As the March 3 date of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled speech before Congress draws closer, leaders in New Jersey’s Jewish community are concerned that it not undermine bipartisan congressional support for Israel.
Some back Netanyahu’s decision to accept the invitation by speaker of the House John Boehner, calling it an opportunity to convey Israel’s concerns ahead of a March 24 deadline on achieving the outline of an Iran nuclear deal.
Others say Netanyahu’s move undermines trust between Jerusalem and the White House – and is driving a wedge between Republican and Democratic supporters of Israel — at a moment when it is needed most.
Either way, efforts to contain the controversy took a blow when Vice President Joe Biden announced that he would not attend the address.
Biden’s office informed the media on Friday that the vice president would be out of the country and would not fill his role as the president of the Senate during the joint meeting of Congress on March 3.
The announcement came as leading black and Hispanic Democrats indicated that they also would not attend. A Jewish lawmaker, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), told JTA that blacks in his district were asking him not to attend because they saw the speech as disrespecting President Obama.
Cohen is circulating a letter among colleagues urging Boehner to postpone the speech until after Israeli elections and congressional votes on an Iran sanctions bill.
Meanwhile, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, in an interview with the Forward on Friday urged Netanyahu not to address Congress, saying the fracas had devolved into a “circus.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, made the same call in an interview with the paper.
Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, who was raised in West Orange, also criticized the speech as a “cynical political move” that “could hurt our attempts to act against Iran.” He urged Netanyahu, his former boss, to cancel the speech.
Backers of the speech included Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus, who helped initiate a letter countering the one circulated by Cohen. The letter thanks Boehner for organizing the speech, saying “it is necessary now for Congress to hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu, and welcome his expertise on Iran’s regional designs.” A slate of 48 GOP House members signed on the letter, initiated by Lance and Reps. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.).
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking Democrat and former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “from my perspective, if he is here I will probably be attending.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) was overseas and was unavailable to respond to NJJN’s inquiry about the Netanyahu speech.
‘Not a great thing’
Many local longtime Israel backers sought to tamp down talk of a bipartisan divide on Israel.
“Obviously it has become an issue, but I don’t believe it will have any lasting effect on the U.S.-Israel relationship or on the issue of Iran,” said Princeton attorney Lionel Kaplan, a Democrat who was president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee from 1998 to 2000. Telling NJJN he was speaking only for himself, Kaplan said, “I think ultimately members of Congress on both sides will take a look at this and say ‘wait a minute, this may be an issue between Democrats and Republicans but it has nothing to do with the bipartisan support of Isra’”
Roy Tanzman, an attorney from Princeton and a Democrat who has served on AIPAC’s national and regional councils, agreed. “It is not a great thing that both sides are upset, but I don't think it will change the support for Israel in Congress,” he said.
Ben Chouake of Englewood, a Republican and president of NORPAC, the pro-Israel political action committee, said “some people are making this a partisan issue but you always have people who are looking to do that. Our relationship with Israel is a bipartisan issue.”
Although he does not believe that “Netanyahu is snubbing” Obama, Chouake told NJ Jewish News, “I hear people say terrible things about the president and that very much upsets me. Obama is trying very hard and putting a lot of chips on the table. I didn't vote for him either time, but I respect his office and I appreciate what he is doing.”
Critics of the planned speech say it is doubly political, suggesting Netanyahu is showing disrespect to a Democratic president and noting that the March 3 speech is just two weeks before the Israeli election.
Boehner’s invitation “feels clearly and overtly political and the reaction may be really hurtful towards Israel’s relations with all kinds of communities here,” said Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. “We don’t want to politicize the Iran issue. We want to be as clear as we can, and I think what Boehner and Netanyahu have done is muddy the waters.”
Lawrence Lerner of Warren, a former president of the left-of-center Partners for Progressive Israel, told NJJN, “it embarrasses Netanyahu, not Obama, because Netanyahu has an obligation of being someone who is impartial and able to speak to both sides of the aisle. By doing it at the invitation of John Boehner with no discussion with President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry, the only thing he cared about was dealing with the Republicans. If that is the case, he lessens his ability or reach across the aisle.”
Doni Remba of Westfield, executive director of the Jewish Alliance for Change, believes the controversy is obscuring the need for a peaceful end to the nuclear negotiations between Western nations and Iran.
“We’ve lost sight of the great divide over Iran between Netanyahu, the Republicans and the ‘organized Jewish community’ on the one hand, and on the other, President Obama, the majority of American Jews and most Democrats in Congress,” Remba wrote in an email. “By making completely unrealistic hardline demands, Netanyahu is coming to Washington to throw a grenade into the negotiations.”
A source close to the Congressional Black caucus told NJJN “some members will not be attending the speech, but the caucus as a whole has not taken any position on it. It is up to individual members. I don't have any numbers thus far, but a majority of members are very upset with Speaker Boehner’s breach of protocol and his overreach.”
Gewirtz took note of the black lawmakers’ reactions.
“The optics of that have nothing to do with Black-Jewish relations,” he said. “To have it look like only Republicans support Israel and only whites support Israel is not true. it would be a shame for partisan politics to interfere or cause undue rifts for Black-Jewish relations.”
Netanyahu and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, however, say the speech will emphasize bipartisan support for Israel and praise Obama for his backing of the country at critical times. They also said that Netanyahu is determined to keep the date because he believes he must urgently convey his warning about a nuclear Iran.
Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, suggested on Twitter that his party would use the issue against Democrats in elections.
“Dems have a choice — stand w/PM Netanyahu and the Jewish com against Iran or w/Pres Obama,” he tweeted. The RJC “will make sure people know what they choose.”
Includes reporting by JTA