Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement last month that, at the invitation of the Republican Party, he will side-step the White House and directly address Congress on Iran has kicked up a storm of opposition—from within Washington, as well as U.S. civil society.
Grassroots groups say that the resultant fallout has the potential to move U.S. discourse beyond partisan politics by opening up space for real criticism of the Israeli government and the pursuit of de-militarized policies towards Iran and beyond.
"This could be a historic turning point," said Jewish Voice for Peace Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson. "We are seeing signs that the unprecedented crisis over Netanyahu’s speech may mean an end to the era of virtually unanimous bipartisan support for Israel’s harmful policies."
Schism In Washington
Netanyahu rebuffed the Obama administration when, in late January, he accepted an invitation from Republican House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) to directly address Congress on Iran. The move was widely viewed as a breach of protocol aimed at snubbing Obama and undercutting the ongoing talks between Iran and the five members of the United Nations Security Council (U.S., Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France) plus Germany, which the Israeli prime minister has vigorously opposed.
"After a decade marked by thousands of American casualties, suicide bombings, massive regional destabilization, and now the ascendence of ISIS, it is clear that Netanyahu and those who lobbied for the Iraq war are in no position to give Congress further advice."
—Trita Parsi, National Iranian-American Council
In a press statement, the National Iranian-American Council called Netanyahu's latest maneuver an "outrageous political stunt that could kill diplomacy with Iran and start a war."
Top White House officials—including the president—have announced that they will not meet with Netanyahu when he visits Washington on March 3rd, initially citing Israel's upcoming elections. This has opened a divide with the Republican Party, which plans to move forward with the speech—without the president's blessing.
At least 25 members of Congress have followed suit and pledged they won't show. Many of those boycotting hail from the Congressional Black Caucus, after civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis Rep. (D-Ga.) kicked off the initiative.
But an even larger number of politicians have proclaimed that they are on the fence and have not yet decided whether they will attend. This includes big Democratic Party players, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Pressure from the Grassroots
"The response to the speech is more important than the speech itself," Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at Institute for Policy Studies, told Common Dreams. "The response has shown the divide between U.S. and Israeli policy towards Iran. It has also given political cover to those members of Congress who have been looking for way to criticize Israel without what they have believed—I think incorrectly—is political suicide."
Human rights, anti-war, and Palestine solidarity groups say now is the time for grassroots groups to mobilize to shift discourse in Washington and beyond.
A call to action from a coalition of groups—including Jewish Voice for Peace, the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and American Muslims for Palestine—urges people to call on their representatives to boycott the speech "not because it’s a partisan snub, nor because the date is close to the Israeli elections, but because Netanyahu is going to Washington to undermine the U.S. strategy of diplomacy with Iran."
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"Netanyahu does not speak about peace in good faith—illegal settlements and human rights violations against Palestinians have only increased under his leadership," the campaign declares.
Josh Ruebner of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation told Common Dreams, "Our efforts have generated more than 100,000 letters to members of Congress through our skipthespeech.org website. The goal is to convince more members of congress to join those 25 who have pledged to boycott the speech."
"This could be a historic turning point. We are seeing signs that the unprecedented crisis over Netanyahu’s speech may mean an end to the era of virtually unanimous bipartisan support for Israel’s harmful policies."
—Rebecca Vilkomerson, Jewish Voice for PeaceA petition from Just Foreign Policy—which has already garnered over 26,000 signatures—calls on members of Congress to urge "Speaker Boehner and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to cancel Netanyahu’s scheduled talk to Congress weeks before the Israeli election." If the talk is not canceled, the petition continues, representatives should boycott. Another petition from Credo has garnered over 60,000 signatures.
NIAC on Thursday ran a full-page New York Times advertisement, which urges, "Call Congress to support diplomacy, not war."
"While causation is always hard to determine, I think that grassroots pressure is having an impact," Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy told Common Dreams.
Breaking Into the Mainstream
Analysts say that there are numerous signs that a war-weary U.S. public is growing increasingly skeptical of Israel's actions, from the push for military escalation with Iran to the brutal 50-day war on Gaza last summer.
A poll (pdf) released Tuesday by CNN and ORC finds that a majority of people in the U.S. think that GOP leaders did the "wrong thing by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress without first notifying the president that they would do so."
Furthermore, concerns about the prime minister's visit are being voiced by by moderate and even staunchly pro-Israel forces—including Americans for Peace Now and J Street—who are calling for a "postponement" of the address until after Israeli elections (slated to take place just weeks after Netanyahu's visit). Three House Democrats have circulated a letter to Boehner echoing this demand. And even the editorial board of The New York Times published a partial criticism of Netanyahu's political play.
"The stakes in the Iran negotiations could not be higher," emphasized Bennis. "This is a moment where there is a possibility of what has long been known as a 'grand bargain' between the U.S. and Iran. The negotiating teams and presidents on both sides face significant right-wing opposition. We need to make sure negotiations do not get derailed by a congressional move to increase sanctions."
This is not the first time Netanyahu has sought to influence U.S. foreign policy by testifying to Congress. In 2002, the prime minister strongly urged U.S. lawmakers to launch the now-discredited invasion of Iraq, declaring, "if you take out Saddam's regime, I guarantee you it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region."
"After a decade marked by thousands of American casualties, suicide bombings, massive regional destabilization, and now the ascendence of ISIS, it is clear that Netanyahu and those who lobbied for the Iraq war are in no position to give Congress further advice," said Trita Parsi, president of NIAC.
"There is an opportunity to stop the next catastrophic war before it starts, and that only happens if diplomacy is allowed to succeed," Parsi continued.