The messy politics surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled joint address to Congress continue to play out in a less than private way, as Democrats try to show discontent for how the speech ended up on the congressional calendar while not turning their back on Israel and the powerful political lobby it controls.
“There’s a lot of unnecessary drama occurring when we should be focusing on the substance of the negotiations with Iran and the outcome of those negotiations,” said Rep. Steve Israel, the new chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. “Israel” — the state, that is — “has never been used as a political football,” he said. “And we shouldn’t start now.”
Israel — the New York Democrat — hosted a meeting in his Rayburn office on Wednesday with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and six other Jewish Democrats: Ted Deutch and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida; Nita M. Lowey and Jerrold Nadler of New York; Sander M. Levin of Michigan; and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, who was present for part of the meeting.
Sources told CQ Roll Call there was spirited discussion about whether Netanyahu should speak to Congress on March 3, just two weeks before Israeli elections. “Some people said reschedule, some people said don’t reschedule, so lots of different ideas,” said Steve Israel, who later in the day told CQ Roll Call that “we need to diffuse this and not allow it to ratchet up.”
Lowey told CQ Roll Call that: “We had a meeting, and if we wanted it to be public, we would have issued a press release. We’re trying to talk about it and work things out.”
She said the relationship between Israel and the United States has always been bipartisan. “The strength of the relationship depends upon bipartisanship,” she continued. “And I’m just trying to work with my colleagues to make sure it continues that way.”
At issue is the continuing congressional reaction to Netanyahu’s address. The morning after President Barack Obama gave his State of the Union address to Congress, Speaker John A. Boehner announced that he had invited Netanyahu to address Congress in early February. The Ohio Republican didn’t consult with the congressional Democrats or the White House on the invite — a breach from the normal protocol for inviting foreign dignitaries to Congress — but this was Netanyahu. This was Israel. If Democrats raised objections to the address, they risked incurring the wrath of one of the most powerful lobbies on Capitol Hill.
And yet, Democrats went there.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly said it is “not appropriate” for Netanyahu to address Congress as Israel prepares for an election and as the United States continues fragile nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Under an interim November 2013 agreement, Iran agreed to abandon much of its nuclear program in exchange for a loosening of sanctions. But Pelosi said Netanyahu’s speech could jeopardize those negotiations, as Netanyahu will most likely call for tougher sanctions on Iran even though Obama said in his State of the Union that he would veto such legislation.
Either way, Democrats feel that Boehner is attempting a risky political gambit to divide their party. And now they’re stuck trying to oppose the Netanyahu invite while not opposing the state of Israel.
“The rollout of the invitation was botched,” Steve Israel told reporters Wednesday, continuing that Congress was losing focus on the substance of the U.S-Israeli relationship.
“The relationship between the United States and Israel should not be defined by one invitation, to one prime minister, to give one speech to the Congress,” he said.
The controversy surrounding the speech and invitation politics played out on a smaller scale Wednesday when Boehner invited Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Foreign Affairs ranking Democrat Eliot L. Engel of New York to a morning meeting with the speaker of the Israeli parliament, Yuli Edelstein. Noticeably absent among the invitees was Pelosi.
“It seemed appropriate to have a member of the Democratic leadership, in addition to the ranking member, so we invited Rep. Hoyer,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, told CQ Roll Call. “Had we been told that Rep. Pelosi wanted to attend, she certainly would have been welcome.”
Hoyer told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday that he had a scheduling conflict — “I didn’t hear about it until last night, and I had a meeting that I was hosting already set up,” he said — but he meant no offense by missing the confab. “I’ve known Yuli Edelstein for 30 years,” Hoyer said. “He’s a good friend.”
Instead of that meeting, which no Democrat attended, Pelosi arranged a separate meeting with Edelstein, “at the request of the [Israeli] Embassy,” according to a readout from her office, that Hoyer, Engel, Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn and Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Adam Schiff attended.
“Leader Pelosi emphasized to Speaker Edelstein the value all members place on the U.S.-Israel relationship in a nonpartisan way,” Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi said. “This is based on mutual respect for our shared democratic values and the national security interests of both of our countries. The leader expressed her concern that casting a political apple of discord into the relationship is not the best way forward given the formidable challenges our two countries are facing together.”
But expressing concern is about all Pelosi can do. A full-out boycott of the Netanyahu address would be politically untenable — as well as unlikely. And unless Netanyahu himself decides to decline the invitation, or push it off, he will be speaking to Congress on March 3.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden hasn’t committed to showing up for the address, and it seems as if some Democrats won’t attend — namely the Democrats who sent Boehner a letter asking him to postpone the Netanyahu speech. But Israel’s ties to Congress are still strong, and skipping the address en masse wouldn’t send a very strong message of solidarity with the Middle East nation.
“I’m never a big fan of boycotts, of abstentions or of turning people’s backs on anyone else,” Steve Israel told CQ Roll Call. “The fact is that there are many heads of state who come, and they don’t always get a full house. But, in my view, the prime minister of Israel is welcome to speak in the U.S. Congress at any time. What is unwelcome is that Speaker Boehner used this in a political way.”