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Congressional leaders invite Israel's Netanyahu to address U.S. lawmakers

Biden announces Israel's cease-fire proposal
Biden announces Israel's proposal for potential Hamas cease-fire deal 06:06

Washington — The top four leaders of the House and Senate invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress, despite political divisions over Israel's ongoing war in Gaza. 

"We join the State of Israel in your struggle against terror, especially as Hamas continues to hold American and Israeli citizens captive and its leaders jeopardize regional stability," House Speaker Mike Johnson, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote in the letter to Netanyahu, which was released Friday. 

"To build on our enduring relationship and to highlight America's solidarity with Israel, we invite you to share the Israeli government's vision for defending democracy, combatting terror, and establishing a just and lasting peace in the region," the letter said. 

A date for the speech was not included in the invitation.

Divisions over the war

The invitation comes as debate has shifted in recent months about U.S. support for Israel, a longtime ally, amid its war against Hamas in Gaza. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech during a ceremony on the eve of the Memorial Day for fallen soldiers at the Yad LaBanim Memorial in Jerusalem on May 12, 2024.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech during a ceremony on the eve of the Memorial Day for fallen soldiers at the Yad LaBanim Memorial in Jerusalem on May 12, 2024. DEBBIE HILL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Some Democrats have called on President Biden to condition or sever military aid to the country over its conduct in Gaza, arguing that Israel has violated international humanitarian law. About 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health, and many are facing famine.

In remarks from the White House on Friday announcing that Israel has put forward a new cease-fire proposal, Mr. Biden acknowledged divisions on the war and said Palestinians "have endured sheer hell in this war."  

"I know this is a subject on which people in this country feel deep, passionate convictions. So do I. It's been one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world," he said. 

The president also said Israel has accomplished one of its main objectives of the war and "Hamas is no longer is capable of carrying out another October 7," referring to Hamas' gruesome attacks across Israel last year that left more than 1,200 people dead. The attacks prompted Israel to launch the war in the Hamas-led Gaza Strip.

In March, Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the U.S., called Netanyahu a "major obstacle to peace" and said he "lost his way by allowing his political survival to take the precedence over the best interests of Israel." Schumer, who has long supported Israel, also called on its government to hold a new election. 

"He has been too willing to tolerate the civilian toll in Gaza, which is pushing support for Israel worldwide to historic lows," the New York Democrat said in a speech on the Senate floor. "Israel cannot survive if it becomes a pariah."

Days later, Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, said he planned to invite Netanyahu to address Congress. Schumer said in a statement that "Israel has no stronger ally than the United States" and he "will always welcome the opportunity for the prime minister of Israel to speak to Congress in a bipartisan way." 

Schumer recently reiterated to reporters that the U.S. relationship with Israel is "ironclad and transcends any one prime minister or president."

U.S. officials, including those who have been critical of Netanyahu, came to his defense earlier this month after the International Criminal Court announced it was seeking arrest warrants against the prime minister and three Hamas leaders over alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. If a warrant is issued against Netanyahu, he could risk arrest if he travels to a country that recognizes the court. The U.S. does not.

The move to obtain a warrant was welcomed by some progressives in the U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, said he "would be more than glad to show the ICC the way to the House floor to issue that warrant." Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, said the ICC "is doing its job." 

"Democratically elected officials can commit war crimes," Sanders said on the Senate floor. "We cannot only apply international law when it is convenient." 

The House is working on legislation that involves sanctions against the ICC in response. 

Sanders recently told CNN in an interview that he would not attend Netanyahu's speech, which he called a "terrible idea." A number of other Democrats have also expressed opposition. 

"I just don't think it's constructive for Netanyahu to be addressing, to be doing a joint address in this moment. Period," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, told reporters. 

Before Memorial Day, Jeffries, also from New York, said the notion that Democrats are divided on the issue "is overstated." Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, added that if Netanyahu is invited to speak to a Congress, "we'll respect that." 

Netanyahu last addressed a joint meeting of Congress in 2015 as he sought to convince lawmakers to torpedo negotiations between the Obama administration and Iran over the regime's nuclear program. 

Jaala Brown, Alan He, Nikole Killion and Ellis Kim contributed reporting. 

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