Netanyahu's nightmare: Why John Lewis skipping his speech is a big deal

The most respected Democrat announced he won't attend the Israel PM's speech. Who's next?

Published February 5, 2015 3:28PM (EST)

  (AP/Oded Balilty)
(AP/Oded Balilty)

There has been talk in recent days about a potential Democratic "boycott" of the controversial, pointedly political speech that Israeli Prime Minister will give before a joint session of Congress in early March. Even though the speech has strengthened Obama's foreign policy hand in Congress and embarrassed both Netanyahu and the extender of the invitation, John Boehner, it's still no easy thing for members of Congress to skip out on a speech from the visiting head of state of one of the country's closest allies. It would publicize the rift that, for now, Democratic leaders seem very interested in keeping behind closed doors, even if it was Boehner and Netanyahu's arrogance that put everyone in this frustrating position.

There is no organized boycott. There probably will not be -- or at least it probably won't be described publicly as -- an organized boycott. Democrats do not wish to stoke the headline "Democrats organize boycott of Israeli PM's speech." Even though they have every right to do such a thing, they won't want to deal with shouts of Democrats hate Israel! from the usual corners.

Yesterday, though, a few Democratic members, who were quick to say that this was their decision alone and not that of any organized effort, announced that they wouldn't attend the speech. One of them, especially, is crucial:

Three prominent House Democrats are vowing to skip Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress next month, saying they disapprove of House Speaker John Boehner's decision to invite the Israeli leader without consulting President Barack Obama.

Reps. John Lewis of Georgia, G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon said they won't attend Netanyahu's March 3 speech. [...]

Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, said Thursday that Boehner's unilateral invitation to Netanyahu was "an affront to the president and the State Department" that cannot be ignored. Butterfield, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Thursday he was "very disappointed that the speaker would cause such a ruckus" among members of Congress. He called the speaker's actions "unprecedented."

John Lewis is a big deal. He is the most respected members of Congress, behind only Louie Gohmert. Just kidding. He is the most respected member of Congress. And if he's not going to take part in this sneak-attack on President Obama's foreign policy, then that offers cover for a lot of other Democratic members to do the same. Expect more to join them, and expect them all to claim that they're not part of an organized effort.

It's sort of a matter of how far Democrats are willing to go in for the kill, here -- how much they want to take their fury at the speech and the rift with Netanyahu public, rather than smile for the cameras for the sake of pretending all's well.

A lot of this may come down to Joe Biden, and whether he plans to occupy the prominent on-camera seat reserved for the Senate President during joint sessions of Congress. Biden's team and the White House now are indicating that, sadly, there could be some scheduling conflicts that day. Imagine that.

Is this speech going to happen? It's making Netanyahu look like a fool ahead of his reelection, someone who's screwing up his country's relationship with leaders of both United States political parties. But if he backs out, that would be an admission of failure. Maybe he will pretend to come down with the flu, or create a pretend emergency security situation that requires an IDF assault on the Gaza Strip that day.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Benjamin Netanyahu Foreign Policy Israel Joe Biden John Boehner John Lewis Speeches