A senior Israeli politician suggested Friday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been misled into believing both Republicans and Democrats wanted him to speak before the US Congress, and that he had accepted the contentious invitation by House Speaker John Boehner to speak 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, Vice President Joe Biden may not attend, 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.
Despite said efforts, the three prominent US House Democrats — Reps. John Lewis, G.K. Butterfield and Earl Blumenauer — vowed Thursday to skip Netanyahu’s speech, saying they disapproved of Boehner’s decision to invite him without consulting Obama.
The White House also hinted Thursday that Biden may not attend. Spokesman Josh Earnest said Biden takes “very seriously” his responsibilities as Senate president, including his ceremonial duty to attend joint sessions of Congress. However, Earnest noted that Biden missed a joint session in 2011 because he was traveling abroad.
Earnest said the vice president’s travel schedule for early March has not been finalized. He told reporters that Obama “does believe it is up to individual members of Congress to make their own decision about whether or not to attend.”
Butterfield also criticized Netanyahu, saying that by accepting Boehner’s invitation without talking to Obama, the prime minister had “politicized” his visit to the United States.
Pelosi said she plans to attend the speech, with reservations. “It is really sad that it has come to this,” Pelosi said Thursday, adding that “as of now, it is my intention to go… It is still my hope that the event will not take place. There is a serious unease. But don’t even think in the terms of boycott. Members will go or they won’t go as they usually go or don’t go.”
Meanwhile, Boehner defended the invitation Thursday: “There’s a message that the American people need to hear, and I think he’s the perfect person to deliver it,” Boehner said. “The threat of radical Islamic terrorists is a real threat. The threat of Iran to the region and the rest of the world is a real threat. And I believe that the American people are interested in hearing the truth about what’s happening in that part of the world.”
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.”