Netanyahu visit to US Congress puts strain on Israeli relations

Prime Minister's plan to condemn US stance on Iran causes sharp divisions

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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after an adress to a joint session of Congress in the US (Getty Images)

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.


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.