Congressional Democrats facing tough choice

Congressional Democrats facing tough choice

Vice President Joe Biden says he will not attend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned March 3 address to Congress. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images via JTA)
Vice President Joe Biden says he will not attend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned March 3 address to Congress. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images via JTA)

If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned address to a joint session of Congress has put pro-Israel Democrats, forced to choose between a disapproving White House and supporters of the Jewish state, in a bind, it’s got Jewish Democrats on Capitol Hill — such as Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York — in a tizzy.

Nadler (D-N.Y.), though planning to attend the speech if Netanyahu goes through with it, said Netanyahu ought to cancel.

“I think it’s a mistake from the inception,” said Nadler. “It’s dividing American politics. Bipartisan support for Israel should not be controversial, and it’s got the appearance, even if it’s not the intent, of involving in American politics – there’s no point to it. And you if you got to get out the message on Iran, there are a million ways to do that.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the leading pro-Israel Democrats in Congress, said he would attend the speech: “If Prime Minister Netanyahu visits, I intend to go and hear what he has to say. The U.S.-Israel relationship is bigger than any of the personalities involved at a given time. Presidents, prime ministers and members of Congress come and go. I won’t get into the middle of a partisan fight on the relationship.”

Last week, Nadler was among seven Jewish Democratic members of Congress who attended a meeting called by former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who summoned Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, to explain himself.  

Dermer had been making rounds on Capitol Hill trying to mend fences with Democrats, some of whom have not decided whether to boycott the speech, as some of their colleagues have planned.

Rep. Steven Cohen (D-Tenn.), one of the most vocal opponents of the way the invitation was handled, met twice with Dermer last week. But he has still not officially made up his mind on whether he will attend.

Cohen’s communications director, Ben Garmisa, put the congressman’s position this way: “Congressman Cohen recognizes and appreciates the value, importance and significance of our country’s relationship with Israel. [But] he feels that by undermining President [Barack] Obama’s role as the leader of our nation’s foreign policy and scheduling this speech so close to the Israeli elections, Speaker [John] Boehner has chosen a path that ultimately hurts Israel. Congressman Cohen would like the speaker to consider rescheduling the prime minister’s speech.”

So far, other than public statements of disapproval, the administration has not used its leverage over lawmakers on what decision to make, given that many will decide based on their voter and donor base and previous record. The speech also is scheduled at the same time as AIPAC’s annual conference, which brings many of these supporters to Washington.

“I don’t think it’s pressure with a capital ‘P,’ ” said a senior government relations director for a Jewish group opposed to the president but who was not authorized to speak on the record. “I think it’s just that they know that Netanyahu is going to make things difficult for the president.

“I think it’s going to end up being a handful of people [who will not attend], probably. Most Democrats aren’t going to want to miss the speech because AIPAC is in town during this, and it would be fairly difficult to explain to your AIPAC contributors why you’re not going to see the prime minister. Most of them will come and just not be as enthusiastic as they were last time.”

So far, no changes have occurred to the date or location of the prime minister’s speech, but reports have been less than consistent.

According to a report Feb. 10 by Reuters, Israeli officials are floating trial balloons of not televising the speech in the United States, which is intended to air during prime time, or moving the venue to address AIPAC, where members of Congress would be in attendance.

Yet, on the same day, Netanyahu publicly brushed aside these claims, saying that the speech would continue.

“This is not a political issue or a party issue, neither here nor there,” Netanyahu said during a Likud Party event, according to Ha’aretz. “This is an existential issue, and I approach it with the fullest responsibility.

“While some are busy with protocol or politics, a bad deal with Iran is taking shape.”

Dmitriy Shapiro covers politics for Washington Jewish Week. He can be reached at