The Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, plans to speak to the joint Houses of the United States Congress on March 3. He was invited by House Speaker John Boehner who cooked the event up with the help of the Israeli ambassador, John Dermer, an American by birth, and a former Republican Party operative who by all accounts remains “deeply connected in Republican politics in America.” The topic of the speech will be the ongoing nuclear negotiations between the U.S and Iran. Netanyahyu wants to derail the talks; some Republicans want to derail the negotiations, still more Republicans want to derail the President.
Vice-President Biden won’t be attending. Pointedly. According to the latest count I could find, a “whip” list published by The Hill, three Democratic senators and nineteen Democratic members of the House have committed to not attending. Pointedly. Others are still “on the fence,” and not committing either way. Still others are planning to attend while voicing strong criticism of the event.
I can’t find the names of any of Missouri’s Democratic congressional delegation under any of the headings used by The Hill’s list: “Skipping,” “Attending,” or “On the fence.” Are they hoping it will all just go away? Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have denounced the speech and reportedly many CBC members are not going although they are also not taking an official position – perhaps Reps. Clay and Cleaver, both members of the CBC, are among those yet to announce? As for Claire McCaskill, perhaps she’s playing coy yet again, hoping to get by without declaring herself?
But, you say, Netanyahu is only giving a little talk and we all know talk is cheap. So why is it important whether or not our federal representatives plan to attend? Short version: The invitation to give the speech bypassed the White House, a serious breech of protocol clearly indicating that the entire event is intended to be a poke in the President’s eye; it politicizes the relationship between Israel and the United States as never before; and it endangers the diplomatic efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear program without resorting to a war that would be a total disaster for the region and for the United States. Oh, and Netanyau wants to play the big, tough man in the U.S. prior to an upcoming Israeli election.
In the words of James Fallows in The Atlantic:
(a) the idea of a foreign leader being invited to criticize existing U.S. foreign policy before a joint meeting of Congress, something that has never happened before; or
(b) the specific critique Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to advance in this setting, which, based on his statements over the past decade, is likely to involve such impossible conditions and strictures for an “acceptable” deal with Iran as to torpedo the negotiations. Not to mention …
(c) the idea that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear installations merits serious consideration for either the U.S. or Israel.
This last point refers to the fact that Netanyahu wants the U.S. to seriously tighten the screws on Iran and there are those who argue that what he’d really, really like is for the U.S. to mount a military offensive against Iran.
Nor is this Israel-related issue likely to bite, which is to say that opposition to the speech will be difficult to spin as anti-Israeli bias – although such efforts are already underway, what Politico calls the “backlash to the backlash.” All but one of the twenty-seven Jewish members of the House of Representatives are Democrats; to date only fourteen have indicated that they will attend the speech. Of those 14 attending, most have also issued comments critical of the event, along with other, non-Jewish Democrats who have decided to attend. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Commentary Magazine have voiced discomfort with the event. J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group, has launched a petition that has garnered 20,000 signatures affirming that Netanyahu “cannot claim any mandate to speak for Jews in the United States.” Nor is Netanyahu’s move playing well in Israel.
But all this frenzied back and forth leaves me with just one question: Why aren’t our Missouri Democrats willing to come out of the Bibi closet? I for one would like to see them out in the light of day. Democrat – and Jewish – Rep. John Yarmouth (KY), gets to the heart of the problem in a statement explaining why he will not be attending the talk:
Congress has a broader responsibility than the security interests of Israel. While it certainly is important that we understand the Israeli perspective, the American people will hear only Netanyahu’s perspective, creating a public perception that could undermine a broadly supported resolution to the Iranian nuclear situation.
The Prime Minister’s appearance will be construed by many to infer congressional support for his position as opposed to US policy.
I do not want my respectful attendance to in any way imply support for his position.
So which Missouri Democrats are willing to support Bibi Netanyahu over the President of their own country? Even if they choose to attend, I’d like to hear them take a stand on the substance of the controversy. And just let me add that it is a very sad day in which we don’t even need to ask that question about the other dominant political party.
UPDATE: Rep. Cleaver’s name has been added to the whip list under the heading “On the fence,” with the following statement:
“The speech is still several weeks out. We do not set the Congressman’s schedule that far in advance,” said press secretary Mary Petrovic
Well, it’s something, and something’s better than nothing, right?
*Edited slightly on 2/15, 1:40 am; last two paragraphs added after inadvertent omission.