By John Nichols

June 9, 2024  The Nation


After Republicans and Democrats joined forces to welcome the Israeli prime minister, progressives began vowing to boycott the speech.

US Representative Delia Ramirez, an Illinois Democrat who has emerged as one of Capitol Hill’s most persistent advocates for international human rights, responded to the decision by House and Senate leaders to invite Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress with an observation that summed up the latest abandonment of conscience by the top Republicans and Democrats who have failed to hold the Israeli prime minister to account for an assault on Gaza that has now killed almost 37,000 Palestinian men, women, and children.

“A war criminal addressing a joint session of Congress on Thursday the 13th sounds like the twisted plotline of a bad horror movie,” said Ramirez, amid press reports that Netanyahu had accepted an invitation by House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA), House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, (D-NY), and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to speak before the legislative branch.

It was initially reported that Netanyahu’s speech would take place on June 13, but that’s a Jewish holiday, so Johnson’s office scrambled to pick a new date. Late on Thursday, that new date was announced: July 24.

The schedule change doesn’t alter the fact that the speech is an unsettling prospect for members of Congress who respect the rule of law and want to achieve a just peace in the Middle East. Netanyahu, a scandal-plagued political pariah, whose collective punishment of Gazan civilians following the October 7 Hamas attack has inspired protests in Israel and around the world, faces the prospect of criminal prosecution for his actions. International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan signaled on May 20 that he would seek an arrest warrant for Netanyahu on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, as part of a broader prosecution that also targets Israel Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and three Hamas leaders: Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif, and Ismail Haniyeh.

Instead of responding with respect for international law and the ICC’s vital role in upholding human rights, most US officials, including President Biden, attacked the court. Republicans in Congress moved to place sanctions on the ICC, with House Speaker Johnson declaring, “The ICC has to be punished for this action.” On Tuesday, the House approved that punishment—with a bipartisan majority of 247 in favor and 155 opposed—which would revoke US visas for officials associated with the international court and block the entry of ICC lawyers and others into the United States.

In a parallel rejection of the ICC’s legitimacy and authority, which the US has never formally embraced, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Congress issued the invitation to Netanyahu.

Responsible members of Congress now must deal with the shameful circumstance that will unfold if and when the prime minister arrives in Washington. Do they want to engage in a symbolic protest of Netanyahu’s appearance? Do they want to boycott it? What specific objections do they want to raise at a time when the Israeli air strikes on the Gaza city of Rafah have horrified key US allies such as French President Emmanuel Macron, who declared, “These operations must stop. There are no safe areas in Rafah for Palestinian civilians,” and called for “full respect for international law and an immediate ceasefire.”

One of the most outspoken critics of Netanyahu and US policies regarding Palestine, US Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI), has argued that Netanyahu should be pressured to sit down with members of Congress and face frank questions about his actions. “A number of us have great concerns about how you’ve conducted the collective punishment of millions and possible war crimes,” said Pocan, in a social media post directed at the prime minister. “Also, I hear there may be an arrest warrant to deal with,” wrote Pocan, who added, “See you soon?”

Netanyahu did not respond and, in all likelihood, he will be shielded by House and Senate leaders from anything akin to accountability—though there is the prospect that some sort of protest could occur within the chamber. There is also the likelihood that protests and press conferences condemning Netanyahu’s eventual appearance will take place outside the Capitol and that some members might embrace opportunities to express pointed objections to the invite and to Netanyahu’s policies.

The last time Netanyahu addressed Congress came in 2015, when he was invited by Republicans at a time of heightened tensions between the Israeli government and the administration of former President Barack Obama over US negotiations with Iran. At least 50 House Democrats and eight senators chose not to attend the session. Notably, then–Vice President Joe Biden, the president of the Senate, skipped the address as well.

