Growing opposition to the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to attack US policy on Iran while addressing Congress next week has provoked even one leading pro-Israel lobby group to urge him to stay away.
Some two dozen Democrats in the US Senate had by last night declared their intention to skip the speech – seen as an attempt by Mr Netanyahu to gain advantage ahead of next month’s Israeli elections – and the White House has also protested in vehement terms.
Yesterday J Street, a pro-Israel lobby group in Washington, took out full-page advertisements in American newspapers urging the Israeli Prime Minister to stay away. “Congress isn’t a prop for your election campaign,” the advertisement declared. “The Prime Minister is playing with fire in stoking this dispute,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and director of J Street. “Over the long term it may do harm to the bipartisan consensus around the basic commitment that the US has.”
At the root of the dispute is the unusual nature of the invitation to the Israeli Prime Minister, which came not from the White House, as normal protocol would dictate, but from John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House. It was widely seen as a politically motivated jab at President Barack Obama, with whom Mr Netanyahu has poor relations.
The Israeli leader intends to use the speech on Tuesday to lacerate US moves towards a possible deal with Iran on its nuclear ambitions, under which – according to leaked details – the West would lift sanctions in return for restrictions on the Iranian nuclear programme for 15 years.
In another snub, there were reports that invitations from Israel to the ambassadors of two Arab states to attend the speech to show solidarity with Mr Netanyahu’s position on Iran –Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – had been turned down. The dismay felt by the White House was voiced with force by the National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, who said in a television interview that Mr Netanyahu’s actions had “injected partisanship” into US-Israeli relations and were “destructive of the fabric of the relationship”.
For such words to be used by a high US official about a leader of Israel may be unprecedented and has helped stir anxiety that the pro-Israeli consensus in Washington is in peril. It suggests also that the personal enmity between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu is coming to a head.
Mr Boehner disagreed with Ms Rice yesterday, saying a “bad deal” with Iran on its nuclear programme would be destructive, and the American people need to hear from Benjamin Netanyahu.
Unrest in Jerusalem
Unrest in Jerusalem
A masked Palestinian celebrates the attack on the Jerusalem synagogue holding a poster of the attackers,Ghassan and Uday Abu Jamal, during a rally in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
A masked Palestinian youth wearing a Hamas headband uses a sling-shot to throw back a tear gas canister towards Israeli forces during clashes outside the Israeli-run Ofer military prison following the deadly attack on a Jerusalem synagogue
Masked Palestinians hold axes and a gun as they celebrate with others an attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
Israeli Zaka emergency services volunteers carry the body of one of the two Palestinian assailants who were shot dead while attacking worshippers at a synagogue to an ambulance in the ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighbourhood in Jerusalem
An Ultra-orthodox jewish man prays at the scene of an attack, by two Palestinians, on a synagogue in the ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighbourhood in Jerusalem
An Israeli woman cries on a veranda next to a synagogue where a suspected Palestinian attack took place in Jerusalem
An Israeli police officer gestures as he holds a weapon near the scene of an attack at a Jerusalem synagogue
Israeli Zaka emergency services volunteers carry the body of an assailant who was shot dead while attacking a synagogue
Israeli emergency services personnel clean the sidewalk at the scene of an attack, by two Palestinians, on Israeli worshippers at a synagogue in the ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighbourhood in Jerusalem
Israeli security personnel run next to the synagogue in Har Nof, where a suspected Palestinian attack took place
A Palestinian activist knocks a hole through the wall near East Jerusalem
A masked Palestinian youth burns a tire near Israel's controversial barrier that separates the West Bank town of Abu Dis from Jerusalem
A Palestinian protester throws a stone at Israeli troops during clashes in the West Bank town of Abu Dis near Jerusalem
Palestinian mourners attend the funeral of bus driver Yusuf Hasan al-Ramuni in the West Bank town of Abu Dis from Jerusalem . A Palestinian bus driver was found hanged in his vehicle in Jerusalem, sparking clashes, after what Israel said was an apparent suicide but a colleague said looked like murder
A Palestinian protester tries to hammer a hole through Israel's controversial barrier that separates the West Bank town of Abu Dis from Jerusalem
Palestinian protesters climb a ladder at Israel's controversial barrier that separates the West Bank town of Abu Dis from Jerusalem
Israeli border policeman arrested over shooting of Palestinian boy during West Bank protests
Masked Palestinian youths clash with Israeli security forces in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Abu Tor
Israeli fire fighters inspect the scene of an attack in Jerusalem. A Palestinian man rammed his car into a crowded train platform in east Jerusalem and then attacked people with an iron bar, killing one person and injuring 13 in what authorities called a terror attack before he was shot dead by the police. The militant Islamic group Hamas took responsibility for the attack
Israeli police officers walk at the scene of an attack in Jerusalem
Israeli rescue workers and paramedics carry an injured man to an ambulance after a Palestinian man, Ibrahim al-Akri, was shot by Israeli police officers after he drove into a crowd of people
Ultra-Orthodox Jews look on from behind a police line at the scene of a killing when a Palestinian man drove a van into a crowd of police and civilians along the tracks of the Light Rail trolley system in East Jerusalem
Mr Netanyahu may have exacerbated the suggestion of partisanship by refusing an invitation earlier this week from two top Democrat senators, Dick Durbin and Dianne Feinstein, both supporters of Israel, to meet Democrat senators separately while in Washington. “I hope that he would acknowledge this has become politically divisive and that he would agree to meet us, but he has decided not to,” Senator Durbin commented.
Steve Israel, a Democrat US Representative, excoriated Mr Boehner last night. “This is the first time ever Israel has been used as a political football by the Speaker of the House,” he told CNN. But he said that Democrat senators planning to boycott Tuesday’s speech were “walking into a trap” set by Mr Boehner to drive a wedge between the parties on relations with Israel.
Among Republicans, Senator John McCain criticised Ms Rice for her “almost unprecedented” criticism of the Israeli leader. It was “totally uncalled for and only throws gasoline on the fire,” he said.
Irritation at Mr Netanyahu, however, was also expressed by John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, who was in Geneva earlier this week trying to pin down the last details of the deal with Iran. It remains to be seen if the two sides will overcome remaining hurdles.
At a hearing on Capitol Hill, Mr Kerry questioned Mr Netanyahu’s claim that the pact under discussion would let Iran off the hook. “He may not be correct,” he said. Then, in a deliberately needling aside, he pointed out that, in 2003, Mr Netanyahu had been “profoundly” in favour of the invasion of Iraq. “We all know what happened with that decision,” he added.