May 24, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Democrats grapple with "discomfort" of attending a Netanyahu speech

Benjamin Netanyahu wearing a black coat and speaking in front of a brick wall at a wood podium.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on May 5. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

Many House Democrats are engaged in a tortured calculus over whether or not to attend a potential address to Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Why it matters: Relations between Netanyahu and Democratic lawmakers have soured considerably since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war, and many Democrats don't want the speech to happen at all.

  • Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told Axios the speech "would be an enormously controversial, divisive thing."
  • "There will be discomfort," Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) said of lawmakers' decision-making on whether to attend.

State of play: During remarks at the Israeli embassy on Thursday, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said "we will soon be hosting Prime Minister Netanyahu at the Capitol for a joint session of Congress."

What we're hearing: Many House progressives told Axios in March — when the speech was first floated — that they would likely boycott Netanyahu.

  • Netanyahu's 2015 address to Congress — seen as a major snub of the Obama administration — was boycotted by dozens of Democrats.
  • Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told Axios to "expect something similar" to the 2015 boycott: "There certainly will be something ... there's a conversation about what it should be and what it looks like."
  • Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said he thinks "a lot" of Democrats will skip the speech — potentially more than in 2015 "given what's going on" in Gaza.

Between the lines: The speech comes as many Democrats grow increasingly critical of the humanitarian situation in Gaza, with many accusing Netanyahu of not having a plan to repair the region.

What we're hearing: Many Democrats are still wrangling with the decision. "You'll probably see a real split," said Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.).

  • "You have a number of people who will continue to support Israel, and then you've got a number of people who, right now, don't want to have anything to do with Israel," Panetta said.
  • But even some staunchly pro-Israel Jewish lawmakers haven't decided whether they will go yet: "It's a long time away, I haven't thought about it," Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) told Axios.

Yes, but: Some Democrats argued that it's still worth it for even their colleagues with grievances with Netanyahu to attend the speech.

  • "My view is, I ran for a seat in that room and I'm going to be in that seat even if things that are unsavory might be happening," said one senior House Democrat.
  • Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.) said "you can have respect for the office without agreeing with the office-holder," and floated the speech as an opportunity for Democrats to share their "consternation" about the war in Gaza with Netanyahu.
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