Almost a quarter of House Democrats will boycott Tuesday’s congressional address by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The defections, which point to the increasingly strained relations between the White House and the Israeli government, have injected a partisan edge to the issue of U.S. support for Israel, which has historically been overwhelming from both sides of the aisle.
Vice President Biden, who is traveling abroad, will be another glaring absence. Late Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) added her name to the list, according to the Boston Globe.
Both Netanyahu and top administration officials have sought to alleviate some of the simmering tensions this week, with the prime minister saying Monday that he has “great respect” for Obama, and Secretary of State John Kerry emphasizing Sunday that the Israeli leader “is welcome to speak in the United States.”
But the political storm surrounding the speech, which has been raging since Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) extended the invitation without consulting the White House or congressional Democrats, has shown no signs of subsiding.
Indeed, top Republicans issued statements this week in fierce defense of the address, while the number of Democrats vowing to boycott it grew only larger.
“This has unfortunately become a partisan spectacle,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said Monday, adding his name to the boycott list. “I’d be uncomfortable being part of an event that I don’t believe should be happening.”
"It's unfortunate that Speaker Boehner's actions on the eve of a national election in Israel have made Tuesday's event more political and less helpful for addressing the critical issue of nuclear nonproliferation and the safety of our most important ally in the Middle East," Warren said in a statement, as reported by the Globe.
The Democrats are hammering the speech for three separate reasons.
First, they disagree with Boehner’s decision to invite Netanyahu without first talking with Democrats in the White House or Congress — a unilateral move they say flouts the traditional approach of consulting across the aisle before bringing heads of state into the Capitol.
Second, the critics contend Netanyahu’s speech is inappropriate because it comes just a few weeks before the Israeli prime minister faces a tough reelection contest at home. To use the Capitol as a campaign prop, the Democrats charge, would be to exploit the U.S. Congress for his own political gain.
And third, the critics fear Netanyahu’s message, which is expected to feature calls for tougher sanctions on Iran, could undermine the multilateral nuclear disarmament talks being led by the Obama administration, which opposes new sanctions while the negotiations are ongoing.
“While success with Iran is far from assured, we must seek to overcome the misguided approach of those, like Mr. Netanyahu, who would reject any reasonable nuclear agreement,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who is boycotting the speech, said Monday. “The only true alternative to an effective agreement is war with Iran. Scuttling nuclear negotiations with Iran would endanger every family in America and Israel.”
The controversy has put Democrats in a difficult position. On one hand, they want to defend Obama from what they consider a Republican-engineered attack on Iran negotiations the administration hopes will prove a legacy of the president’s foreign policy. On the other, they don’t want to be seen undermining the interests of Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East, amid the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorists in the region.
Netanyahu is expected to use Tuesday’s speech to pan Obama’s diplomatic approach to Iran. The prime minister, who is pushing instead for tougher sanctions, says Obama’s strategy won’t ensure that Iran never has the capacity to create a nuclear weapon — an argument echoed by Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“A nuclear-armed Iran is one of the gravest security threats facing both the United States and our ally Israel,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Sunday. “We have heard from countless experts, administration officials, and regional partners. Now, with a critical deadline only weeks away, Congress will appropriately hear from the prime minister of Israel.”
GOP leaders also find themselves in an uncomfortable position, playing host to a speech sure to focus on the security of Israel and the West even as Republican leaders have failed to fund their own Department of Homeland Security.