This time, several key Democratic members of Congress have indicated that they are unlikely to attend Netanyahu’s address, including Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern, the ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee and one of the most ardent advocates for human rights in the chamber. McGovern, who boycotted Netanyahu’s 2015 appearance after describing the invitation as “deeply troubling,” says he’ll stay clear of this year’s speech, as well, explaining, “I wish it wasn’t [happening].”

One senator who definitely will not greet Netanyahu is Vermont independent Bernie Sanders.

“I certainly will not attend,” Sanders announced, as soon as the prime minister accepted the invitation. “Benjamin Netanyahu is a war criminal. He should not be invited to address a joint meeting of Congress.”

Sanders added:

Israel, of course, had the right to defend itself against the horrific Hamas terrorist attack of October 7th, but it did not, and does not, have the right to go to war against the entire Palestinian people. Israel does not have the right to kill more than 34,000 civilians and wound over 80,000—5 percent of the population of Gaza. It does not have the right to orphan 19,000 children. It does not have the right to displace 75% of the people of Gaza from their homes. It does not have the right to damage or destroy over 60% of the housing in Gaza. It does not have the right to destroy the civilian infrastructure of Gaza, to obliterate water and sewage systems, and deny electricity to the people of Gaza. It does not have the right to annihilate Gaza’s health care system, knocking 26 hospitals out of service and killing more than 400 health care workers. It does not have the right to bomb all 12 of Gaza’s universities and 56 of its schools, or deny 625,000 children in Gaza the opportunity for an education.

It most certainly does not have the right to block humanitarian aid—food and medical supplies—from coming in to the desperate people of Gaza, creating the conditions for starvation and famine. It does not have the right to condemn hundreds of thousands of children to death by starvation. This is a clear violation of American and international law.

The International Criminal Court recently announced that it is seeking warrants for the arrest of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, and Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas. The ICC is right. Both of these people are engaged in clear and outrageous violations of international law.

That statement drew a rebuke from House Speaker Johnson, who in a Fox News appearance on Sunday accused Sanders of “parroting the talking points of Hamas” and added, “Our Democrat colleagues have to make a choice: Are they going to stand with our most important ally in the Middle East at the most desperate time as has traditionally been the case in Washington.… or are they going to take this new side and stand with Hamas and the Ayatollah?”

Johnson was dramatically off-base. Sanders, a Jewish American who lost much of his extended family in the Holocaust and who once lived on an Israeli kibbutz, has been a consistent critic of Hamas, describing the group as a terrorist organization. His objections to Netanyahu’s policies echo those of a growing number of world leaders from countries that have historically been sympathetic toward Israel, as well as US groups such as If Not NowRabbis for Ceasefire—and Jewish Voice for Peace Action, which (in a tweet) called the invitation: “Yet another stomach-turning act from Congressional leadership [showing] that they fully support Benjamin Netanyahu’s genocide of the Palestinian people.”

Sanders delivered a withering response to Johnson in a speech on the Senate floor:

[W]hen we think about the wisdom of Mr. Netanyahu being invited to address both houses of Congress—an honor, to address both houses of Congress and the American people—we should remember that his government, according to virtually every humanitarian organization functioning in Gaza, has blocked—intentionally blocked—humanitarian aid—that is food, water, and medical supplies—from reaching the desperate people of Gaza, which has created on top of everything else the conditions for starvation and famine.

I will tell you, as you probably already know, that blocking humanitarian aid and creating the conditions for famine is not only an act of extreme cruelty—using starvation as an act of war—but it is a violation of both American and international law. It is a war crime. That is what it is.

Displaying pictures of malnourished Gazan children, Sanders said, “I would say to Speaker Johnson that, when you attend your fundraising dinners with your billionaire friends, and you eat your fine steaks and your lobsters and your other wonderful food, please remember these pictures from Gaza.” The senator concluded by calmly announcing, “These children and thousands more are the direct result of Netanyahu’s policies—Netanyahu, the man Speaker Johnson has invited to address Congress. No, Mr. President, I will not be in attendance for that speech.”