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Bibi’s Day in Congress

Who’s speaking out against, and in favor of, Netanyahu’s upcoming speech

Tal Trachtman Alroy
February 10, 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on February 8, 2015.(SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on February 8, 2015.(SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/AFP/Getty Images)

The controversy surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled speech to Congress, two weeks before Israel’s March 17 Knesset elections , has everyone from U.S. politicians to Israeli politicians, American Jewish leaders, and even The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart riled up. Netanyahu’s invitation from Republican House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the threat it poses to the global community has reportedly angered the White House, who called the move “a breach of protocol.” President Obama has said he won’t be meeting with Netanyahu during the March 3 visit.

Despite a Reuters report Monday saying Netanyahu considered canceling his speech or amending its format to calm tensions, the Prime Minister’s office said there are no changes and that Netanyahu is still planning to speak.

So who’s telling Bibi to sit this one out and who’s supporting his decision to speak before Congress?

Let’s start with the voices telling the Prime Minister to stay home—an extensive list that includes Israeli politicians, prominent Jewish American figures, and many Democrats.
Former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who was appointed by Netanyahu and is now running for Knesset in a rival party called Kulanu, said the speech has heralded a “low point” in the U.S.-Israel relationship and hurt Israel’s “diplomatic Iron Dome.” The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman called the Prime Minister’s plan to address Congress “a tragedy of unintended consequences.”

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said he wouldn’t attend Netanyahu’s speech. “I may watch it on TV,” allowed the Jewish senator, who briefly lived on a kibbutz in Israel. California Senator Dianne Feinstein said using the backdrop of the U.S. Congress so close to a political campaign “violates all the protocol that has always existed,” adding that she didn’t think it helps Israel.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she planned to attend the speech but added, “It is still my hope that the event will not take place.” (A comprehensive list of Democrats who said they planned to boycott the speech was compiled by The Hill.) Vice President Joe Biden’s office said he would miss the address due to unspecified foreign travel plans.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, reportedly said calling off the March 3 address will be “something people will respect Netanyahu for,” and that the planned speech would exacerbate bipartisan tensions regarding Israel.

Zionist Union Party leader Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu’s biggest rival in the March 17 elections, called the speech a “strategic mistake,” and vowed to never operate in that matter. Tzipi Livni, Herzog’s running mate, said Netanyahu was damaging ties with the U.S. “for the sake of an election speech.” Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party and another of Bibi’s main opponents, said the speech was “causing serious damage to Israel’s strategic relations with the United States.” Left-wing Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On also called on Netanyahu to cancel his plans.

Those in favor of Bibi’s scheduled address to Congress?

John Boehner defended the invitation, arguing that the speech was a very good idea. “There’s a message that the American people need to hear and I think he’s the perfect person to deliver it,” Boehner said, referring to the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, who reportedly planned the speech with Boehner, presumably agrees.

Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, called it a “critical visit by the Prime Minister.” Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said his organization would condemn any democrats who decide to skip the speech.

And what about the American people? A Rasmussen Poll found considerable support for Netanyahu’s speech among the American public. The poll also reported that 44 percent of voters felt U.S.-Israel ties have deteriorated during Obama’s presidency, while nine percent think the relationship has grown stronger.

Tal Trachtman Alroy is an intern at Tablet.