Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet next week with the top Republican and Democrat in the U.S. Senate after rejecting a request for a meeting from two of the chamber’s key Democrats.
Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint meeting of Congress on March 3 and is expected to focus his speech on U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran. Later in the day, he’ll meet Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid, according to a statement released Thursday by McConnell’s office.
The Israeli leader’s speech to American lawmakers has emerged as a new flashpoint in his already contentious relations with and U.S. President Barack Obama. His acceptance of House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress without consulting the White House has been called a breach of protocol by the administration and escalated tensions between the two allies.
Obama has ruled out meeting with Netanyahu while he’s in Washington, saying it comes too close to Israel’s March 17 elections. White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice, in an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS and Bloomberg Television this week, said Netanyahu’s acceptance of Boehner’s invitation injected partisanship into the U.S.-Israel relationship “which is not only unfortunate, I think it’s destructive of the fabric of the relationship.”
While some Democrats have criticized Netanyahu’s decision to address a joint session of Congress without a blessing from the White House, Reid, a longtime Israel ally who is seeking re-election in 2016, has been reluctant to pile on.
Reid told the New York Times last month that he had advised Netanyahu that the planned speech was hurting Israel’s standing with Democrats but stopped short of telling the Israeli leader to cancel it.
“It would have been wrong for me to say, ‘Don’t come,’” Reid told the Times. “I wouldn’t do that.”
Rice and Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will represent the Obama administration at a pro-Israel lobby group’s annual conference where Netanyahu is speaking the day before his congressional appearance.
Both Rice and Power will deliver remarks to the group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said its spokesman, Marshall Wittmann, in an e-mail Thursday. The organization expects more than half of the Senate and two thirds of the House of Representatives to be in attendance over the course of the three-day conference in Washington, he said.
The two administration officials will serve as a counter-point to Netanyahu, who has warned that a deal being negotiated by the U.S. and other world powers with Iran on its nuclear program is dangerous.
Netanyahu earlier this week declined an offer from Senators Richard Durbin of Illinois and Dianne Feinstein of California to meet privately with the Senate Democratic Caucus during his visit. Durbin and Feinstein said in a letter to Netanyahu that Boehner’s unilateral invitation to address lawmakers “threatens to undermine the important bipartisan approach toward Israel.”
More than a dozen members of Congress have verified they are not going to the speech, while others have been calling for a postponement and are still deciding. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said most members plan to be in the chamber for the speech and rejected Rice’s characterization.
“What is destructive is making a bad deal that paves the way for a nuclear Iran,” he said Thursday at his weekly news conference.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said he expected Rice and Power will talk “at least a little bit” about how diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon serve the security interests of the U.S. and Israel.
“We are hopeful that we can get back to a place where the national security of the United States, most importantly, but also the national security of Israel can be enhanced,” he said.
Earnest said their appearance at AIPAC is consistent with past instances of senior officials addressing the group. “If it’s perceived by some as an effort to demonstrate bipartisan support” between the U.S. and Israel, then “that would be great,” he said.
The rift between Netanyahu and Obama hasn’t slowed security and economic cooperation. Rice met last week with Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen to discuss Iran and other issues. Those talks went ahead even as administration officials said the U.S. is withholding details about the Iran negotiations because Israeli officials have leaked misleading information to undermine a deal.
The issue will be brought to a head later next month. Along with the Netanyahu speech and the Israeli elections, negotiations with Iran face an end-of-month deadline for reaching a framework political deal on the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.