israel policy, and Aguilar, an ally of the Democratic president, to lay out their views more than seven months into the conflict.

Successive U.S. administration have usually sent a high-level official to the Independence Day receptions, reflecting Israel's status as Washington’s top Middle East ally.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who in recent months has called the situation in Gaza a "humanitarian catastrophe" and has urged a ceasefire, delivered last year's keynote, mostly extolling U.S. support for Israel. Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas spoke the year before.

A Israeli official said this year the embassy wanted to honor lawmakers with high-profile speaking roles in appreciation for congressional approval of new U.S. military aid to Israel.

"Their participation highlights the strong, bipartisan support for Israel in the United States, and the Congress in particular," the embassy said in a statement.

The reception takes place on the same night as a White House state dinner for Kenyan President William Ruto, which the Israeli official said created a scheduling conflict for senior members of the administration.

Other more junior administration officials are on the embassy's guest list, according to the Israeli official.

Johnson, speaker of the House of Representatives and the top Republican in Congress, and Aguilar, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, have both been granted speaking slots on Thursday night, the embassy said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the absence of an administration official from the speakers' list.

Johnson, a staunch supporter of Israel, has opposed Biden’s efforts to rein in Netanyahu’s Gaza campaign, though the administration has continued the flow of most U.S.-made weapons.

On Tuesday, Johnson said he was close to inviting Netanyahu, who had warm relations with former President Donald Trump and has closely aligned himself with Republicans, to address lawmakers. Such a speech would likely anger some progressive Democrats critical of Netanyahu's conduct of the war.

Johnson, a Trump ally, has been a prominent voice in Washington reflecting the U.S. political divide on Israeli policy following Hamas' cross-border Oct. 7 attack on Israel, triggering the Gaza war that has raged ever since.

Politicization of the issue has intensified ahead of the November presidential election in which Biden is running against Trump.

In contrast to past years’ gala celebrations, this year’s reception, marking the 76th anniversary of Israel’s founding, is being billed as a “solidarity event.”

Similar to observances on May 13 in Israel, it is being toned down out of respect for what Israeli authorities say are more than 120 hostages still being held by Hamas in Gaza.

The reception will feature exhibits honoring the hostages.

With pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters expected near the venue on Thursday night, security will be tight.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick;Editing by Alison Williams and Marguerita Choy)