Top House Democrats huddled with Israeli officials on Wednesday to push back against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coming speech before Congress.
A group of prominent Jewish Democrats met with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer in the office of Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) Wednesday morning, while Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein met separately with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a few hours later.
The Israeli prime minister has been critical of Obama’s push to delay new sanctions on Iran, while the administration continues multilateral diplomacy efforts to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program — a topic Netanyahu is expected to focus on during his scheduled address.
With that in mind, a number of liberal Democrats are weighing the possibility of boycotting the speech to protest both Boehner’s invitation and Netanyahu’s acceptance of it amid those sensitive negotiations.
Rep. Israel said the purpose of the meeting with Dermer was “to defuse some of the optics over the prime minister’s speech to Congress and find ways to get back to the substance of the issue, rather than the style.”
“The timing of this and the Speaker’s decision not to consult with the president is distracting us from the important substance of the negotiations,” Israel said. “We need to be focusing on these negotiations.”
Also attending the meeting with Dermer were Democratic Reps. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), Sandy Levin (Mich.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Ted Deutch (Fla.), and Nita Lowey (N.Y.).
Pelosi’s meeting with Edelstein was attended by several other top Democrats, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), James Clyburn (S.C.), Eliot Engel (N.Y.) and Adam Schiff (Calif.).
Edelstein’s meeting with top Democrats came just a few hours after the Knesset Speaker huddled with Boehner and Hoyer to discuss the same issues.
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said afterward that the minority leader “emphasized … the value all members place on the U.S.-Israel relationship in a non-partisan way.”
But Pelosi also “expressed her concern that casting a political apple of discord into the relationship is not the best way forward given the formidable challenges our two countries are facing together,” Hammill said.
The controversy was putting Jewish Democrats in a tough spot.
Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) said he was still “torn” over whether to attend the speech or boycott, saying the conundrum has put lawmakers “in a very difficult position.”
“I always respect the right of a president of a nation to come before us, but I think the time is totally inappropriate, just before the Israeli election. …” Lowenthal said in an interview. “It’s a deliberate attempt to try to influence the Israeli election and done right after the State of the Union address in which the president said foreign policy is getting better, and Mr. Boehner wants to demonstrate that things are not getting better.”
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress and the co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus, said he also hadn’t made up his mind. But he minced no words criticizing Boehner for sidestepping Obama in extending the invitation.
“I just think it’s the wrong thing. We shouldn’t be interfering in a foreign election, which we’re doing,” Ellison told reporters Wednesday. “And we certainly shouldn’t be inviting a foreign leader of Canada, Palau, Peru or Israel to rebut our president on a foreign policy matter.”
“Article 2 of the Constitution says the president is the one who conducts foreign policy,” he said. “I think the Speaker overstepped his bounds.”
Updated at 8:33 p.m.