Washington — Pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel his planned speech to a joint meeting of Congress is building among mainstream pro-Israel leaders, leading to an increasingly divisive split in the Jewish community.
Some leaders are speaking out publically against the speech, scheduled for March 3, arguing the controversy is becoming a major distraction from their shared goal of stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, leader of the Reform movement, has joined Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League in urging Netanyahu to reconsider his visit to Washington; so did Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, the community’s umbrella organization on policy.
Jacobs, who is president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the nation’s largest Jewish denomination, called the idea of speaking to Congress only two weeks before the elections in Israel and without consulting with the president and with Democrats, a “bad idea,” saying it would be “ill advised” for Netanyahu to carry out his planned speech.
“I would want him to re-think it,” Jacobs told the Forward on Friday. “He should find another way to express his voice.” Jacobs argued that Netanyahu could still back out of House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation without losing face. “It will not be an embarrassment,” he said. “It will be something people will respect him for.”
Reich, too, called on Netanyahu to “bite the bullet and postpone his address.”
Jacobs explained that his call for Netanyahu to cancel the planned visit stems from his concern that it would not serve the broader goal of making sure a deal signed with Iran does not endanger Israel. It also reflects his fear that the controversy surrounding Netanyahu’s speech could turn Israel into a partisan issue in American politics.
“This is something we in the Jewish community cannot afford,” Jacobs said. “That’s what’s in stake.”
Earlier, Foxman, the ADL’s national director, urged Netanyahu to cancel his visit. Foxman said the controversy surrounding the trip has overshadowed the initial goal of Netanyahu’s speech and turned the entire debate into “a circus.”
Jewish organizations aligned with the left have expressed their opposition to Netanyahu’s speech from the start, with the dovish lobby J Street supporters sending more than 15,000 emails to Congressional offices and making 1,000 calls to Israeli consulates across the country, calling for cancellation of the speech.