Kevin McCarthy to address Israeli Knesset amid chill in relations between Biden and Netanyahu


WASHINGTON (JTA) — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will address the Israeli Knesset on his upcoming trip to Israel — the second speaker of the house to address Israel’s parliament.

The announcement of McCarthy’s speech comes amid a chill in relations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Joe Biden, who has repeatedly criticized Netanyahu’s controversial judicial overhaul plans and other policies. Three weeks ago, soon after Netanyahu announced a pause on the judicial reform, Biden said he wouldn’t be inviting him to the White House “in the near term.” Israeli prime ministers conventionally schedule a White House visit soon after they take office.

The invitation to McCarthy, the most senior Republican in Washington, D.C., appears to be a response to that snub. It also marks a return to a familiar Netanyahu tactic: turning to Republicans to fend off criticism from Democrats.

In a Hebrew-language video announcing McCarthy’s speech, Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu ally, called McCarthy a “real friend of Israel,” with a slight but discernible emphasis on the word “real.”

“I am pleased to announce that the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States, Kevin McCarthy, who is a real friend of Israel and has been for his entire career, has answered my invitation and will come visit us here in the Knesset in Israel,” Ohana, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, said in the video. “I think this thing is a testament to the strong and unbreakable connection between Israel and its closest ally, the United States of America.”

McCarthy tweeted that his visit, which is part of a bipartisan delegation beginning April 30, days after Israel celebrates its 75th birthday, will be his first abroad as speaker. “The US-Israel relationship is as important as ever,” he wrote.

The last time a U.S. House of Representatives Speaker addressed the Knesset was in 1998, when Newt Gingrich led a similarly bipartisan delegation to mark Israel’s 50th anniversary.

Ohana mentioned that speech in his announcement, and it was a telling allusion: Gingrich, also a Republican, said during his visit that the president, Democrat Bill Clinton, should advance assistance to Israel without demanding concessions in talks with the Palestinians. The Israeli prime minister both then and now, Netanyahu, had infuriated Clinton at the time by cultivating Republican support in the United States as a countervailing force meant to keep Clinton from making demands on Israel.

Biden, like Clinton, is wary of Netanyahu’s commitment to working with the Palestinians, and has rebuked Netanyahu for his plans to expand settlements.

In 2007, Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic House speaker, was honored with a dinner at the Knesset, where she spoke, but she did not address the parliament’s plenary. Both Democratic and Republican presidents have also addressed the Knesset.

Netanyahu, for his part, has addressed the House of Representatives three times — all at moments when the chamber was controlled by Republicans and a Democrat was in the White House. The third of those speeches, in 2015, was seen as particularly offensive to then-President Barack Obama, who was finalizing a nuclear agreement with Iran that Netanyahu vehemently opposed.

This year, in the absence of a White House invitation, Netanyahu has tried to play down talk of a crisis. “There will be a visit, don’t worry,” he told reporters.