Netanyahu’s Invitation to Congress

Jeremy Ben-Ami
on June 27, 2024

An invitation to address a joint session of Congress was once a sign of honor for a world leader and respect for the country they represented.

When heroic figures like Nelson Mandela, Lech Wałęsa and Yitzhak Rabin stood before the Congressional podium, the country – even the world – took notice. I’m sure I’m not alone in recalling the rush of emotion when Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin addressed Congress as Israeli-Egyptian peace was taking shape, or when Rabin joined Jordan’s King Hussein to mark their historic steps toward peace in 1994.

Along with many Jewish Americans with deep personal and family ties to Israel, I hope to feel pride when an Israeli Prime Minister is honored to address our nation again from our most prestigious podium.

Perhaps that’s why the thought of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to Congress causes me such sorrow and pain.

This latest invitation to Netanyahu, first floated in March by House Speaker Mike Johnson, echoes the 2015 invitation schemed up by then-Speaker John Boehner and Israel’s Ambassador at the time Ron Dermer at the height of the debate over the Iran nuclear agreement.

Sadly, the same actors are running an identical play in 2024: A Republican Speaker inviting a right-wing Israeli Prime Minister who is feuding with a Democratic President, in a bid to score political points for Republicans in the US and Netanyahu in Israel.

This speech – like its predecessor – feels less like a moment of pride and more like a dagger to the heart of the US-Israel relationship. Rather than helping unite the countries behind our shared values and interests, Netanyahu’s address will only expose the growing divide between our nations as he and his right-wing government pursue a vision for Israel at odds with the dream of a just, pluralistic, democratic and peaceful nation that inspires the overwhelming majority of Jewish and other pro-Israel Americans.

Precisely because I respect the office of Israel’s Prime Minister, the US-Israel relationship and the hallowed halls of Congress, I am frustrated that Democratic Congressional leadership has provided a veneer of respectable bipartisanship to this raw political gamesmanship.

Individual members of the House and Senate will decide for themselves whether or not to attend the speech, weighing not just their personal sentiments but also those of their constituents. I understand that many will be torn between a desire to respect Israel, the country, and its people at a challenging moment – and their concurrent desire to demonstrate opposition to the destructive, anti-democratic actions and policies of the current Prime Minister.

Just this week, in an op-ed in the New York Times, Israeli thought leaders including former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Mossad director Tamir Pardo wrote, “Inviting Mr. Netanyahu will reward his contempt for US efforts to establish a peace plan, allow more aid to the beleaguered people of Gaza and do a better job of sparing civilians.”

I would encourage Members – whether they attend or not – to find ways to show they care about Israel and the US-Israel relationship other than providing a standing ovation to a Prime Minister who let down Israel’s guard and sought to dismantle its democracy. After all, this is a Prime Minister whose government has shown disregard for the distraught families of hostages, is committed to a policy of de facto annexation of the occupied West Bank, and to ending chances for an eventual Palestinian state, the only way to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Those who take a pass on attending will be in good company expressing their displeasure, aligning themselves with the majority of Israelis, more than 70 percent of whom want Netanyahu to resign immediately or right after the conclusion of the Gaza war.

Members should also consider registering displeasure over the Prime Minister’s consistent public disparagement of President Biden, whose support for Israel and its people since October 7 has been unwavering – including visiting Israel personally in wartime, deterring a wider war in the weeks following the attack, sending billions in military aid and coordinating the international response to Iran’s missile attack in April.

Netanyahu’s recent English-language video challenging President Biden’s record of support was an incomprehensible slap at an American leader who has demonstrated deep friendship to Israel over the years.

Equally concerning are continued statements from both the Prime Minister and his right-wing ministers which appear designed to undermine the President’s efforts to seal a hostage release deal – the only way to put an end to the horror of this Gaza war while ensuring Israel’s continued security.

This is not the way to say thank you to the President for his help or the United States Congress for the invitation.

Those who doubt that the Prime Minister is likely to use his Congressional address for narrow personal gain need only recall that, when he spoke to Congress in March 2015, his party rapidly turned footage of the speech into a campaign ad – something that would be illegal for US lawmakers to do in our elections.

It is hard to view this invitation and speech as anything other than acts of political gamesmanship designed to advance narrow political interests, not the best interests of the United States, Israel or Middle East peace.

Both countries, and the US-Israel relationship itself, deserve better.