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Netanyahu confirms he’ll address Congress 2 weeks before elections

Following up on announcement that irked Obama, House speaker announces March 3 speech that’ll allow PM to attend AIPAC conference

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the US Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the US Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address a joint session of the US Congress in early March, the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed Thursday, after House Speaker John Boehner announced that the speech would take place on the third of the month, two weeks before elections in Israel.

Netanyahu was initially slated to speak on February 11, but changed the date so he could attend the AIPAC conference, Boehner tweeted Thursday morning.

“The Prime Minister is expected to arrive in the US at the beginning of March and will also participate in the AIPAC conference,” read a statement from the PMO. “The speech in front of both houses of Congress will give the prime minister the opportunity to thank President Barack Obama, Congress, and the American people for their support of Israel.”

“I look forward to the opportunity to express before the joint session Israel’s vision for a joint effort to deal with [Islamist terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program], and to emphasize Israel’s commitment to the special bond between our two democracies,” Netanyahu said, according to the statement.

The visit has been surrounded in controversy from the moment it was announced.

The White House initially reacted icily to Netanyahu’s plans to address Congress, an appearance apparently meant to bolster opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran as it is currently shaping up, as well as opposition to new sanctions against Tehran.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested Wednesday that Netanyahu and Boehner had broken with protocol in not informing Obama of the prime minister’s travel plans.

“We haven’t heard from the Israelis directly about the trip at all,” he said, adding the White House would “reserve judgment” about any possible face-to-face meeting until explanations are made.

“The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he is traveling there. That is certainly how President Obama’s trips are planned,” said Earnest.

“So this particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”

Speaking several hours after Earnest, top US diplomat John Kerry said Netanyahu was welcome to give a speech at “any time” in the United States. But Kerry agreed it had been a “little unusual” to hear about the Israeli leader’s speech to US Congress next month from the office of Boehner and not via the usual diplomatic channels.

Israel and the United States are close allies, but personal relations between Obama and Netanyahu are said to be cool.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest, August 27, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
White House press secretary Josh Earnest, August 27, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

The pair have publicly clashed over Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and about how to tackle Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

Obama’s allies fear the trip could be used by Israel and by Republicans to rally opposition to a nuclear deal, undercutting years of sensitive negotiations just as they appear poised to bear fruit.

Washington and other global powers resumed talks with Iran last weekend in Geneva, with a view to having a framework deal in place by March.

The complex agreement would see Iran rein in its nuclear program, which the West believes is aimed at developing a bomb but which Tehran insists is for purely civilian use.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama argued that a negotiated deal would secure “America and our allies  –  including Israel — while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.”

But Netanyahu has called Iran’s nuclear push the most “vital national security challenge” his nation faces.

In December he said Israel — long threatened by Iran — would oppose an agreement that left the Islamic Republic as a “threshold nuclear power.”

Speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner (photo credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner (photo credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Obama’s Republican opponents also favor a tougher line against Tehran.

That includes further sanctions which Obama has threatened veto and which he says would “all but guarantee that diplomacy fails.”

House Speaker Boehner insisted that the invitation to Netanyahu was not designed to poke a finger in the US president’s eye.

“There needs to be a more serious conversation in America about how serious the threat is from radical Islamic jihadists and the threat posed by Iran,” said Boehner.

He described Netanyahu as “a great friend of our country, and this invitation carries with it our unwavering commitment to the security and well-being of his people.”

Netanyahu has addressed the US Congress twice before, in 1996 and 2011. A third speech will put him level with Winston Churchill as the most prolific world leader in history terms of the number of addresses to Congress.

AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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