Zionist Union party leader Isaac Herzog said Tuesday he would not join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington next week, following the urging of Likud’s Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz.
Katz had encouraged Herzog to attend Netanyahu’s contentious address to Congress on the Iranian nuclear program, as did media commentators, in a show of non-partisan Israeli opposition to the deal emerging from negotiations between Tehran and world powers.
“Netanyahu’s spin about who’s going to Washington and who’s not going to Washington must stop,” Herzog said in a briefing to journalists in Jerusalem.
In Israel both the coalition and the opposition agree on the Iranian nuclear threat, Herzog said. “No Israeli leader will ever accept a nuclear Iran. However, the way to deal with it — that’s where I beg to differ with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I believe in open and frank discussion with the US administration. I believe in open and frank discussions with the P5+1 leadership. And I think Netanyahu’s speech in Washington is a mistake.”
On Tuesday, Netanyahu said Congresscould be the last hope for stopping the emerging deal, and he would do everything he could to thwart it.
Earlier in the day, Katz told Israel Radio that Herzog was afraid that traveling to Washington would be perceived at home as tacit support for the prime minister. Katz’s invitation, first publicly issued on Facebook, was shared by Netanyahu’s Facebook page as well, appearing to signal his support for the move.
Katz termed the Congress speech — a move that has riled the Obama administration, since the invitation was issued by the Republican House speaker and Netanyahu’s address will likely seek to turn lawmakers against the president — “the last chance to prevent a bad deal.” Herzog’s participation would “represent consensus and a unified front, and would help repel the danger,” Katz wrote on Facebook.
The Zionist Union’s Shelly Yachimovich called on Netanyahu to cancel the speech, and harshly critiqued his conduct.
“Netanyahu must be reminded that the reason for the trip is preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, not an election speech,” she said.
“In his stubbornness, Netanyahu is causing irreversible damage to the country. He must remember this is not a reality show… not an electioneering clip, and not any more material for election spin, but the future of the country.”
The prime minister accepted an invitation last month from Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker of the US House of Representatives, to address Congress, but the White House complained that Boehner had not cleared the invitation with Obama or Democrats in Congress.
Netanyahu’s speech is controversial because it puts Israel on a collision course with the Obama administration as it negotiates with Iran over its nuclear program, negotiations that Netanyahu says put Israel at risk. The speech is also set just two weeks before the prime minister faces elections back home.
Netanyahu insisted last week that the political furor over his upcoming speech should not cloud the issue of the looming nuclear deal between world powers and Iran that, in his opinion, will fail to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons.
A number of Jewish groups have said the visit is unwise and have called on Netanyahu and Boehner to postpone it at least until after Israel’s March 17 elections. Some Democratic lawmakers have said they will not attend the speech.
On Monday, two American Democratic senators invited Netanyahu to meet with lawmakers from their party during his upcoming visit to Washington.
Raphael Ahren and Stuart Winer contributed to this report.