U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said she’s weighing whether to attend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress next month, while suggesting that other party members may skip his appearance.
“As of now, I am,” Pelosi, of California, said of her possible attendance at Netanyahu’s scheduled March 3 address. “My hope is the event will not take place.”
Pelosi made her remarks after she and other House Democrats held two meetings with Israeli officials -- including Ambassador Ron Dermer -- to press for a delay until after Israel’s elections next month. The Israeli prime minister was invited by Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
Netanyahu’s planned speech, which he has said will discuss the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program, has exacerbated tensions with President Barack Obama. The leaders have clashed over issues including peacemaking with the Palestinians and U.S. policy on Iran.
Some House and Senate Democrats have said they may boycott the address. Pelosi on Thursday rejected calling their possible absence from the event a boycott, saying that those lawmakers may have conflicting events scheduled.
Pelosi said when other foreign dignitaries speak to a joint session of Congress, that aides and others who aren’t lawmakers are often asked to fill in the room. Without fully explaining, she said she was hoping the speech would be put off.
A Netanyahu spokesman, Mark Regev, declined to respond to Pelosi’s remarks. Previously, the prime minister rejected other criticism of the planned speech, saying, “It’s my duty as the prime minister of Israel to warn about the danger of a nuclear agreement with Iran and to do everything I can to prevent it from coming to fruition before it’s too late,” according to an e-mailed statement.
The White House has criticized the invitation from Boehner, an Ohio Republican, as a breach of protocol. Obama said he won’t meet with the prime minister because the event is too close to the March 17 Israeli election and the U.S. shouldn’t give any appearance of taking sides.
“We shouldn’t allow the relationship between our two countries to be reduced to a relationship between two political parties,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday. “That is something that the president’s concerned about.”
Pelosi echoed that sentiment, saying the chamber shouldn’t be used as a political arena two weeks before a foreign election, calling it an “exploitation” that’s beneath the dignity of the U.S. House.
She said she hopes the speech won’t complicate negotiations on matters including Iran.
“This was really more about the casualness with which an invitation was extended to a head of state two weeks before his election and politicizing deep conviction about the important relations between Israel and the United States,” she said.
Earnest said it was up to individual lawmakers to decide whether to attend Netanyahu’s speech.
House Democrats Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and John Lewis of Georgia don’t plan to attend.
“I will not participate in calculated attack by speaker to undermine president & his ability to manage foreign policy,” Blumenauer said in a tweet last week.
Lewis’s spokeswoman, Brenda Jones, said he is “not planning to attend at this time” though she emphasized his decision is personal and not part of an organized boycott.
Israeli leaders previously have attracted a full house when they’ve addressed Congress, drawing repeated standing ovations from a bipartisan audience.
Israel’s opposition Labor party has criticized the timing of Netanyahu’s speech so close to the March 17 election, maintaining the prime minister has damaged relations with the U.S. for domestic political gain.