Countdown to Netanyahu’s Speech

By | Jun 18, 2024

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1. To attend or not to attend

In just over five weeks, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu will address a joint meeting of Congress, and Democrats are in a bind. Left-leaning Democrats and even some centrists in both chambers are busy trying to figure out the best response to a speech given by a world leader who has not only challenged their party’s leadership but has repeatedly ignored pleas from a Democratic president to change course in the way he’s conducting the Gaza war.

The only real tool Dems have at their disposal is the empty seat. 

Those feeling uneasy with Netanyahu’s presence or seeking a way to express their dismay with his actions can simply decide not to show up. As always, we reporters will be there to count the empty seats. Last time Bibi addressed Congress in 2015 to oppose the Obama-led Iran nuclear deal, 58 Democrats were counted as no-shows. A similar or greater number of empty seats would send a message of dissent, basically telling Netanyahu that a significant portion of one of America’s two parties is so enraged by his actions, they won’t even sit down and listen to him. It will also signal to progressive voters, and to many others who have issues with the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza, that their voices are heard and that they have a place within the big tent of the Democratic Party.

But it isn’t that simple.

First of all, it’s not 2015. This time around, Netanyahu was invited by leaders of both parties. Saying no to Bibi’s speech is also saying no to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and to House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, who signed on to the invitation sent to Netanyahu.

And it also may be a bit more complicated politically.

Israel is in the midst of the toughest war it has experienced in decades. Israelis are fighting one terror organization in Gaza and preparing for a possible military campaign against another in the north, all while as many as 120 hostages remain held in Gaza and tens of thousands of Israelis have been displaced from their homes for months. Is this the right time to turn your back on an Israeli leader coming to plead his case to the U.S. Congress? One thing’s for sure: Republicans will be there and will point to every vacant seat. The more Dems who decide to boycott Netanyahu, the easier it is for their rivals to claim that the Democratic Party is no longer a home for voters who support Israel.

It’s an easy call for those on the far left. For example, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats) was quick to declare that “Netanyahu is a war criminal” and to make clear he in no way will attend the speech.

But what about Dems who aren’t as aligned with the progressive wing of the party? Take a look at Delaware Senator Chris Coons, a top ally of President Biden who has been critical of Netanyahu’s conduct. Coons hasn’t made up his mind yet and has indicated he is open to attending the speech, if he can be assured it will not turn into an anti-Biden rally. Recently, according to the The Washington Post, Coons met with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, and laid out the dilemma he and other Democrats are facing. “If this is anything like the 2015 speech, that is unwelcome and unconstructive,” Coons told The Post. “If it is the prime minister coming to announce a concrete plan for humanitarian relief, Palestinian self-governance or a path forward for the region, I’m interested.”

2. Schumer’s balancing act

Some of the Democratic anger is directed at Majority Leader Schumer, who was quick to say “yes” immediately after House Speaker Mike Johnson first floated the idea, toward the end of March, of inviting Netanyahu to address Congress.

Schumer explained at the time that he “will always welcome the opportunity for the Prime Minister of Israel to speak to Congress in a bipartisan way,” thus avoiding giving Johnson and the Republicans an opportunity to cast the Democrats as not being supportive of Israel at a time of war. For Schumer, it was also a good opportunity to add nuance to his March 14 call for Netanyahu to step down and for new elections in Israel.

But as the months went by, Dems began feeling that perhaps Schumer had made the wrong decision.

Johnson has successfully managed to take the lead on the issue, to set the date for the visit and to make the invite seem less bipartisan and more like a Republican initiative to which the Democrats are, perhaps reluctantly, tagging on.

In addition, time hasn’t made Democrats any more confident in Netanyahu’s policy. If there was some hope that the war was winding down and that Bibi would move on to a more manageable post-war policy, this proved to be wrong, or at least premature. The war is no closer to an end, and Netanyahu is still refusing to entertain Biden’s ideas for a post-war Gaza. This means not only that Netanyahu will be arriving in Washington at a time when differences between Washington and Jerusalem are still at their peak, but also that Democrats have yet to reach the point at which they can tell their progressive voters that Biden’s efforts have paid off and that, as promised, America has succeeded in winding down the war and in delivering relief to Gaza.

This may be the reason Schumer saw the need to clarify, once the July 24 date was set for Netanyahu’s speech, that he still has “clear and profound disagreements” with Israel’s prime minister.

Now the Democratic leader will have to find a way of making these profound disagreements visible before and during Netanyahu’s visit.

3. Bibi’s draft

Netanyahu is known for putting a lot of effort into his public speeches, especially those directed at an American audience. The Israeli leader, though battered in polls and perceived as isolated and defensive, still views his English-language rhetorical gift as a source of unique power that separates him from other Israeli politicians.

