John Lewis, the longtime Georgia congressman who is portrayed as a hero in the new film “Selma” and known as the “conscience of the U.S. Congress,” said last night that he won’t attend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled speech to Congress in March, according to Medea Benjamin. From the twitter feed of the Code Pink leader:
Exciting! @repjohnlewis announced he will join @repblumenauer in refusing to attend #Netanyahu’s March 3 speech at Congress #freepalestine
At event tonite at @busboysandpoets @RepJohnLewis pledged that he would not attend #Netanyahu speech at Congress!!! #ICC4Israel
Lewis spoke about his book at the D.C. restaurant Busboys and Poets last night. Benjamin says she asked Lewis if he would attend the Netanyahu speech. “I have no plans to attend the speech,” he said, to applause. Today, Benjamin says, Lewis’s office confirmed to Code Pink that he will not attend the speech. We’ve contacted Lewis’s office and will update if we hear more.
Blumenauer is Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, said to be the only congressperson on record to say he won’t attend the speech. But the Washington Post reports the resistance is now widespread. “High-ranking Democrats are weighing a boycott of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress next month.” And the Post identifies two other congresspeople who don’t plan to hear Netanyahu:
Some House Democrats have decided they won’t attend, saying that the event was meant to create an image for Netanyahu back home as he faces a potentially difficult reelection bid. “It’s a campaign stunt, and I’m not working for his campaign. I’m not a standing stooge,” Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said Tuesday.
“What will be remembered here is the slight against our president and the partisan political nature of it, and I don’t know who’s served by that,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said Tuesday.
Politico says, “Dozens of Democrats are privately threatening to boycott Netanyahu’s March 3 address.”
CNN chimes in: “Several influential senior Democratic senators said on Wednesday they and other senators are considering boycotting an upcoming speech to Congress.” Dick Durbin of Illinois declined to name names.
Asked about a boycott, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who is Jewish and the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said “there are people discussing that.”
The drama has rocked D.C. for two weeks now. Netanyahu announced a day after President Obama’s State of the Union speech that he had accepted Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation to address a joint session of Congress in February, later moved to March 3. Netanyahu wants to rebut Obama’s call to Congress to allow negotiations with Iran to go forward. The speech is turning into a neverending embarrassment/scandal. When will it hit bottom?
The president wants congresspeople to “decide for themselves” whether to attend the speech, presidential press secretary Josh Earnest said yesterday in a briefing. He left open the possibility that Vice President Joe Biden won’t attend the speech– “contingent on his schedule.” The White House seems to be enjoying this opportunity to publicize Israel’s bad behavior.
Q. Do you think it’s dangerous for American-Israeli relations for Democrats to potentially boycott the Netanyahu speech?
MR. EARNEST: Well, certainly individual members of Congress will have to make their own decision, some of which I assume will be driven by their schedule and some of it will be driven by their own views about what has transpired over the last several weeks as it relates to this speech…
one of the concerns about the breach in protocol that we’ve seen and articulated is that it might cause some to view the relationship between the United States and Israel as a relationship between one political party in Israel and one political party in the United States. The President does not believe that would be a positive development in our relationship…
Q But given that — so does he think that Democrats should go to the speech if it happens?
MR. EARNEST: I guess to give you a more direct answer, the President believes that individual members ought to decide for themselves. That’s certainly appropriate.
I.e., you don’t need to take this vaccine, senators and congresspeople!
Politico says that Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer and Israeli speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein had meetings all over Capitol Hill yesterday to try and find a way out of the crisis. Like maybe cancelling the speech?
[Nancy] Pelosi “expressed her concern that casting a political apple of discord into the relationship is not the best way forward given the formidable challenges our two countries are facing together,” said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill.
The matter is resonating in a traditional issue about Zionism: the dual-loyalty concern. Don’t make Jews choose between Israel and the U.S. Says longtime Israel supporter Martin Indyk:
“It’s going to get worse, because Democrats, whether it’s Jewish Democratic congressmen, or Jewish voters for the Democratic Party — which is the majority of American Jewish voters … nobody wants to be put in the position of taking sides… Democrats who are supporters of Israel don’t want to have to choose between supporting Israel and supporting their president.”
More on loyalties being pulled one way and another: Seven Jewish Democrats met with Ron Dermer, who reportedly came up with the speech idea, and upbraided him privately. Politico:
Seven Jewish Democratic members of Congress who met Wednesday in Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-N.Y.) office — Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ted Deutch of Florida, Jerry Nadler and Nita Lowey of New York, Sander Levin of Michigan and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois — lit into Dermer. The invitation, they said, was making them choose between Netanyahu and Obama, making support for Israel into a partisan issue that they never wanted it to be, and forcing them to consider a boycott of the speech. One member, according to someone in the room, went so far as to tell Dermer it was hard to believe him when he said he didn’t realize the partisan mess he was making by going around Obama to get Boehner to make the invitation.
They suggested Netanyahu consider speaking to members of Congress privately, and not from the podium of the House.
“There were a wide range of views that were discussed, but one thing we all agreed on emphatically is that Israel should never be used as a political football,” Israel told POLITICO.
Steve Israel also met with Natan Sharansky, the rightwing pro-settler head of the Jewish Agency. Cozy:
Greg Sargent in the Washington Post notes that Dems don’t want to be “out of sync with whatever Israel wants,” and the Jewish Dems were nervous about being critical of Netanyahu:
many House Democrats are angry at the prospect of Benjamin Netanyahu addressing Congress at a time when it could set back President Obama’s hopes for progress in nuclear negotiations with Iran. But relatively few of them are willing to say so publicly — the latest indication that Democrats remain deeply skittish about appearing to be out of sync with whatever Israel wants…
I’m told by several sources that a number of Jewish House Democrats recently met to privately discuss putting out a statement calling for a delay in the speech. Yet the Members could not agree on what it should say, specifically in terms of how critical it should be of Netanyahu’s speech or how directly it should lean into the idea that the speech might set back Iran talks. So Members agreed instead to put out statements on their own.
In “sync with whatever Israel wants”? What sort of job description is that? Dan Froomkin of the Intercept gets the punchline:
Jewish Congressional Dems say they don’t want to choose between Netanyahu & Obama, but it’s not clear who they’d pick
There will be no protest of Netanyahu’s speech. The enforcers will make sure.
The enforcers (mostly Jewish House members & Schumer) will say: “I agree with you but don’t make trouble for yourself. It’s not worth it.”
Jeffrey Goldberg– who served in the Israeli army (when he moved to Israel because he felt anti-Semitism so pervasive in this country) — says in a twitter dialog with Sargent that the politicians are afraid of Jewish donors.
Sargent: “The big story, if anything, is how meek, publicly at least, Dems are being about this”
Goldberg: “That’s because they like Israel generally, like the support they get from Jewish voters and donors, etc.”
Sargent: “Right. But Jewish Dems actually mulled a joint statement calling for speech delay, and then punted.”
Goldberg: “To avoid a full-blown crisis.”
Sounds like they got one.
Annie Robbins and Adam Horowitz contributed key reports to this account.