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Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu set to address the U.S. Congress on July 24

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting at the Kirya military base, which houses the Israeli Ministry of Defense, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Dec. 24, 2023.
Ohad Zwigenberg/AP
AP Pool
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting at the Kirya military base, which houses the Israeli Ministry of Defense, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Dec. 24, 2023.

WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to address a joint meeting of Congress on July 24, setting the stage for what is expected to be a contentious speech at a crucial moment for the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

Congressional leaders confirmed the date of the address late Thursday after formally inviting Netanyahu to come speak before lawmakers last week. It is the most recent show of wartime support for the longtime ally despite mounting political divisions over Israel’s military assault on Hamas in Gaza.

“The existential challenges we face, including the growing partnership between Iran, Russia, and China, threaten the security, peace, and prosperity of our countries and of free people around the world,” House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, along with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, said in the letter. "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.”

Netanyahu's appearance before a growingly divided Congress is sure to be controversial and met with plenty of protests both inside the Capitol from lawmakers and outside by pro-Palestinian protesters. And it will put on stark display the growing election-year divisions among Democrats over the prime minister’s prosecution of the monthslong war against Hamas.

Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the U.S. — who delivered a stinging rebuke of Netanyahu in March — said in a separate statement Thursday night that he has “clear and profound disagreements” with the Israeli leader but joined in the request for him to speak “because America’s relationship with Israel is ironclad and transcends one person or prime minister.”

Other Democratic lawmakers more critical of Netanyahu’s strategy are expected to be no-shows for the address. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, said: “Netanyahu is a war criminal. I certainly will not attend.”

Netanyahu’s visit to the Capitol also comes as the relationship between President Joe Biden and the leader of the Jewish state has increasingly frayed in recent months. Biden has privately and publicly criticized Netanyahu’s handling of the war and criticized the Israeli government for not letting more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Late last week, Biden announced a proposed agreement to end the fighting in Gaza, putting growing pressure on Netanyahu to accept the deal. Many Israelis have been urging him to embrace the terms, but his far-right allies have threatened to leave his coalition government if he does.

That could expose Netanyahu to new elections, scrutiny over security failures that led to the war and, if he loses the prime minister post, prosecution on longstanding corruption charges.

The first phase of the deal described by Biden would last for six weeks and include a “full and complete cease-fire,” a withdrawal of Israeli forces from all densely populated areas of Gaza and the release of a number of hostages, including women, older people and the wounded, in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

The second phase would include the release of all remaining living hostages, including male soldiers, and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. The third phase calls for the start of a major reconstruction of Gaza, which faces decades of rebuilding from the war’s devastation.

Netanyahu has repeatedly called a permanent cease-fire in Gaza a “nonstarter” until long-standing conditions for ending the war are met, appearing to undermine the proposal that Biden described as an Israeli one.

A number of Democratic lawmakers who have been supportive of Israel since the start of the war have said their attendance at Netanyahu's address will be dependent on his decision to accept the peace deal at hand.

Johnson first suggested inviting the Israeli leader, saying it would be “a great honor of mine” to invite him. In the press release Thursday, Johnson said Netanyahu responded to the invitation in kind.

“I am very moved to have the privilege of representing Israel before both Houses of Congress and to present the truth about our just war against those who seek to destroy us to the representatives of the American people and the entire world," Netanyahu said, according to the release.

Copyright 2024 NPR

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]