Rep. John Lewis stands behind President Barack Obama at a memorial service. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus say they are boycotting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech before Congress, which they deem a sign of disrespect to President Obama that they won’t tolerate.
“To me, it is somewhat of an insult to the president of the United States,” said Rep. Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.), as quoted by Politico.com. “Barack Obama is my president. He’s the nation’s president, and it is clear, therefore, that I’m not going to be there, as a result of that, not as a result of the good people of Israel.”
Netanyahu’s speech—at the behest of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio—is intended to stymie multilateral talks between the P5+1 (five permanent members of the UN Security Council—United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France—plus Germany) and Iran over its nuclear war program. White House officials and other world bureaucrats see the deal as a diplomatic channel to reintegrate the isolated country and foster better relations and security in the Middle East. But, Netanyahu believes the plan demonstrates a naiveté about Iran’s true intentions.
“I’m determined to speak before Congress to stop Iran,” he said in the first of several tweets on the matter Feb. 10.
“I am going to the United States not because I seek a confrontation with the President, but to speak up for very survival of my country. Iran is a regime that is openly committed to Israel’s destruction,” he added.
But Boehner’s circumvention of the White House and State Department in issuing the invitation, and Netanyahu’s defiance of established protocol, which would have required him to confer with the president before a visit, was a slap in the face of President Obama, his Democratic allies said.
“It is very disrespectful to this president, and what concerns me more is that I think it’s a pattern that is starting to develop from this speaker that we’re getting more and more disrespectful of the office of the presidency,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.). “I think it’s silly and petty.”
The speaker of the House argued that he did inform the White House—the same day he issued the invitation—and that Netanyahu’s visit, which comes just two weeks before he runs for re-election in Israel, is necessary to Congress’ deliberations over legislation that would impose additional sanctions on Iran—legislation the president already promised to veto.
“I gave ’em a heads up that morning,” an unrepentant Boehner told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in an interview that aired Jan. 25.
“There’s nobody in the world who can talk about the threat of radical terrorism, nobody can talk about the threat that the Iranians pose, not just to the Middle East and to and to Israel, our longest ally, but to the entire world, but Bibi Netanyahu,” he added. “The president didn’t spend but a few seconds talking about the threat, the terrorist threat that we as Americans face. This problem is growing all over the world. And you know, the president is trying to act like it’s not there. But it is there. And it’s going to be a threat to our homeland if we don’t address it in a bigger way.”
But Black leaders say Netanyahu’s speech is an unwelcome and impertinent intrusion by a foreign minister into U.S. legislative affairs.
“It’s not just about disrespect for the president, it’s disrespect for the American people and our system of government for a foreign leader to insert himself into an issue that our policymakers are grappling with,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “It’s not simply about President Obama being a black man disrespected by a foreign leader. It’s deeper than that.”
CBC members Reps. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn., were among the co-signers of a letter by Capitol Hill Democrats asking Boehner to postpone Netanyahu’s speech. The address could undermine the negotiations with Iran, the lawmakers said, thus endangering U.S. foreign policy and security interests.
“As members of Congress who support Israel, we share concern that it appears that you are using a foreign leader as a political tool against the President,” a draft of the letter read. “Our relationship with Israel is too important to use as a pawn in political gamesmanship…. When the Israeli Prime Minister visits us outside the specter of partisan politics, we will be delighted and honored to greet him or her on the Floor of the House.”
CBC Chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said he, like many other caucus members, will not be attending the speech. He said, however, the CBC is in talks to set up a meeting with either Netanyahu or the Israeli ambassador.
The White House confirmed that the president and vice president would not be attending the speech nor meeting with Netanyahu, which is in line with longstanding policy of not meeting with democratically elected officials shortly before their election to avoid the appearance of interference or undue influence in a democratic election.