Taking sides Netanyahus speech to Congress

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told top Senate Democrats that he regretted how his planned address to Congress next week is being perceived as partisan, with President Barack Obama’s top security adviser calling the speech “destructive.”

Netanyahu declined a Feb. 23 invitation from Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top-ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, to meet privately with the chamber’s Democratic caucus.

The two senators issued the invitation to counter Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday, March 3 addressing the nuclear threat from Iran. The speech “sacrifices deep and well-established cooperation on Israel for short-term partisan points,” the letter said.

“Though I greatly appreciate your kind invitation to meet with Democratic senators, I believe that doing so at this time could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit,” Netanyahu wrote in his letter declining the offer.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice, shown in July 2014, called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress “destructive.” photo/jta-getty images-chip somodevilla

The Israeli leader organized the speech with Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House speaker, who did not consult with either the White House or Democrats in issuing the invitation, although it was made in the name of both parties. Obama administration officials are furious about the invitation and Netanyahu’s acceptance of it, coming just two weeks before the Israeli elections.

The speech is “destructive of the fabric of the relationship,” Susan Rice, the national security adviser, told television journalist Charlie Rose on Feb. 24.

“What has happened over the last several weeks — by virtue of the invitation that was issued by the speaker and the acceptance of it by Prime Minister Netanyahu two weeks in advance of his election — is that on both sides, there has now been injected a degree of partisanship,” Rice said.

“I can assure you that my sole intention in accepting it was to voice Israel’s grave concerns about a potential agreement with Iran that could threaten the survival of my country,” Netanyahu said in his Feb. 24 letter to the Democratic leaders.

Netanyahu, like many Republicans, rejects Obama’s depiction of nuclear talks under way between Iran and the major powers as constructive, and believes the talks are likely to result in a bad deal.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League urged lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to attend the speech but also chastised Netanyahu for accepting the invitation.

“While the original decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu to accept the invitation to address Congress without consulting the Democratic leadership was, in our view, ill-advised, now that it is happening, the speech deserves support from both sides of the aisle,” Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said in a statement.

“The debate about the invitation should not obscure the profound issues at stake for both the U.S. and Israel, which have a common interest in insuring that Iran, the leading state sponsor of terrorism and a nation committed to Israel’s destruction, should not have the capability of building a nuclear weapon.”

The ADL was the most prominent of Jewish groups to speak out against the speech. Some 27 Democrats so far have said they will not attend.

Competing pressures to boycott or attend have continued over recent days.

On Feb. 24, Sen. Tom Udall (D–N.M.), addressing John Kerry during the secretary of state’s testimony on the State Department budget, said Netanyahu “has created a very divisive situation.”

“I don’t know of any other time that the administration has been ignored,” Udall said.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), meanwhile, became the fourth Jewish lawmaker to say he would not attend the speech. His statement, blaming Netanyahu and Boehner equally for the tensions, was notable in that Democrats until now tended to place more of the blame on Boehner.

“I believe, as do many conscientious members of Congress, that the speech is political theater by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party, just two weeks before the elections in Israel,” Cohen said.

He urged Boehner to make it a condition that Netanyahu not use video from the speech in political ads.

An array of groups sharply critical of Israel’s policies, including Jewish Voice for Peace, Code Pink and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, organized a letter drive to 75 members of Congress who have said they may not attend, urging them to boycott. The drive garnered 37,000 letters in addition to 20,000 signatures on a petition against attending the speech.

The Israeli-American Council, a relatively new umbrella group, issued a statement urging members to attend. Former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the only Jew on a major ticket as the 2000 vice-presidential candidate for Democrats, also urged attendance in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

The Feb. 23 Durbin-Feinstein letter inviting Netanyahu to a closed-door meeting with the Democratic party caucus stated that the way his speech was arranged outside the usual channels “threatens to undermine the important bipartisan approach to Israel.”

Urging the prime minister to meet with Democrats to alleviate the bad blood, the letter said the intention would be “to maintain Israel’s dialogue with both political parties in Congress.”

While in Washington, Netanyahu will also address the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee March 1-3.