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Speaker Johnson to invite Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress

House Speaker Mike Johnson says he plans to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress.
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House Speaker Mike Johnson says he plans to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress.

Updated March 21, 2024 at 4:14 PM ET

House Speaker Mike Johnson plans to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress.

"I would love to have him come in and address a joint session of Congress. We'll certainly extend that invitation" to Netanyahu, Johnson said on CNBC's Squawk Box. The speaker has not issued any official invite or picked a date for an address.

The invitation comes as the months-long Israeli war in Gaza has highlighted a shifting debate on Capitol Hill about U.S. support for Israel, its longtime ally. There's a long tradition of bipartisan support for Israel in Congress, but in recent months there's been a growing divide among Democrats about the U.S. policy toward Israel. A bloc of progressive lawmakers has called on the president to condition aid or restrict U.S. aid to focus on humanitarian assistance for the civilians in Gaza affected by the military operations. Israel has defended its operations, citing it is right to defend itself following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed about 1,200 people, with more than 250 people taken as hostages. Israel's operations in Gaza have killed more than 30,000 people.

President Biden spoke to Netanyahu by phone Monday, delivering a message urging him to avoid military operations in Rafah, an area with more than a million civilians at risk.

Foreign leaders are regularly invited to address joint sessions of Congress, but the custom is for the invitation to come both from the House speaker and the Senate majority leader.

Johnson has not consulted with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D- N.Y., about the invitation yet, according to a spokesperson for Schumer. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries told NPR the speaker has not talked to him about the invitation.

"Israel has no stronger ally than the United States and our relationship transcends any one president or any one Prime Minister. I will always welcome the opportunity for the Prime Minister of Israel to speak to Congress in a bipartisan way," Schumer said in a written statement following Johnson discussing his plans for an invitation.

Rep. Greg Meeks, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs panel, called the invitation "divisive politics." He said he hoped Netanyahu would say no. "Speaking on this House floor to a joint session of Congress is, I think, should be out of the question."

On Wednesday Netanyahu spoke virtually to Senate Republicans, at the invitation of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The meeting came days after Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish American leader, made a speech on the Senate floor and criticized Netanyahu's handling of the war, and called for new elections in Israel after the war ends.

McConnell told reporters after the meeting that he told Netanyahu the GOP backed him and reiterated he believed it wasn't the U.S. role to weigh in on Israeli politics.

"We obviously have a lot in common, but it seems to me the bipartisan support for Israel seems to be cracking on the political left, in this country. I still think our best policy is to not give any democratic ally advice about when to have an election, who ought to run the government or how to conduct the military campaign," McConnell said.

Asked about GOP criticism and the invitation for the Netanyahu to address lawmakers in one party, Schumer said, "I care deeply about Israel and it's long term future. When you make the issue partisan, you hurt the cause of helping Israel."

Netanyahu last addressed a joint session in 2015, at the invitation of then Speaker John Boehner. Boehner didn't consult with President Obama about the invitation, and it came when the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama was strained and the U.S. was working on a nuclear agreement with Iran, which Israel opposed.

Progressive critics of Netanyahu were quick to denounce the speaker's move.

"I think it's totally inappropriate, given the time we're in. It really calls into question the independence of the institution at a time of such devastation," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.D-N.Y., told NPR. She declined to say whether she would attend the speech.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said "he might be busy that day" but said he would talk to his colleagues about how to approach if Netanyahu accepts an invitation. He argued House Republicans have aligned themselves with leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and put Netanyahu in the same category of "right wing politicians."

"They have each other's phone numbers, we understand that. But we have to maintain forward motion for democracy and peace on Earth. And President Biden and Senator Schumer have made it clear that you don't have to be pro-Netanyahu to be pro-Israel. You can be pro-Israel by working for a comprehensive return of the hostages, a cease fire and forward motion on a two state solution," Raskin told NPR.

Meeks sidestepped the question about whether lawmakers would boycott a Netanyahu speech. "I don't want to address that hypothetical, other than to say, the speaker is playing some politics right now in thinking that this can be some difference in some votes in a presidential and congressional elections coming up."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.