‘He’s created a humanitarian catastrophe’: Democrats react to Netanyahu being invited to Congress

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

House Speaker Mike Johnson told The Independent on Wednesday afternoon that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed to allow Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give a joint address to Congress.

“I spoke with him today and he’s going to sign the letter jointly and it’ll get out to the prime minister this week,” Johnson told me.

The announcement comes after almost the entire congressional leadership and President Joe Biden condemned Karim Khan, the top prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, for his announcement that he is seeking arrest warrants against Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and senior Hamas officials.

As Inside Washington explained on Tuesday, Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the announcement “a step in the wrong direction”. Ranking Republican Jim Risch and Secretary of State Antony Blinken agreed.

Schumer is the highest-ranking Jewish American in Congress, and his agreement to a joint address comes despite the fact that he has also called for new elections in Israel and criticized Netanyahu’s execution of Israel’s war in Gaza.

But the response among other Democrats was very mixed.

Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who faces a tough re-election, gave a non-answer.

“I've heard the same things but I need confirmation,” she told The Independent before Johnson made his announcement.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, one of only four senators who supports a ceasefire, also deferred when asked before Johnson’s announcement.

“I want to talk to Schumer before I say anything,” the Illinois Democrat said.

Conversely, Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, the most pro-Israel Democrat, said he would welcome a visit from Netanyahu, recalling how Netanyahu spoke to Republicans over video months ago.

“I wanted to hear from the prime minister months ago. I even approached the Republicans see if I could get on that,” he told The Independent. “They couldn't make that happen, but I'm glad to know that he's coming... It took too long.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren had the opposite take. The senator for Massachusetts has criticized the Israeli government in the past but nonetheless voted to advance the Ukraine-Israel-Taiwan aid bill, and she told The Independent that having Netanyahu address Congress would be inappropriate.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu has created a humanitarian catastrophe. And every day that goes by, he makes the problems in the Middle East worse,” she said. “I would like to see someone address the Congress who is committed to a long-term peaceful solution in the region.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, who voted against the aid package last month, also said doing so would not be a good idea.

“I think given the fact that he has led a military campaign in Gaza which has created one of the worst humanitarian disasters in modern history, where hundreds of thousands of people now face starvation, I think inviting Mr Netanyahu to Congress is not a good idea,” he told The Independent.

Opinions were similarly mixed in the House of Representatives. Democrats in the House remain far more split, with some supporting a ceasefire in Gaza while others vocally supporting Israel.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who supports a ceasefire in Gaza, said that inviting the Israeli prime minister at this time would only have negative effects.

“I think that the presence of Netanyahu here for a joint address is an incredibly divisive and unproductive activity,” she told The Independent. She also pushed back on Democratic leaders, including Biden, for their criticism of the ICC prosecutor.

“There's a large and growing consensus globally about respecting the independence of [the ICC]. I think that it is an alarming precedent to set to attack institutions of the international system who are responsible for litigating international law and considering international law,” she added.

Conversely, Representative Jared Moskowitz of Florida, a pro-Israel Democrat, said that Johnson’s invitation was his prerogative.

“If the speaker invites the leader of a democratic state, one of our greatest allies, then he should be allowed to come speak, regardless if there are policy differences among some of the members,” he told The Independent.

But Representative Ritchie Torres, one of the most outspoken supporters of Israel in the Democratic caucus, gave a more mixed response.

“The leader of an ally has every right to come before Congress and make his case,” he told The Independent, but said he would not advise Netanyahu to do so. “Just setting aside personal opinion, it's just a matter of honest political analysis he’s a polarizing figure in American politics.”

The United States’ continued support for the Israeli government comes despite the pushback from other countries. On Wednesday, Ireland, Norway and Spain announced their recognition of a Palestinian state. The US, in response, said that it supports the idea of a two-state solution but not via such unilaterial recognition.

The fact remains, however, that for the most part, Democrats who oppose such an address are still pushing back against the majority consensus in Washington. Even many Democrats who have objections to the Israeli government have deep objections about international bodies litigating how Israel manages the war.