US Vice President Joseph Biden .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Democrats in Congress are debating whether to protest or sit quietly through Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint session next month, scheduled exclusively by Republican leadership.
Within the caucus, the debate is over optics: how Democrats can express steadfast support for Israel while avoiding the impression of supporting, or rebuffing, one of its politicians.
Pro-Israel organizations in Washington are quietly reminding Democratic legislators of their commitment to Israel’s security needs, including those with regard to Iran, regardless of politics and protocol.
But some lawmakers fear their presence, and applause, may portray favor for a prime minister up for reelection within two weeks of the speech.
That dilemma is also facing US Vice President Joe Biden, who would traditionally attend an address of this kind.
In his role as president of the Senate, Biden’s attendance is a matter of protocol: The vice president typically sits alongside the speaker of the house before any joint session of Congress.
But as of now, Biden has not yet committed to attending Netanyahu’s address, after US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry announced they will not receive him during his visit in March.
Both have said that meeting Netanyahu so close to Israel’s election would be inappropriate.
But in an interview with CNN, Obama declined to characterize the speech itself as improper, leaving it to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to make that decision. Boehner has since recommitted his office to hosting the prime minister.
Biden now faces two competing interpretations of protocol in deciding whether to attend the address.
Other Democrats on Capitol Hill are mulling whether to attend themselves, angered by Boehner’s invitation, which they have condemned as a partisan act.
Yet reports that Democrats plan on skipping the speech en masse are overblown, according to senior aides and members of Congress.
“I don’t think it’s planned,” said one senior Democratic aide on the Hill. “There’s nothing organized. I think some members won’t make it – a lot of members don’t go to these things, anyway.”
Another official did not predict widespread protest.
The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to the reports.
One concern articulated by some of Israel’s friends in the US is that some of the Democrats may indeed stay home, or – if they attend the speech – “sit on their hands.”
One of Netanyahu’s successes in the speech he gave to Congress in 2011 is that he received 29 standing ovations, something that sent a powerful message of American support. A lack of ovations could send the opposite message.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani told The Jerusalem Post earlier this week that, because of the high levels of public support for Israel in the US, “it would be a terrible mistake for the Democratic Party to insult the prime minister by not being there for his speech, and I don’t think they will make that mistake.”
The unwillingness of the Prime Minister’s Office to respond fits in with the low profile it has now opted to keep regarding the entire controversy.
Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer presented the Israeli position in an email interview he conducted with The Atlantic on Friday, and the Prime Minister’s Office is not going beyond what he said there.
During that interview Dermer said the initiative for the speech came from Boehner; that it was made clear to him that the normal protocol was for Boehner’s office to inform the White House; and that Netanyahu believes it is his “deepest moral obligation” to address Congress about Iran “while there is still time for him to make a difference.”
Sources close to the prime minister said he is going ahead with plans for the speech.
Netanyahu, however, is in a bind. If he does go ahead with the speech, he risks further aggravating the White House and alienating Democratic congressmen who – when push come to shove – will surely side with Obama over Netanyahu.
On the other hand, if he backs out now, he risks being seen as leaving a very powerful ally in Boehner “out to dry.” Furthermore, if Netanyahu does opt out, his domestic political opponents will use that – just two weeks before the election – to paint him as weak and indecisive.
There is speculation that as the March 3 date approaches, some outside reason may be found to elegantly postpone the speech.