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Nearly half of Israelis want PM to cancel Congress speech — poll

Most say event won’t change their vote either way; Netanyahu reportedly offered chance for private meetings instead of address

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)

Nearly one in two Israelis believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should cancel his March 3 address to the United States Congress amid heightened tensions between the White House and Jerusalem, an Army Radio poll on Monday showed.

However, more than half (63 percent) also insisted that whether or not Netanyahu goes ahead with the address will not affect their voting choices.

According to the survey of 509 respondents, carried out by Millward Brown, some 47% say Netanyahu should cancel the speech, 34% say he shouldn’t cancel, and 19% say they don’t know.

The planned speech, on Iran’s nuclear threat, has angered the US administration and threatened to further fray ties between Jerusalem and Washington.

Netanyahu has faced growing calls in Israel and among US Jews to cancel the speech as rivals accuse him of risking Israel’s relations with the United States in hopes of winning extra votes in next month’s Israeli parliamentary election.

Asked whether Netanyahu’s trip to Washington will affect whether they will back the prime minister in the upcoming elections, 19% of respondents said it would make them less likely to support Netanyahu, 12% said it would make them more likely to support Netanyahu, and 63% said the trip does not change their position.

Sources in Washington told Army Radio that an offer had been extended to Netanyahu to cancel his speech in favor of private meetings with senior members of Congress.

The Washington officials told Army Radio that the offer for closed-door meetings between Netanyahu and members of Congress was conveyed to the prime minister over a week ago, and he has yet to respond.

Netanyahu has been consulting with senior Likud members on the subject, the report said, who are divided. Minister Yuval Steinitz insisted Netanyahu should cancel, while others urged him to stick to the original plan, the report said.

Publicly, Netanyahu has shown no signs of backing down from the planned address, saying Sunday he would “do everything” to prevent US-led international negotiators from reaching a “bad and dangerous agreement” with Iran over its nuclear program.

He reiterated that he would “go anywhere” to warn against Israel’s enemies.

The US is Israel’s closest and most important ally. While ties remain strong between the nations, Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama have long had strained personal relations and differ on many policy issues, with Netanyahu favoring a more confrontational approach to his foes over Obama’s inclination toward diplomacy and compromise.

The differences are especially glaring when it comes to the Iranian nuclear issue. Netanyahu has identified a nuclear-armed Iran as the single greatest threat to his country and says its nuclear program must be dismantled. Israeli pressure, featuring barely veiled threats to attack Iran if necessary, is credited by many in Israel as having focused world attention on the issue and spurred economic sanctions against Iran.

Obama has vowed to prevent Iran from developing a bomb but has signaled he’s willing to tolerate certain activities, such as uranium enrichment, a technology that Israel fears could quickly be diverted for weapons use. The US and five global partners hope to reach a preliminary deal with Iran by March.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, acknowledged differences between Netanyahu and Obama over Iran. “Netanyahu feels that he has been fighting for years and now we are nearing a critical moment,” Katz told Channel 2 TV.

Fearful that Obama is about to reach a “bad deal,” Netanyahu jumped at the opportunity to address a joint session of Congress on March 3, two weeks before Israel’s general election. The invitation was issued by the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, and engineered by Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, a former Republican operative.

Dermer was due to arrive in Israel Sunday night to consult with Netanyahu about the prime minister’s upcoming US visit.

The decision to speak before Congress has triggered an outpouring of anger in both countries.

The White House views the planned visit as a breach of protocol, because it was not coordinated well ahead of time with the US administration, which learned about it just before it was made public. The White House also cited the close proximity of the election as the reason Obama wouldn’t meet Netanyahu, saying the president wanted to avoid the appearance of taking sides.

US officials also fear that the speech could upset the delicate talks with Iran. Several Democrats have said they would skip the speech, while others, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have suggested that Netanyahu should postpone it.

Joe Biden’s office said the vice president would miss the address. Despite the stated American intention to stay out of Israeli domestic politics, Biden found the time to meet Netanyahu’s chief rival, Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog, on the sidelines of a security conference in Germany.

Abe Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, a leading Jewish American group, has urged Netanyahu to call off the visit. The pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC also has reservations because it is turning into a partisan event, according to a person involved in US-Israel relations. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

Israeli leaders across the political spectrum almost universally support Netanyahu’s tough line toward Iran. But many opposition figures, including Herzog, have criticized Netanyahu’s handling of the congressional speech, describing it as a cheap election stunt that would only undermine support for Israel in Washington.

Herzog’s running mate, Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, said Netanyahu was damaging ties with the US “for the sake of an election speech.” Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, said Netanyahu was causing “serious damage” to American ties and urged him to stay home.

Even some of Netanyahu’s sympathizers were saying he’s misjudged the situation.

“You’re right, but don’t go,” said the headline in a front-page commentary by columnist Ben-Dror Yemini in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily. “Obama is wrong and you’re right. But if there is any chance of budging him from his position, then you are making every possible mistake and turning him into an adversary.”

Michael Oren, who served as Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington until 2013 and is now running for Knesset with the rival Kulanu party, said that if he were still in the post, he would have advised his boss not to address Congress.

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