Political bickering over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to the two houses of Congress on March 3 continued on Saturday, both in Israel and the United States.
In Israel, Netanyahu’s chief rival in the March 17 general elections, Labor chief and Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog, said the premier must cancel his trip to the US due to the antagonism his address — which was coordinated with House Majority Leader John Boehner without involving the White House — has caused in Washington.
“The time has come when Bibi (Netanyahu) must announce the cancellation of his visit to Congress,” Herzog said in a speech at an international security conference in Munich. “In conversations I’ve held with many European and US leaders, it is clear there is great anger over Netanyahu diverting the discussion on Iran’s nuclear program for political gain, and turning it into a confrontation with the president of the United States.”
“This speech that was born in sin, as an electioneering ‘production,’ endangers the security of Israel’s citizens and the special relationship between Israel and the US,” Herzog charged.
“With all due respect to Bibi’s campaign, this is the moment when you must act as an Israeli patriot and not throw Israeli security under the bus.”
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid also attacked the planned speech, saying Netanyahu “has managed to quarrel with both the White House and Congress.”
Lapid too asserted that the Likud leader was “causing serious harm to Israel’s strategic relationship with the United States” for the sake of the elections.
Meanwhile in Washington, Jewish Republicans were reportedly considering using ‘shaming’ tactics against senators and congressmen who decide to skip the Israeli leader’s speech.
Politico reported Saturday that the Republican Jewish Coalition was threatening to take action to bring focus onto those politicians who choose not to attend the event.
“This is, I think a critical visit by the prime minister,” the coalition’s executive director Matt Brooks told Politico. “If these Democrats would rather put partisan politics ahead of principle and walk out on the prime minister of Israel, then we have an obligation to make that known.”
“We will commit whatever resources we need to make sure that people are aware of the facts, that given the choice to stand with Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu in opposition to a nuclear Iran, they chose partisan interests and to stand with President (Barack) Obama,” Brooks said.
The Zionist Organization of America, another right-wing group, said it would also condemn any politicians who fail to attend. It’s really an anti-American, anti-patriotic position to take,” ZOA President Morton Klein said.
Some Republicans predicted Saturday that Democrats’ complaints about Netanyahu’s speech will drive Jewish voters to their party. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Democrats are making a “catastrophic mistake” by protesting Netanyahu’s plans.
“Traditionally, supporters of Israel have been really even-handed in supporting candidates of both parties,” Wilson said, but now “Democrats are slapping the friends of Israel in the face.”
Many Democrats object to Netanyahu’s speech for three reasons: The invitation is an implied rebuke for Obama; the speech, scheduled two weeks before Israel’s elections, might be designed to boost Netanyahu’s re-election hopes; and Netanyahu backs new sanctions on Iran that the administration and Western powers argue could scuttle sensitive negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina called Boehner’s actions unprecedented, and said Netanyahu has “politicized” his US visit.
The speaker of the House and the vice president traditionally sit behind the featured guest during a congressional address. But the White House said Friday that Vice President Joe Biden will be traveling abroad that day.
Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, Congress’s only Jewish Republican, said if lawmakers boycott Netanyahu’s speech, “it’s a horrendous, irresponsible message to send to Israel.” He called Israel “a free, democratic society thriving in an area of the world where radical Islamic extremism is growing most rapidly.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, another critic of the speech’s arrangements, said she would attend but that she hoped the event would not take place. Lawmakers often skip such addresses for different reasons, she said, so even if some seats are empty, “don’t even think in terms of the word ‘boycott.’ Members will go or they won’t go, as they usually go or don’t go.”
Channel 10 News reported Friday 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 bipartisan.
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.
The report added that some 40 Democratic legislators are currently expected to stay away from the address, and that Netanyahu is anxious to avoid that spreading to a wider “second wave” of legislators.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.