More than half of the Democratic Jewish members of US Congress say they will attend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on March 3, while many of the black members of Congress say they will stay away, according to reports in Washington, where the story continues to attract widespread media attention.
According to a Tuesday story on The Hill website headlined “Netanyahu speech has Jewish Democrats lining up,” 14 of the 27 Jewish senators and congressmen said they would attend the speech to a joint session of Congress.
Two senators – independent Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Democrat Brian Schatz of Hawaii – said they would not attend. Six were undecided, and five did not respond to a survey on the matter.
There is only one Republican Jewish congressman, Lee Zeldin from New York.
Among those Jewish Democrats who said they will attend is California Senator Barbara Boxer.
“I’m deeply troubled that politics has been injected into this enduring relationship that has always been above politics, but I plan to go,” she told The Hill.
The website said that Israel had been courting Jewish Democrats in an effort to defuse tension over the matter, with six leading members of Congress meeting last week with Ambassador Ron Dermer.
Schatz said in a statement to The Hill that the invitation by Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner was apparently aimed at “undermining President [Barack] Obama’s foreign policy prerogatives.” He said he would not attend because “it does more harm than good to the bipartisan US-Israel alliance.”
In addition to Boxer, the other two Jewish senators who said they would attend were Maryland’s Ben Cardin and New York’s Charles Schumer.
Senators Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut and Dianne Feinstein from California said they had not yet decided, and Al Franken from Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon did not respond to The Hill’s queries.
While the majority of Jewish lawmakers said they would attend, Politico reported that many members of the Congressional Black Caucus said they were planning to skip the speech, viewing it as a slight to Obama.
“To me, it is somewhat of an insult to the president of the United States,” Rep. Greg Meeks (D-NY) told Politico.
“Barack Obama is my president. He’s the nation’s president, and it is clear, therefore, that I’m not going to be there, as a result of that, not as a result of the good people of Israel.”
According to Politico, the negative reaction to the speech by the Congressional Black Caucus “has been particularly potent, striking at the political alliance between Jews and African-Americans that dates to the Civil Rights movement but has grown more fraught over the years.”
It quoted Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) as saying: “It’s not just about disrespect for the president, it’s disrespect for the American people and our system of government for a foreign leader to insert himself into an issue that our policymakers are grappling with. It’s not simply about President Obama being a black man disrespected by a foreign leader. It’s deeper than that.”
The chairman of the caucus, Rep.
G.K. Butterfield (D-North Carolina), said he did not hold Netanyahu responsible.
“I hold Speaker Boehner responsible, but I would hope that Mr.
Netanyahu would not want to get involved,” Butterfield said. “I personally think it is disrespectful.”
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, the only Afro-American senator and a strong Israel supporter, did not comment on whether he would attend.
Netanyahu again addressed the swirling controversy around the speech during a Wednesday visit to Eli, saying he was not going to the US to confront Obama but “to speak out for Israel and not just for Israel, but for the many others here in the Middle East and in the US who understand that [the Iranian regime] presents a great danger to them as well.”
According to Netanyahu, “Iran continues to forge ahead through the rubble of the new Middle East; it has already taken over four capitals, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and now Sana’a. Now it wants to open a third front from the Golan Heights.”
Netanyahu said that if that was the way Iran acted without nuclear arms, “imagine what it will do when it has nuclear weapons.”
In a related development, Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein on Wednesday endorsed the legality of Israeli television stations broadcasting Netanyahu’s congressional speech.
Weinstein said that even if there was a political dimension to the speech, as long as the dominant purpose was to advance Israeli interests, broadcasting could not be blocked. He added that broadcasting it would constitute valid news reporting and that the prime minister was invited by Congress.
Critics had objected to the broadcast, calling the speech political grandstanding since it will fall only two weeks before the March 17 election.
A petition to block the speech was filed by Meretz party leader Zahava Gal-On. Gal-On said she was not surprised that Weinstein rejected her stance because he was “dragging his legs when it comes to investigations of the Netanyahu family.”Tovah Lazaroff, Yonah Jeremy Bob and Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.