May 22, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Netanyahu speech plans spark internal furor for Democrats

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wearing a purple suit and sitting in front of a black wall.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for TIME.

Plans to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress are being met with fierce pushback from Democrats.

Why it matters: Some top House Democrats are going so far as to say Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) should not sign onto the invitation.

  • House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said Netanyahu "should be focused on freeing hostages, not on charming legislators."
  • Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), a member of Democratic leadership, told Axios, "I don't think it's a good time ... let's not complicate an already complicated situation."
  • Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said of the idea, simply: "No."

State of play: House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) told reporters on Wednesday he has "not spoken to [Schumer] personally, but our staffs have communicated and it seems as though he wants to sign on."

  • "I expect it to happen today or as quickly as possible because we have to get the letter sent out," Johnson added.
  • Johnson said Tuesday that he was setting a Wednesday deadline for Schumer to join the invitation, and that if he did not, House Republicans would hold the speech alone and invite senators.
  • Schumer told reporters on Wednesday his "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."

What we're hearing: Two of Netanyahu's aides said they had no updates about a possible speech.

  • White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who saw Netanyahu earlier this week in Israel, said on Wednesday that the Prime Minister didn't speak to the White House about the speech.
  • One possible factor in Johnson's deadline to Schumer: The Louisiana Republican is expected to be the keynote speaker at the Israeli embassy's Independence Day reception on Thursday.

The backdrop: Johnson first floated the idea in March as a way to respond to Schumer's floor speech harshly criticizing Netanyahu for his handling of the war in Gaza and calling for new elections in Israel.

  • At the time, Schumer signaled he wouldn't stand in the way of a Netanyahu address to a joint session — but months later, he still hasn't signed on.

What they're saying: Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, told Axios he thinks the invitation is a "political gesture."

  • Netanyahu is "dividing this country ... in a similar way he's divided Israel, and I think that's awfully dangerous," Phillips said, adding: "I can only imagine the personal and political conflict facing Leader Schumer."
  • "I think it's a strange time to invite Netanyahu, it's a really divisive kind of move," said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), noting the International Criminal Court's decision to seek an arrest warrant against the Israeli premier.
  • Another House Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said one "huge issue" for Democrats is a concern that the speech would legitimize Netanyahu and undermine the opposition in Israel.
  • "It's a very politically thorny exercise," said a second House Democrat.

The other side: Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) said Schumer should sign the invitation because "it should be bipartisan."

  • "Even though we might have policy disagreements with [Netanyahu], as we do with some of our NATO allies, I think he should get with the speaker and make it bipartisan," he said.
  • Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.) argued Congress "can recognize heads of state without agreeing with everything they say," adding that it "could create dialogue" between Netanyahu and some of his detractors.

What to watch: Many progressive lawmakers, incensed at the Israeli government's conduct in Gaza, have already told Axios they would boycott the address.

  • Dozens of Democrats boycotted Netanyahu's 2015 speech to Congress, in which he criticized then-President Obama's efforts to get a nuclear deal with Iran.
  • For some House Democrats, it may simply be too toxic to attend: Even one pro-Israel lawmaker told Axios they are "torn on whether I'm going to go or not."
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