Speaker Mike Johnson invites Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress
U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, speaks with reporters as he returns to his office at the U.S. Capitol Building, Feb. 05, 2024. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

By Ron Kampeas
May 24, 2024

WASHINGTON (JTA) — U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress, offering a diplomatic lifeline for the Israeli leader who is facing the prospect of an international arrest warrant and who is unpopular at home and abroad.

The invitation delivered Thursday at an Israel Independence Day party hosted by the Israeli embassy in Washington came just days after the International Criminal Court prosecutor said he was seeking Netanyahu’s arrest for alleged crimes related to Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.

“We will soon be hosting Prime Minister Netanyahu at a joint session of Congress,” said Johnson, a Louisiana Republican who has been highly critical of how President Joe Biden has handled the U.S. relationship with Israel in recent months.

Johnson apparently got a last minute nod from the Senate Democratic majority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, who is Jewish and shocked Israel in a recent speech calling for new Israeli elections because of what he depicted as Netanyahu’s failures before and since Oct. 7, when Hamas launched the current war. Schumer had earlier indicated he would join Johnson in issuing the invitation, but negotiations were reportedly still underway on Thursday. Johnson told Israel’s government-run Kan broadcaster before his speech that he had secured Schumer’s agreement. He did not give a date.

The speech is likely to roil Washington, which is already on edge in a contentious presidential election year, one rocked by pro-Palestinian protests on campuses and elsewhere nationwide. In 2015, when Netanyahu delivered a controversial speech to Congress opposing then-President Barack Obama’s Iran policies, he faced boycotts by a sizable minority of Democrats.

This year, in Netanyahu’s fourth speech to the body of his career, he will face a Democratic caucus that includes progressives who have lauded the ICC prosecutor for seeking his arrest, alongside Democrats who have grown increasingly disillusioned with how Netanyahu’s government has handled the war against Hamas.

Biden, who initially wholeheartedly backed Israel, has in recent weeks suspended the delivery of some major bombs out of concerns over Israel’s prosecution of the war, although in recent days some of the tensions appear to have been resolved. Johnson has led criticism of Biden for what Republicans are depicting as an abandonment of Israel.

Democrats and Republicans have intensified their campaigns for Jewish and pro-Israel votes, to the point where party communications almost daily lacerate one another as borderline antisemitic.

Netanyahu has lost much of the international goodwill accorded to Israel after Hamas massacred some 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7. Israel launched counterstrikes, and since then more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. Israel estimates that more than a third of casualties are combatants. More than 270 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the invasion.

Netanyahu is under political siege in Israel where tens of thousands of protesters, including some families of roughly 130 hostages still held in Gaza have called for new elections. Netanyahu’s poll numbers have dropped precipitously since the war’s launch. On Thursday, he was fending off damaging claims by the army that he was warned multiple times that Hamas and other enemies were planning an onslaught. He has roundly denied the reports.

Also speaking at the event Thursday night was California Rep. Pete Aguilar, the fourth ranked Democrat in the House. “The safety and security of Israel is paramount to both Democrats and Republicans,” he said.

Michael Herzog, the Israeli ambassador, said the U.S. force that led a coalition of allies last month in repelling an Iranian missile and rocket attack on Israel was the true emblem of the relationship between the countries.

“When our two nations are united and together, nothing can stop us and nothing can beat us,” he said to applause inside the massive National Building Museum main hall.

The embassy kept the location of the party under wraps until the past day. A few dozen pro-Palestinian protesters shouted slogans outside the event and a few lay on the ground stained with fake blood.

References to Oct. 7 and its horrors permeated the event. There were 128 empty chairs on a platform in the center of the hall, symbolizing hostages still held in Gaza.

Attendees walked by massive photos of residents and soldiers in the communities devastated by the Hamas attack and ate foods created from recipes by people from the villages bordering Gaza.

Leave a Reply