Team Barack started strong, but Team Bibi is showing it knows how to finish, as supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pick up steam against those urging a boycott of his speech next week before Congress.
About 20 House and Senate Democrats announced early on that they would not attend the March 3 speech, which is being cast as a rebuke to President Obama, but since then only a handful have joined them as pro-Netanyahu advocates counter by hinting at political consequences for the no-shows.
Christians United for Israel, for example, sent out an action alert a few weeks ago urging its members to contact their representatives in support of the Netanyahu speech. The result was a blast of more than 30,000 emails asking lawmakers not to let “partisan politics and petty excuses keep you from fulfilling the most basic of responsibilities of your office.”
“Our goal was to sort of stop the bleeding and push back,” said CUFI Executive Director David Brog. “Since that went out, there’s not been much of an increase or an increase at all in the numbers not attending. We hope we were part of the pushback that made folks think twice about this very blatant display of partisanship.”
Among those pushing back is the Republican Jewish Coalition, which started an online petition drive asking members to “join us in supporting Bibi and Boehner to stand up to Iran.” AIPAC, America’s pro-Israel lobby, has encouraged all members of Congress to attend the speech.
Those opposing the speech launched the first salvo, charging House Speaker John A. Boehner with inappropriate meddling in foreign policy for extending the invitation without first notifying the White House. Foes also accuse Mr. Netanyahu of using the platform to boost his chances in the March 10 Israeli election, which comes a week after his scheduled address before a joint session of Congress.
The liberal Jewish group J Street launched the petition drive “Israel’s Prime Minister is not the spokesman for all Jews,” along with the social media hashtag #BibiDoesntSpeakForMe. The left-wing group RootsAction, joined by Code Pink, American Muslims for Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace and End the Occupation, was more direct, urging members of Congress to boycott as part of its #SkipTheSpeech campaign.
“Join us in raising our voices to protest Netanyahu’s speech, not because it’s a partisan snub, nor because the date is close to the Israeli elections, but because Netanyahu is going to Washington to undermine the U.S. strategy of diplomacy with Iran,” said their online action alert.
Mr. Obama is refusing to meet with Mr. Netanyahu during his visit here, accusing Mr. Boehner of breaking protocol in issuing the invite. Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who as presiding officer of the Senate would normally sit on the dais behind the prime minister, has scheduled a trip and won’t be in attendance.
But only 23 of the House’s 188 Democrats, two of the Senate’s 44 Democrats and one independent have said they will skip the March 3 speech, according to an online “whip list” maintained by The Hill.
“Here’s the difference: Obama doesn’t have to run for re-election again. A lot of these guys do,” Mr. Brog said. “So if they’re doubling down with the White House on what is increasingly proving to be a naive approach to this evil, they could pay with their jobs.”
Last week 23 House Democrats sent a letter to Mr. Boehner urging him to postpone the Netanyahu speech, saying that the Israeli leader is being used as a “political tool against the president” as Congress considers new sanctions legislation against Iran, which the White House opposes.
Most of those opting out are members of the Congressional Black Caucus and reside in safe congressional districts. Several members have said in the media that they see the speech as disrespectful to the president.
Even so, there’s an effort underway to pressure them to attend the speech by highlighting what critics describe as a disconnect over Israel with the black Christian community.
“Black Christians love Israel,” said conservative columnist Star Parker, who heads the Center for Urban Renewal and Education. “[T]he Congressional Black Caucus is 100 percent out of step with its own community and constituents with regards to Israel and the prime minister of Israel.”
Her organization is hosting Thursday at the National Press Club a group of black ministers — many of whom reside in CBC districts — in support of Mr. Netanyahu’s speech.
“They need to be called on the carpet and told, ‘You’re out of step,’ and to boycott this particular session is an offense not just to the Congress and the prime minister, but also to their own community,” Ms. Parker said. “They should be there listening to bring back to their communities the truth about the level of threat against a land that black people love — black Christians in particular.”
Outside the Beltway, some members of Congress are feeling the heat from constituents. In Colorado, Dean Rotbart, a columnist and weekly talk show host on Radio Chavura, has accused Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of misplaced priorities for her decision to miss the speech, which she has attributed to a scheduling conflict.
“Her decision is pure, grotesquely partisan politics and a slap in the face to the thousands of pro-Israel constituents — both Jewish and non-Jewish alike — who have helped elect Congresswoman DeGette to office nine consecutive times,” said Mr. Rotbart in a Feb. 15 column for the Boulder Jewish News.
The New York Daily News warned in a Feb. 14 editorial that those who boycott the speech are “making a huge mistake.” Two of the House Democrats planning to miss the speech, Reps. Gregory W. Meeks and Charles B. Rangel, represent New York districts.
“This is a moment to put global security and solidarity ahead of petty, partisan one-upmanship,” the editorial said.
Most of those planning to skip the speech reside in safe Democratic districts, although the possibility of a contested primary is always a concern if the issue gains steam among Jewish and Christian voters.
“I do think there will be fallout for those who don’t attend,” Mr. Brog said. “Look, obviously, if someone’s from a very safe Democratic district, they probably will be okay. But if anyone’s from a district where they face a close race, I think this can be Exhibit A in the case that the congressman or -woman in question placed partisanship above duty and country.”
Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, said that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has given cover to House Democrats caught between offending their constituents and alienating the president. She says she’s going, even though she’d rather see the speech called off.
“There are certainly that many Democrats who aren’t worried about Jewish constituents, who aren’t worried about Christian Zionist constituents, who have no reason to fear electoral reprisal,” Mr. Ginsberg said. “On the other hand, I’m going to say if you’re a representative from Long Island or South Carolina, you’d better be there.”