As he prepares, presumably with the help of his right-hand adviser, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, it is in Netanyahu’s hands to choose a course.

One option would be to stick to his guns. Any speech to Congress will presumably include much-deserved praise of President Biden and his administration for their support of Israel at its time of need. But from there on in, Netanyahu can choose to deliver a defiant address. He can reiterate the claim that no one has the right to tell Israel how to conduct its war and how to defend itself. He can state that the war in Gaza will go on until Hamas is fully dismantled, and repeat his position that there is no role for the Palestinian Authority in a future Gaza and that now is not the time to discuss a two-state solution. This will ensure Bibi a warm welcome from members of his coalition when he comes back home, but will only deepen the rift with Biden and prove right skeptical Democrats who have been claiming Netanyahu is not a partner.

Or he could choose a different route, one that uses subtle messaging to make this speech a turning point in Netanyahu’s relationship with Biden. Instead of insisting on Israel’s right to continue the war forever, he could hint that intense military operations are reaching an end while stressing that Israel still maintains its right to go after Hamas at any time and in any place. In the “day after” scenario, Netanyahu can easily state that he is open to discussing options and that no partner is barred as long as it denounces terror and demonstrates willingness and ability to serve as an alternative to Hamas. As to a two-state solution—it’s a tough one for Bibi, who personally is no big fan of Palestinian rights and whose political future depends on far-right parties. But he can still try to keep this “no” as vague as possible. After all, even Biden isn’t pushing for the immediate creation of a Palestinian state. Bibi can kick the can down the road without stating outright that he opposes the notion of Palestinian independence. 

Under this scenario, Bibi can expect the White House to give his speech a positive spin. It will also allow Schumer and centrist Democrats enough ammunition to make the argument that Dems were right to support Israel. But there will be a domestic price to pay. Itamar Ben-Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich are waiting back home in Jerusalem, and what they’ll perceive as a sign of weakness can easily translate into an existential political problem for Netanyahu.

4. Will Republicans make gains?

There’s reason to doubt the idea that inviting Netanyahu to speak in Congress and increasing the divide between him and the Democrats will deliver electoral results for Republicans. Sure, their two bases of support who care about Israel and want to see a hawkish American stance on the war, Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians, love the idea of inviting Netanyahu to speak. It’s a true show of support for an Israeli leader they love and admire. 

But these constituencies are already voting Republican. Can the GOP use this moment to win over new voters? It’s hard to see that happening. Schumer and Jeffries’ decision to join the invitation and an expected meeting with Biden at the White House during Netanyahu’s visit will help dull claims that Democrats have turned their back on Netanyahu and on Israel.

That’s usually all Democratic voters need, even those who care deeply about Israel. They may not agree with all Biden does and says about Netanyahu and the war, but as long as there is no visible moment of crisis playing out in Congress around Bibi’s speech, they are unlikely to switch sides, especially with Trump on the Republican ticket. 

5. A lot can happen between now and July 24

This is the real wild card: There is no way to predict which Netanyahu will arrive in Washington on July 24. It could be a leader of a nation still in the midst of a critical war on at least one front, with daily reports of Palestinian casualties and with a humanitarian crisis in Gaza growing out of control. But by then it could also be a different Bibi: one  who is leading a country in the midst of a hostage-for-ceasefire deal that has successfully halted military operations and has allowed for massive aid to enter Gaza. If, and this is a huge “if,” a deal is reached in the coming weeks, Netanyahu will find Democrats in Washington much less anxious and aggravated, and a president who is now overseeing the resolution of the humanitarian crisis and who is, therefore, willing to use more carrots and fewer sticks in his dealings with the Israeli prime minister.

Top Image: World Economic Forum.

3 thoughts on “Countdown to Netanyahu’s Speech

  1. Joao Andrade says:

    Great article

  2. Sheldon says:

    Testing. Wondering if this site was ever fixed.

  3. Sheldon Wolf says:

    Israel’s declaration of war against Gaza after the Oct 7 Hamas massacre was strongly supported by all but the most radical Left. 300,000+ Americans of every political stripe came to DC to express their support for Israel while leaders of both political parties spoke of America’s steadfast and resolute support for the Jewish State. What changed? Swing-state Arabs and Muslims said they wouldn’t support Biden if he didn’t reign-in Israel. Almost immediately, Biden and his Democrats started dancing a different tune. Their change of heart had nothing to do with humanitarian concerns and everything to do with Biden getting re-elected. Right on queue Biden’s Chief Kapo, Chuck Schumer, called for new elections in Israel. One by one democrat politicians sought to undermined Israel even while she was fighting a war for her very survival. Liberal media soon followed. The decline of Democrat support for Israel is the land mine AIPAC and other Jewish organizations are careful to step around.

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