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Foreign talks to Congress often a yawn, but not Netanyahu’s

March 3, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech Tuesday has already roiled Washington.

That’s because a foreign leader denouncing U.S. policy from within in the House of Representatives chamber, the grand hall of American democracy, upends nearly two centuries of tradition.

In a preview of his speech to Congress, Netanyahu told a pro-Israel conference in Washington Monday that he has a moral duty to warn that President Barack Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran may imperil Israel.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who broke protocol by inviting Netanyahu without consulting the Democratic White House, says Americans need to hear their trusted ally’s fears. The Obama administration says the invitation has injected destructive partisanship into U.S.-Israel relations.

A joint meeting of Congress, gathering senators and representatives together, is a ceremony typically bestowed on one or two friendly foreign leaders per year. It looks a lot like a presidential State of the Union address. The speaker embodies his or her nation; the audience of lawmakers represents all Americans.

Unity and shared purpose are standard themes. So leaders speaking against the backdrop of the chamber’s huge American flag tend to gloss over differences and steer clear of internal politics.

These joint meetings have become a favored venue for foreign leaders and dignitaries, whose appearances usually get more notice back home than among Americans. That’s another controversial element in Netanyahu’s address, just two weeks before he’s up for re-election.

History offers scant precedent for Netanyahu’s speech. But joint meetings have produced some dramatic scenes:


The tradition of inviting foreign dignitaries dates to the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, who gave separate speeches to the House and Senate in 1824.

It took another 50 years for the two bodies to come together to hear a foreigner — King Kalakaua, of what was then the Kingdom of Hawaii.

A few allies dominate the rostrum. With Netanyahu’s return, it will tie Britain and France at eight speeches apiece. In all, 110 foreigners and a few Americans have addressed joint meetings.

As Australian prime minister in 2011, Julia Gillard nailed the mutual-admiration genre. She recalled being a small girl amazed that Americans had landed on the moon.

“On that great day I believed Americans could do anything,” she said. “I believe that still.”


The closest comparison to Netanyahu’s latest speech to Congress may be Netanyahu’s last speech to Congress.

The Israeli prime minister’s 2011 visit went through diplomatic channels. But Netanyahu’s appearance with Obama turned frosty. He rejected Obama’s suggestion that peace negotiations with the Palestinians should start from Israel’s boundaries before it seized territory in 1967.

In his speech to Congress, Netanyahu repeated his rejection of “indefensible boundaries,” prompting scathing reactions from Palestinian leaders.


A foreigner invited to brace up the president still can stir controversy in Washington and at home.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke in defense of the Iraq War in July 2003, months after the invasion, when the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the realization that fighting would not end quickly was souring public opinion in the U.S. and further inflaming war opposition in Britain.

Congressional Democrats were starting to question President George W. Bush’s rationale for going to war. Still, members from both parties cheered Blair, who assured them, “We will be with you in this fight for liberty.”

Nearly two decades earlier, another British leader, Margaret Thatcher, gave a rousing endorsement of President Ronald Reagan’s Cold War strategy. She called her speech to Congress “one of the most moving occasions of my life.”


Netanyahu will become only the second leader to address a joint meeting three times.

The other — British Prime Minister Churchill — gave one of the Capitol’s most dramatic speeches in 1941.

Churchill rushed across the Atlantic to make war plans with President Franklin Roosevelt when the United States entered World War II.

Speaking under the newsreel cameras’ bright lights, his voice carried live to anxious Americans by radio, Churchill voiced outrage at Japan’s sneak attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor but openly rejoiced that the United States “has drawn the sword of freedom,” bringing hope to its battered European allies.


A few speakers bring Congress a transcendent vision. Mandela did it twice.

In 1990, newly freed from 27 years in prison, the anti-apartheid leader rallied Americans to help black South Africans end segregation and achieve democracy.

“Let us keep our arms locked together so that we form a solid phalanx against racism,” he implored.

In 1994, Mandela returned as South Africa’s first black president.

He urged Americans to look beyond their national borders and take the lead in creating a world of democracy, peace and prosperity.

“Once you set out on this road,” Mandela said, “no one will need to be encouraged to follow.”

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