WASHINGTON — Democratic Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison will boycott Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress planned for next month, saying the indecorous timing of the speech amid diplomatic talks with Iran is disrespectful to the president and purely political on the prime minister’s part.
They join a growing number of Democrats who have said they will boycott the speech as a gesture of protest.
GOP House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of the Republican-led Congress, but did not check with the White House or the State Department, which is considered a breach of protocol.
President Obama is in the middle of delicate talks with Iran over its nuclear program — negotiations that Netanyahu opposes and plans to talk about in his congressional speech. Obama has said he will not meet with Netanyahu while he is in town, alleging the prime minister is injecting personal politics into his March 3 visit. Netanyahu is in the closing weeks of a re-election battle that will conclude just two weeks after his address at the U.S. Capitol.
McCollum said Tuesday that “not only had the White House not been told” of the visit, “the Israeli government hadn’t even followed their own protocol. The only conclusion is this is pure politics.”
Ellison, who is helping lead a petition effort to get Boehner to postpone the speech, said Tuesday that the timing of Netanyahu’s address “is all wrong.”
The problems, Ellison said, are twofold: “The U.S. Congress is being inserted into an Israeli election and he [Netanyahu] is speaking when we’re having a domestic policy debate regarding Iranian sanctions. I’ve criticized President Bush as much as anyone, but I always understood he was the president of the United States … This is a very disrespectful thing to do to the office of the presidency.”
Ellison said he is continuing to gather signatures for his letter, which urges Boehner to ask Netanyahu back after the March 17 elections in Israel and negotiations with Iran are concluded later that month, when the framework of an agreement is due.
A number of Democratic-leaning pro-Israel groups also are pressing Netanyahu to cancel his speech. One group, DC-based J Street, circulated a petition with more than 20,000 signatures. Its homepage Tuesday read “We’re asking Congress: Postpone this speech!”
Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken were noncommittal about attending the speech Tuesday. Klobuchar’s office said they were still checking her schedule and Franken’s office offered no updates on whether he was going.
Democratic Reps. Tim Walz and Rick Nolan said they plan to attend the speech, while Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson said he is undecided. Republican Reps. Erik Paulsen, John Kline and Tom Emmer all plan to attend.
Paulsen said it was “too bad” the speech has become so polarizing politically. But, he said, “Israel is our biggest ally in the Middle East … It is certainly within the speaker’s prerogative to invite someone here. I think they [Israel] have a unique perspective and I want to hear what Netanyahu has to say about Iran in particular.”
Emmer, in an e-mail, called the address “absolutely necessary.”
“With the Iranian nuclear deal approaching, U.S.-allied Yemen falling to terrorists, the horrific violence by ISIL threatening regional security and Israeli and US interests, it’s absolutely necessary for Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress on the dire situation in the Middle East,” Emmer wrote. “It is imperative for members of Congress to have open ears and an open mind.”
McCollum noted that just because she’ll skip the speech in person doesn’t mean she won’t tune in. The eighth-term Democrat representing St. Paul has skipped foreign leader speeches to joint sessions of Congress before because of other work.
Like those other times, McCollum plans on working in her office with the television on.