POLITICS

Democrats Aren't Sure What They're Going To Do About Bibi

02/05/2015 01:46 pm ET | Updated Feb 06, 2015

WASHINGTON -- It seems that House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give a joint address to Congress has caused problems for just about everyone.

The surreptitious nature of the invite -- the White House didn't even know about it -- drew criticism from Democrats, who saw it as a slight to President Barack Obama. Elder foreign policy hands deemed it a breach of protocol. Even some pro-Israel voices worried it would pit the country against one of the two major political parties in the U.S.

But beyond the backlash Boehner has faced, the Netanyahu flap has also presented a conundrum for Democrats who are eager to display their alliance with the Israeli leader but have serious concerns about the timing of his visit. The U.S. is in the midst of delicate talks with Iran over its nuclear program, and Democrats fear Netanyahu will undermine those talks by pushing for fresh sanctions against Iran.

Interviews with multiple lawmakers and aides reveal the party is far from reaching a consensus on what to do about Bibi's speech, set for March 3 in the Capitol. A small coalition, led by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), has been circulating a letter urging Boehner to postpone the invitation until after the Israeli elections in mid-March. An aide said more than 20 lawmakers have signed on to the letter.

Absent such a delay, some Democrats have considered boycotting the event altogether. An aide to one prominent pro-Israel Democrat told The Huffington Post on Wednesday that "the appetite for a boycott is growing" amid concerns that support for Israel is being turned into a partisan issue. But other top Democratic aides insist that such talk is overblown. Certain lawmakers may not show up -- conveniently citing scheduling conflicts, perhaps. But the risk of publicly disassociating with a top ally is real.

"I think most Democrats will show up but voice their concern another way," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of Israel's many Democratic supporters in Congress.

He suggested that Netanyahu, too, recognizes that he might have overstepped in associating himself too closely with Republicans.

"He realizes he has to do something to show Democrats that the bipartisan nature of Israel's support in America remains," Schumer said.

Already, the Israeli government has moved to tamp down Democratic unrest. On Wednesday, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) hosted a meeting with six other Jewish Democratic members and Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the U.S. The meeting, according to an aide, came a few days after Dermer -- who's been heavily criticized for his role in organizing the Netanyahu speech -- reached out. The group met in Israel's office over Dunkin' Donuts muffins and Munchkins, although those observing Jewish dietary laws abstained. They discussed everything from Bibi's visit to legislation involving Iran sanctions.

"It was an opportunity for them to air their grievances to the ambassador, the fact that it is unfortunate that the style has overtaken the substance," said the aide. "The grievances are not about Bibi coming to speak at all. It is about the way it transpired."

Separately on Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met with the speaker of the Israeli Knesset at the request of the Israeli Embassy. The meeting, which was also attended by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.), and Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), covered similar ground, according to aides.

But even that meeting was fraught with tension. The Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, had met with Boehner earlier in the day. And while Hoyer and Engel were invited to that session, Pelosi was not, prompting complaints that Republicans were once again trying to divide top Democratic leaders from Israeli leadership, both physically and politically. In the end, neither Engel nor Hoyer showed and Democrats had to set up a meeting of their own.

Pelosi reiterated Thursday that it was her "intention" to attend the Netanyahu speech. The White House, meanwhile, has been coy about whether it will have an emissary at the bicameral address. (Obama himself has already declined to meet with Netanyahu while he's in town.) Vice President Joe Biden, who would normally attend such an event, is still sorting out his schedule, according to the White House. Schumer and Israel plan to attend, as does Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), according to aides in each office.

But even if these lawmakers attend the speech, the pressure is on. "[The speech] ratchets up the volume on each member wherever they stand," said one top Democratic official who works on Israel policy. "Instead of issuing a statement, you now issue a letter. Instead of just sidestepping the issue, you now have to issue a statement."

Schumer, in his interview with HuffPost, put the blame on Boehner and, to a lesser extent, Netanyahu.

"I know very conservative Republicans, you know, Zionists, who really don't like Obama, who thought what Boehner did was wrong and who thought that when Netanyahu responded positively it was wrong," he said.

Boehner's camp, naturally, has dismissed complaints about broken protocol as overwrought and politically motivated. At his Thursday press conference, the speaker showed no signs of regret or second-guessing.

"It was a very good idea," Boehner said of his invitation. "There is a message that the American people need to hear and I think he is the perfect person to deliver it."

UPDATE: 3:25 p.m. -- Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.), G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) have announced that they won't attend Netanyahu's speech, the Associated Press reports.

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