Prime Minister Benjamin 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, Israel’s Channel 10 news reported Friday night.
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.
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, 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.
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.”