"It's going to get worse": Democratic backlash against Netanyahu speech continues

With members threatening to boycott the Israeli PM's upcoming congressional address, a revolt is mounting

Published February 5, 2015 7:38PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Nir Elias)
(Reuters/Nir Elias)

Congressional Democrats continue to express indignation at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's forthcoming address to Congress, with many saying that they may well boycott the speech, despite entreaties from top Israeli officials.

Without the Obama administration's knowledge, House Speaker John Boehner last month invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on Iran's nuclear ambitions. Netanyahu is scheduled to speak on March 3, two weeks before national elections in Israel and amid continuing international negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program. The White House argues that diplomacy must work its course, while the hawkish Netanyahu argues that even if diplomats reach a deal ahead of a June 30 deadline, Iran can't be trusted to adhere to any agreement.

Even some of the most staunchly pro-Israel Democrats are undecided on whether they will attend the speech. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said Wednesday that the speech “violates all the protocol that has always existed." White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest isn't saying if Vice President Joe Biden will attend the address; during speeches before joint sessions, the vice president typically sits behind the lectern, along with the speaker of the House. A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said yesterday that Pelosi fears "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." Still, the spokesman said, Pelosi will attend if the speech occurs.

Seeking to stave off further rebellion, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein yesterday met with Democrats to address their concerns. But as Politico reports, a group of Jewish Democrats who met with Dermer yesterday voiced anger over the upcoming speech, and the meetings made little headway in squelching Democratic furor.

That Dermer and Edelstein failed in their mission is hardly surprising. Both are members of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party, and Dermer is an American-born former Republican operative; they hardly fit the profiles of Israeli officials who could credibly address the Democrats' grievances. Meanwhile, as Israelis prepare to head to the polls, Netanyahu's domestic foes have railed against the speech. The Labor Party's Isaac Herzog is running a campaign ad that features Fox News commentators castigating the speech as part of a "dangerous strategy," while former Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, who is now running as a candidate for a center-right Israeli party, has called the speech "cynical." That gives pro-Israel Democrats plenty of political cover to criticize Netanyahu's scheduled appearance. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Mideast peace negotiator, told Politico that the Democratic revolt is likely to mount.

“It’s going to get worse, because Democrats, whether it’s Jewish Democratic congressmen, or Jewish voters for the Democratic Party — which is the majority of American Jewish voters … nobody wants to be put in the position of taking sides,” he said. “Democrats who are supporters of Israel don’t want to have to choose between supporting Israel and supporting their president.”

By Luke Brinker

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