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Democrats are grappling with whether to attend Netanyahu’s speech to Congress as many plan to boycott

WASHINGTON (AP) — The last time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the U.S. Congress, nearly 60 Democrats skipped his speech nine years ago, calling it a slap in the face to the then-president. Barack Obama when he negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran.

With Netanyahu set to address US lawmakers on July 24 and his government now at war with Hamas in Gaza, the number of absentees is likely to be much higher.

Democrats in Congress are grappling with whether or not they will attend. Many are torn between their long-standing support for Israel and their fears about the way Israel has conducted military operations in Gaza. More than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Hamas-held territory since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that sparked the war, according to the Health Ministry. The ministry makes no distinction between civilians and combatants in its figures.

While some Democrats say they will come out of respect for Israel, a larger and growing faction wants no part, creating an extremely charged atmosphere at a meeting that normally amounts to a ceremonial, bipartisan show of support for a U.S. ally.

“I wish he would be a statesman and do what is good for Israel. We all love Israel,” former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., recently said on CNN about Netanyahu. “We have to help them and not let him stand in their way for so long.”

She added: “I think it will bring back more of what we’ve seen in terms of discontent among us.”

Tensions between Netanyahu and the Democrats President Joe Biden have trickled down into the public, with Netanyahu last week accusing the Biden administration of withholding American weapons from Israel — an allegation he made again to his cabinet on Sunday. After the prime minister first made the accusation, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said: “We really don’t know what he’s talking about. We just don’t do that.”

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House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La.,’s invitation to Netanyahu came after consultations with the White House, according to a person familiar with the matter who was granted anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic. No meeting between the leaders during Netanyahu’s visit to Washington is currently planned, this person said.

Netanyahu said in a press release that he was “very moved” by the invitation to address Congress and the opportunity “to deliver the truth about our just war against those who want to destroy us to the representatives of the American people and the entire world.” present.”

Republicans first floated the idea of ​​inviting Netanyahu to the senatorial leader’s office in March Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in the United States, gave a speech in the Senate sharply criticizing the prime minister. Schumer, D-N.Y., called the Israeli leader “an obstacle to peace” and urged new elections in Israel, while denouncing Hamas and criticizing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Republicans denounced the speech as an insult to Israel and its sovereignty. Johnson talked about asking Netanyahu to come to Washington, an invitation that Schumer and House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York ultimately endorsed, albeit reluctantly. Pelosi, who opposed the invitation to Netanyahu in 2015 when she was Democratic leader, said it was a mistake for congressional leadership to extend the invitation again this time.

Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who attended the 2015 speech as a member of the House of Representatives, said he saw no reason why Congress should extend “a political lifeline” to Netanyahu.

Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it would be “healthy” for members of both parties to attend. “I think a lot of Americans are getting a one-sided story, especially the younger generation, and I think it’s important that they hear from the prime minister of Israel, in terms of his perspective,” said McCaul, R-Texas.

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Interviews with more than a dozen Democrats revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the upcoming speech, which many say is a Republican ploy designed to divide their party. Some Democrats say they will attend to show their support for Israel, not Netanyahu.

New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he has an “obligation” to attend because of that position.

“This should not have happened,” he added. “But I have no control over that. And I have to do my job.”

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who heads the Sente Foreign Relations Committee, has indicated he will attend. Cardin said what he is looking for in Netanyahu’s speech is a “kind of message that can strengthen support in this country for Israel’s needs,” but also lay the foundation for peace in the region.

Other Democrats are waiting to see whether Netanyahu will still be prime minister by the time he addresses Congress.

There are open signs of dissatisfaction with the handling of the war by Netanyahu’s government, a coalition that includes right-wing hardliners who oppose any form of settlement with Hamas.

Benny Gantz, a former military chief and centrist politician, withdrew from Netanyahu’s war cabinet this month, citing frustration with the prime minister’s wartime behavior. On Monday, Netanyahu dissolved that body. Meanwhile, a growing number of critics and protesters in Israel have backed a proposed ceasefire that would bring hostages held by Hamas home.

Rep. Seth Magaziner, DR.I., said he stands with those “who hope he is not prime minister by the time the end of July rolls around.” I think he’s been bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians, bad for America.” But, he added, he believes it is his job to show up when a head of state addresses Congress, “even if it is someone I have concerns about and disagree with.”

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Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., attended the 2015 speech and described it as “one of the most painful hours” he has spent in Congress. He plans to boycott unless Netanyahu becomes a “ceasefire champion.”

Much of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — lawmakers who are among the most critical of Israel’s handling of the war — is expected to defect. Among them is Washington caucus chair Pramila Jayapal, who told The Associated Press it was a “bad idea” to invite Netanyahu.

“We need to put pressure on him by withholding offensive military aid so that he sticks to the deal the president has agreed to,” she said.

Netanyahu’s visit is expected to spark significant protests and some members of Congress are planning an alternative event.

Rep. Jim Clyburn said he is in the early stages of bringing “like-minded” people together to share ideas about a path forward for Israelis and Palestinians that includes a two-state solution. The senior South Carolina Democrat was an outspoken critic of Netanyahu’s 2015 speech, which he and several prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus viewed as an insult to Obama.

“I just think instead of just saying, ‘I’m not going, I’m staying away,’ I’m saying, ‘I’m staying away for a purpose,’” he said. ‘I’m not going to listen to his foolishness. But here are some ideas we have that could be a path forward.”

___ Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Josh Boak, Mary Clare Jalonick and Stephen Groves contributed to this report.

___

This story has been corrected to reflect that White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said: “We really don’t know what he’s talking about,” not “We generally don’t know what he’s talking about.” , in response to claims made by the Israeli Prime Minister. Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Biden administration was withholding American weapons from Israel.

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