The behind-the-scenes jockeying appears to be accelerating in the standoff over whether Benjamin Netanyahu will speak to a joint session of Congress, a move many Democrats view as an outgrowth of Republican efforts to influence the coming Israeli elections and scuttle ongoing White House negotiations with Iran over the future of that country’s nuclear program.
One thing is clear: Many Democrats would like this mess to go away, because it’s putting them in an awkward position. But it isn’t going away.
A few tidbits of news:
* Liberal groups are now weighing in on the controversy, and are pressuring Democrats to be more vocal in registering their dissatisfaction with the planned speech. CREDO Action is circulating a petition calling on people to demand that their Democratic Members of Congress skip the speech. Says CREDO: “Tell Congressional Democrats: Support President Obama’s diplomacy with Iran. Skip Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech.”
* MoveOn is also considering a similar action. “It’s outrageous that Speaker Boehner plans to host a speech that threatens to turn the U.S. Congress into a prop for another country’s election,” Nick Berning, a spokesman for MoveOn, tells me. “MoveOn has been campaigning for over a year in support of President Obama’s diplomacy with Iran, which is helping to head off another unnecessary war in the middle east. We view the Speaker’s partisan decision to move forward with the speech as a direct effort to undermine that diplomacy and are assessing ways to respond if it is not called off.”
* Approximately 20 House Democrats have now signed a letter calling on Speaker Boehner to delay the speech until after the Israeli elections and after the current round of talks with Iran is wrapped up, according to the office of Dem Rep. Keith Ellison, who is spearheading the letter along with Reps. Steve Cohen and Maxine Waters. The names haven’t been released.
That’s not a lot of names, which is consistent with the fact that many Democrats have refrained from going on the record on this particular flap, preferring to register their opposition in private conversations. On the other hand, given the longtime reluctance of Congressional Democrats to appear critical of Israel, having some 20 signatures on this letter is not insignificant. And more public statements could be coming.
Though the media narrative has been dominated by talk of a Democratic “boycott” of the speech, only around 15 Democrats have said they are skipping the event, and even some of them are saying it isn’t part of any organized boycott. Meanwhile, far more Democrats have confirmed they are attending. And surprisingly few Democrats have taken the easier step of publicly calling for a delay in the speech, another reminder that for many Dems, the prospect of appearing even a little bit out of sync with whatever Israel wants remains politically terrifying.
There is little doubt that many Democrats privately want the speech delayed. Indeed, the New York Times reports that dozens of them have privately implored Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer to help find a “face-saving” way for Netanyahu to speak to Congress without the pomp and circumstance of a joint meeting.
It should presumably be possible for Democrats to oppose the speech on the grounds that it could scuttle the nuclear talks they themselves support without allowing themselves to be painted as insufficiently “pro-Israel.” And as James Fallows has demonstrated, protocol, precedent, and governing norms suggest that opposing the speech shouldn’t be all that hard to explain. But many Democrats appear reluctant to strike this stand publicly.
Still, the fact that liberal groups may be gearing up to pressure Democrats suggests they may not be able to avoid taking a stand for much longer. True, public pressure from liberal groups, even if it gears up in a serious way, may not be sufficient on its own. But it may signal something else at work. As Shibley Telhami recently wrote for the Monkey Cage, polling suggests Dem-aligned constituencies view Netanyahu unfavorably, and if the controversy around this standoff intensifies, Democratic lawmakers may have to be responsive to opinions of the Democratic grass roots — on Netanyahu, on Obama, and on negotiations with Iran, an issue on which Democratic partisans side with the President — as they decide how to proceed.
For now, though, many Democratic officials are clearly hoping that Netanyahy or Boehner will blink or that this whole mess will somehow resolve it in some other way, so they don’t have to take a stand out in the open. With Netanyahu doubling down on plans for the speech, however, that outcome seems unlikely.