US Vice President Joe Biden will not attend a speech Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to give before Congress on March 3, in a perceived new snub of the Israeli leader.
“The Vice President’s office expects that the vice president will be traveling abroad during the joint session of Congress,” a US official said.
The announcement was the latest blow to the PM, who has been under increasing pressure to cancel the speech.
As president of the Senate, Biden would typically attend a joint meeting of Congress, putting the White House in a bind because of its irritation about Netanyahu’s visit. The White House has accused Netanyahu and congressional Republicans of breaching diplomatic protocol by arranging the address without coordinating with the administration.
Biden’s overseas trip allows the White House to avoid the awkwardness of having the vice president sit behind Netanyahu during the address. It’s unclear where the vice president plans to travel, though his office said the unspecified trip was in the works before the prime minister’s trip was announced.
Biden’s office insisted the unspecified trip had been in the works before the prime minister’s speech was announced. Biden has only missed one prior joint meeting of Congress: a 2011 address to lawmakers by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose speech coincided with another overseas trip by the vice president.
Biden had a tense run-in with Netanyahu in 2010, when Israel announced new settlement construction in East Jerusalem while the vice president was in the country for meetings with the prime minister and other officials. The move infuriated the US, and then-secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton called the timing of the Israeli announcement “insulting.”
Earlier Friday, an Israel Channel 10 TV report said that some 40 Democratic legislators were currently expected to stay away from the address, and that Netanyahu was anxious to avoid that spreading to a wider “second wave” of legislators.
The report also said that Netanyahu has conveyed messages to the Americans to the effect that “he didn’t know” the invitation extended to him to speak before the US Congress was anything but genuinely bi-partisan.
Netanyahu remains determined to go ahead with the address, to highlight the dangers of a deal that would leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state, but is making an effort “to soften” the Obama administration’s anger, and that of many Democrats, over the March 3 speech, the TV report said.
Early Friday, a senior Israeli politician who is close to Netanyahu suggested that the prime minister had been misled into believing both Republicans and Democrats wanted him to speak, and that he had accepted the contentious invitation from House Speaker John Boehner because he understood the offer enjoyed bipartisan support.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) said Netanyahu “hoped and believed” the invitation was “bi-partisan, as the invite letter said — ‘a bi-partisan initiative’ — but because of the tensions between Congress and the [Obama] administration, [and] between Republicans and Democrats, a problem erupted.”
Speaking to 102 FM Tel Aviv Radio, Hanegbi, who is a close confidant of the PM, acknowledged that the row that has flared up between Israel and the Obama administration following the announcement that Netanyahu would speak to Congress about the Iranian nuclear threat presented a “dilemma.”
Boehner’s January 21 invitation to Netanyahu, indeed, stated: “It is my honor, on behalf of the bipartisan leadership of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate, to extend to you an invitation to appear before and address a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday, February 11, 2015” — the originally scheduled date.
The announcement infuriated the White House, which charged that the planned speech — subsequently moved to March 3 — breached protocol as it was not coordinated with the administration. The incident set off an ugly, ongoing public dispute between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration, with senior US officials charging that the Israeli leader had “spat” in Obama’s face and could not be trusted.
There has been considerable vocal Democratic opposition, too, with Jewish House Democrats meeting privately with Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer to castigate him over the affair. At least three Democrats have said they will skip the speech and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said she hopes it will not go ahead.
Netanyahu has been an outspoken critic of the international efforts to negotiate a deal with Iran. He is set to warn strongly in his speech against a bad deal with Tehran. Initially, it had been suggested that he would also urge US lawmakers to pass a new sanctions bill against Tehran to force it to comply with international demands that it curb its nuclear program — a bill Obama strongly opposes and has vowed to veto because such a move would hinder the P5+1 negotiations under way to secure a deal. But officials in Jerusalem said last week that Netanyahu would focus less on sanctions and more on the dangers of a deal that allows Iran to become a threshold nuclear state.
“The dilemma is, how much can Israel insist and disagree and oppose this policy [of the international community seeking a deal with Iran] while simultaneously preserving our wonderful, intimate relationship with the US,” Hanegbi said, adding that “the question was if Netanyahu should pass up this unique opportunity, so necessary in terms of timing, before the deadline [for a deal between the P5+1 and Tehran].”
Hanegbi said Netanyahu was “investing a lot of effort in order to clarify to Democrats that this [planned address] is not an act of defiance against Obama,” and denied charges that the move was political, meant to boost Netanyahu’s image ahead of Israeli national elections set for March 17, two weeks after the speech.
Netanyahu indicated Thursday that he intended to go ahead with this speech, saying it was “my obligation as the prime minister of Israel to speak out against the danger of a nuclear agreement with Iran, and to do everything I can to prevent it.”