Dem boycott of Netanyahu speech grows

More than a dozen congressional Democrats say they plan to skip Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress amid conflicting signals over whether he will pull out from the March 3 address.

Netanyahu struck a defiant tone during a campaign event in Israel on Monday, saying he was “determined” to present the case for why Israel opposed the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran “before the members of Congress and the American people.”

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“This is not a political issue or a party issue, neither here nor there. This is an existential issue, and I approach it with the fullest responsibility,” he said.

But multiple reports on Monday suggested that his office was weighing ways Netanyahu could alter his plans to mend what has become a tough diplomatic breach, and the Israeli leader did not explicitly mention the speech to a joint session in his public comments. 

The White House has expressed frustration over the speech, which was scheduled by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) without consulting the administration. 

Aides have said that the move was a violation of protocol both because the White House wasn’t involved and because it comes just two weeks before Israel’s own elections — a concern President Obama raised again Monday during a press conference.

“I think it’s important for us to maintain these protocols — because the U.S.-Israeli relationship is not about a particular party,” Obama said.

Netanyahu has come under some criticism in Israel for politicizing the U.S.-Israeli relationship, and some of his public comments on Monday appeared aimed at combating that criticism.

While there have always been “essential differences” with the U.S., he said Monday, relations between the nations had nevertheless remained “sound.” 

Vice President Biden has already said he would not attend the speech due to a scheduling conflict, and a growing number of Democrats are joining him in opting out.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said Monday he would skip the event, and that it was “wrong” that Obama was not consulted ahead of time. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) dismissed the speech as a “stunt” to the Chicago Sun-Times.

A few notable lawmakers said Monday they did plan to attend the address, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who said she was “deeply troubled that politics has been injected” into the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Obama did not directly address a question Monday on whether he thought lawmakers should skip the event, but acknowledged he and Netanyahu “have a very real difference around Iran sanctions.”

He also looked to shore up popular support for his diplomacy, saying he had no intention of allowing a third delay in the nuclear talks, and warning that if they failed, “options are narrow and they’re not attractive.”

Netanyahu was joined by Boehner’s office in offering public signals that the speech would go on.

Cory Fritz, a spokesman for Boehner, said Monday that “now more than ever, it’s critical that the American people hear the truth about the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”

But Reuters reported that Netanyahu was weighing addressing a closed session of Congress or moving the speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual meeting.

Separately, an Israeli official told CNN that the speech was still planned “at this moment,” leaving an opening for a change.