Turning Point? Grassroots Groups Mobilize Against Netanyahu's 'Catastrophic' Speech

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.”

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.).

“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.”