Louisiana’s Richmond, Mississippi’s Thompson won’t attend Netanyahu address to Congress

Louisiana Representative Cedric Richmond announced that though he is a “staunch supporter of Israel through actions and words” he will skip the March 3 address that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will give to a joint session of Congress. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi is also on the list of those not planning to attend.

Netanyahu accepted an invitation to address Congress by House Speaker John Boehner. Originally scheduled for Feb. 11, the talk was pushed to March 3 so Netanyahu could also address the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington.

Though media outlets reported that the White House was not consulted about the invitation, it was later revealed that Netanyahu accepted after the White House was informed of the invitation.

That has not lessened the controversy between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu, who have had frosty relations on a personal level.

Obama announced that he would not meet with Netanyahu during the visit, citing a precedent of not meeting with foreign leaders just before their elections. Israel’s next election is on March 17.

Vice President Joe Biden said he would be out of the country for the March 3 talk. However, the day after making that announcement, he met with Yitzhak Herzog, leader of Israel’s Labor party and the primary opposition to Netanyahu.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont also said he will not attend what he referred to as Netanyahu’s “tawdry” speech.

Netanyahu was invited to address a joint session of Congress on 2011, and the White House did not respond to Boehner’s notice of the invitation. Netanyahu addressed Congress without controversy.

Netanyahu’s speech is intended to make the case for a stronger approach to Iran’s nuclear program, and he has said that he is willing to make his case to anyone who will listen. He also has said that his speech is not meant to cause conflict with the administration.

But some have criticized the speech as burnishing his image two weeks before he is to face Israeli voters.

Richmond said Congress “is not a political pawn, nor is it the forum to set foreign policy decisions without consultation from the president. For these reasons I have decided not to attend this joint session.” He referred to Netanyahu’s appearance as “a stump speech.”

He noted that he met with Netanyahu during a trip to Israel that he made during his first year in Congress. “I was part of a select delegation to travel to Israel with Leader Nancy Pelosi to celebrate Independence Day and discuss our shared agenda with Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A secure and prosperous Israel is in the best interest of the United States and the world. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons undeniably threatens the security of both Israel and the United States. Because of this reality, the President and an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress agree that we must do all we can to prevent this from happening.”

But Richmond feels that Netanyahu’s speech “serves the opposite purpose” in the fight to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

In particular, the Congressional Black Caucus has been vocal in urging its members to not attend the speech. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia started the push because the members see the invitation as disrespectful of Obama.

Richmond echoed that in his comments to Politico. “It is very disrespectful to this president, and what concerns me more is that I think it’s a pattern that is starting to develop from this speaker that we’re getting more and more disrespectful of the office of the presidency. I think it’s silly and petty.”

Richmond stated that the Constitution gives primary authority for foreign affairs to the president, and by inviting Netanyahu himself, Boehner “clearly encroached on the President’s Constitutional authority and breached tradition and protocol.”

Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson said Congress should not be the backdrop for such a speech with Israeli elections two weeks away. He said he skipped the speech because “I didn’t want to participate in anything that could potentially influence the outcome of the election in Israel.” Instead of going to the speech, he met with visiting constituents, such as Healthy Start and Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Rep. Steve Cohen, who is Jewish and serves a primarily African-American constituency in Memphis, told JTA in his district “a lot of people see this as dismissive of the first African-American president.”

Many caucus members said they would be willing to meet with Netanyahu or Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer at a separate time, though Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson flatly said he would not, and called Dermer a “long-time, right-wing political hack.”

(Updated March 4)