If you're anywhere to the left of Thomas Friedman (he's with us now, in case you didn't get the memo) on the issue of the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, now would be a strategic time to engage. We have a world-historical opportunity right now to help change the game in Washington on how people speak and think about the U.S. relationship to Israel.
Controversy is spreading around House Speaker John Boehner's decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu to address Congress on March 3. The invitation is controversial for three reasons: 1) contrary to precedent, Boehner did not consult the White House or the House Democratic leadership in scheduling the speech; 2) the speech will be two weeks before the Israeli election, essentially making the U.S. Congress the backdrop for a speech in Netanyahu's re-election campaign, also contrary to precedent; and 3) the express purpose of the speech is to bash President Obama's Iran policy and demand that Congress pass new sanctions on Iran, which would blow up the U.S./Europe-Iran talks and put the U.S. on a path to war with Iran, as European leaders and the Congressional Progressive Caucus have warned.
J Street and Americans for Peace Now have called for Netanyahu's talk to be postponed. Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, the mainstream political opposition in Israel, former Israeli President Shimon Peres, and the editorial board of the New York Times have denounced the planned speech. Even Fox News thinks Bibi and Boehner are out of line.
Now, Reps. Keith Ellison (co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus), Steve Cohen, and Maxine Waters are circulating a letter to Speaker Boehner, asking him to postpone the invitation until after the Israeli election and after Congress has considered the issue of Iran sanctions.
This sets up a sharp choice for Members of Congress: stand with the Boehner-Bibi axis or stand with President Obama? A signature on the Ellison letter is a decision to stand with President Obama.
And this also sets up a test of public engagement with Congress. It's no secret why Members of Congress might choose to grumble bitterly about the attack of the Boehner-Bibi axis on President Obama in private but refrain from criticizing it publicly. But if their phones start ringing from supporters of President Obama, it's a whole new ballgame.
Recall this exchange between Democracy Now's Amy Goodman and Florida Representative Alan Grayson in September 2013:
AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Grayson, I wanted to ask you about the role of AIPAC....The [New York] Times quoted an unnamed Obama administration official calling AIPAC "the 800-pound gorilla in the room..."
But that issue of AIPAC's role in lobbying congressmembers now and senators around a strike on Syria, can you talk about its presence in the House?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, AIPAC has issued a statement saying that they're in favor of an attack. [...] But at this point it's not relevant, because the public is engaged, the public is paying attention, the public is against this, and the public is adamantly against this. All these organizations sort of fall to the wayside when the public weighs in. There are now both Democratic and Republican members of Congress who have reported that their emails and letters and phone calls to their office are running more than a hundred to one against this. People are against it. They're adamantly against it.
So, any organization, like AIPAC or otherwise, cannot operate effectively in the environment that we're in, where the public is speaking and speaking very loudly.
So that's it. It's all about public engagement. If you can get to a phone, call your Representative and urge him or her to sign the Ellison letter calling for the Israeli Prime Minister's speech to Congress to be postponed. The Capitol switchboard is 202-224-3121, and you can report your call here. If you absolutely can't get to a phone, you can take action here.