WASHINGTON (JTA) — Two top Senate Democrats urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet privately with the party caucus to alleviate bad blood arising out of his upcoming speech to Congress.
Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-ranked Democrat in the chamber, and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the senior Jewish member of the body and the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, invited Netanyahu to a closed-door meeting in a letter sent Monday.
The letter noted that the invitation to speak from U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker of the House of Representatives, was sent without consulting Democratic leaders in Congress or the White House. Boehner also asked the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, to keep the invitation secret.
“This unprecedented move threatens to undermine the important bipartisan approach to Israel,” the letter said. “As such, to maintain Israel’s dialogue with both political parties in Congress, we invite you to a closed-door meeting with Democratic Senators during your upcoming visit to Washington.”
The Obama administration is snubbing Netanyahu during his visit and some 30 Democrats have said they won’t attend the March 3 speech. Netanyahu is speaking in large part to rebut Obama administration support for nuclear talks underway between Iran and the major powers.
The Durbin-Feinstein letter was posted on Twitter by a staffer for J Street, the Jewish Middle East peace lobbying group. Reuters quoted a Durbin staffer as saying the meeting with the Democrats would not supplant the speech, now seen as inevitable, but would be in addition to it.
Also kept in the dark about the speech was Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, according to i24, an Israeli news website.
Competing pressures to boycott or attend the speech have continued over recent days. An array of groups sharply critical of Israel’s policies, including Jewish Voice for Peace, the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and Code Pink, organized a letter drive to 75 members of Congress who have said they may not attend, urging them to boycott. The drive garnered 110,000 letters in addition to 20,000 signatures on a petition against attending the speech.
The Israeli-American Council, a relatively new umbrella group, issued a statement urging members to attend. Former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate on a major ticket as the 2000 vice presidential candidate for Democrats, also urged attendance in an Op-Ed for the Washington Post.
While in Washington, Netanyahu will also address the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Israel’s opposition leader, Zionist Union chief Isaac Herzog, has said he will not attend in person in order to focus on the March 17 elections, but he will deliver a message live via videolink, The Jerusalem Post reported.