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Momentum grows behind Democratic boycott of Netanyahu speech

A growing chorus of House Democrats say they’re planning to steer clear of next month’s speech by Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint meeting of Congress, arguing that the Israeli prime minister’s handling of the Hamas War — and his repeated snubbing of President Biden’s preferred approach to the conflict — demand a show of protest from liberals on Capitol Hill. 

Some Democrats had foreshadowed the boycott earlier in the year amid speculation that Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) was poised to invite Netanyahu to the Capitol to push back against Democratic criticisms of the conservative Israeli leader. With the invitation now official, and the speech set for July 24, more and more progressive Democrats are emerging with a formal declaration of their own: We won’t be there.

“I won’t attend and turn my back towards him,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said. “So I’m just gonna stay away.”

The bad blood between Netanyahu and liberals on Capitol Hill is hardly new. Progressive Democrats have long denounced Netanyahu’s conservative policies, including his sharp criticisms of the Iran nuclear deal under former President Obama, which led to a boycott of the prime minister’s last speech to Congress almost a decade ago. Those old hostilities are still lingering, even as Democrats have found new reason to revile Netanyahu over his military campaign in Gaza. 

“He imported a little bit of controversy the last time he was here,” Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said. “I thought it was disrespectful to the president, so I’m inclined not to attend.”

A boycott may not be the only way lawmakers showcase their opposition to Netanyahu when he visits Washington next month. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), a deputy whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus who has served in the House since 1995, said conversations are underway about the best method for protesting the controversial speech.

“There’s still some debate about the best way to respond to his coming,” Doggett told The Hill.

“I’m not planning on attending, and/or I’ll be participating in whatever events there are to express that we want this war to end and we want both him and Hamas to agree to a ceasefire,” said Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas), a freshman member.

The boycotting liberals will cut a sharp contrast with other Democrats, who are vowing to attend the speech to demonstrate a degree of solidarity with a democratic ally in a time of war. 

“They’re our strongest ally in the Middle East. He’s obviously the leader that they’ve chosen. And I respect the country very much and I will be there,” Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) said.  

Top House Democrats are already bracing for the internal divisions that will accompany the Israeli leader’s visit to the Capitol. Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said “it is their right and an ability” if members want to skip the event, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who will attend, said each lawmaker will have to make their own determination ahead of the speech.

“All of us recognize that every individual member has to make that decision to participate on their own based on what they believe is consistent with the district that they represent,” Jeffries said last week.

There is some precedent for the current situation. Netanyahu faced a sizable boycott during his last address to Congress in 2015, when he used his time in the House chamber to vilify Obama and the administration’s Iran nuclear deal, marking an unprecedented attack by a foreign leader on U.S. soil. Fueling the controversy, then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) coordinated Netanyahu’s speech without consulting the White House.

At least 58 lawmakers skipped that speech, according to CNN, some of whom are planning to avoid the event again, including Doggett and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), a Jewish Democrat.

“The role that the prime minister is playing is very negative and I don’t want to be there,” Schakowsky told The Hill.

“He needs to be staying in Israel and working for the peace that he has been unwilling to support in the past,” Doggett echoed. “Despite the Hamas atrocities and all the wrong that exists there, the indiscriminate bombing that he has encouraged that has led to loss of lives that should never have happened. He has not prioritized the hostages, he ought to be doing that instead of coming here.”

The Israeli Defense Forces announced on Saturday that it rescued four hostages during an operation in central Gaza, in a win for the embattled prime minister. That raid, however, also led to the deaths of at least 274 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, increasing the pressure on Netanyahu.

Another notable absence in 2015 was then-Vice President Joe Biden who, instead of sitting at the dais behind Netanyahu, was traveling abroad.

This year, some Democrats are predicting an even larger show of opposition.

“I’ve spoken to several members in the House and the Senate, actually, who had gone to the last speech, the last time he was here, even though they had a lot of misgivings about it, and have been clear that they’re not planning to go this time,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who noted that she will not attend the address.

One exception to that trend is Rep. Steve Cohen (Tenn.), a Jewish Democrat who skipped the 2015 speech, but plans to attend this year. 

“It was more controversial [then] because Obama wasn’t included. It was kind of a breach in protocol,” Cohen said. “But I think I’ll go, because, you know, it’s a war. It’s a different situation.”

Netanyahu’s address marks the latest flashpoint in the long-simmering tensions within the Democratic caucus over Israel, with staunchly pro-Israel Democrats finding themselves at odds time and time again with pro-Palestinian progressives outraged at the large and growing number of civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip.

That friction was on full display Thursday evening, when Johnson and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) officially announced that Netanyahu’s address would take place on July 24 — a statement that notably omitted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Jeffries. Last week, all four congressional leaders signed the letter inviting Netanyahu to the Capitol.

In a statement shortly after the announcement, Schumer — who drew headlines in March after calling for new elections in Israel and declaring that Netanyahu had “lost his way” — alluded to the bitter tensions that are accompanying the Israeli leader’s visit to the Capitol.

“I have clear and profound disagreements with the Prime Minister, which I have voiced both privately and publicly and will continue to do so,” Schumer said. “But because America’s relationship with Israel is ironclad and transcends one person or prime minister I joined the request for him to speak.”

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who led House Democrats for nearly two decades, said she would not have invited Netanyahu to address Congress were she still steering the caucus, telling CNN “absolutely no, I think this is wrong.”

She also took a jab at Schumer’s handling of the situation, but made sure to emphasize that the Senate leader — who is the highest-ranking Jewish official in U.S. history — is a close friend of Israel.

“I respect his view, I don’t necessarily share it,” Pelosi said of Schumer.

In contrast, some of Israel’s most stalwart supporters in Congress are making the case for why the speech — which they plan to attend — is important for the relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv.

“I will and I would say to my colleagues, this is about the United States and Israel, not about any individual leaders, and a key relationship as you know, a key ally for us in the fight against terror, including Iran and other Iranian-backed proxies like Hamas or Hezbollah or Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) said on MSNBC when asked if he will attend Netanyahu’s speech.

“I think hearing from a key foreign ally like Israel is critically important.”