World

Democrats Ready to Join Obama in Snubbing Netanyahu Speech to Congress

2015-02-04T175014Z_1769410168_GM1EB25051I01_RTRMADP_3_ISRAEL-NETANYAHU
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a military outpost on Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights over looking the Israel-Syria border February 4, 2015. Baz Ratner/Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to address Congress next month on the need for stronger sanctions against Iran is turning into a major political and diplomatic blunder for the Israeli leader just weeks before that country’s elections.

Many Democrats are considering boycotting the speech, scheduled for March 3. Others took the highly unusual step Wednesday of meeting with the Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer in an effort to get Netanyahu to postpone his address.

The speech, cooked up by Dermer, who served as an assistant to GOP consultant Frank Luntz in an earlier life, and Republican House Speaker John Boehner without informing the White House, has infuriated President Barack Obama, who says he will not meet with Netanyahu during his March 3 visit.

Publicly, the White House has said the president didn’t want to appear like he was influencing Israel’s March 17 election, in which Netanyahu is seeking another term, but the significance of Obama’s snub is  clear. It would be the first time in the 66-year history of the U.S.-Israel relationship that the White House has closed its doors to a visiting Israeli premier.  

Secretary of State John Kerry also has refused to see Netanyahu during his visit, and Vice President Joe Biden, who presides over the Senate, won’t say if he will be in attendance for the speech.

Polls show Netanyahu in a dead heat with Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left Labor Party. Many people, including Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s former ambassador to the U.S., have accused Netanyahu of turning support for Israel into a partisan political issue in Washington and have called on him to cancel the speech.

Many Democrats also have taken offense—not only at what many regard as Netanyahu’s boorish violation of diplomatic protocol but also over the prospect of the Republicans’ giving the Israeli leader a national soapbox from which to attack Obamas efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.

Forced to choose between the Israeli leader and the president, many Democratic lawmakers are now privately threatening to skip the speech. Last week, Democrat Earl Blumenauer of Oregon penned an angry commentary for the Huffington Post, in which he urged Boehner to cancel Netanyahu’s speech. “If he does not, I will refuse to be part of a reckless act of political grandstanding,” he wrote.

In the Senate, where both Republicans and Democrats have been pushing for additional sanctions on Iran, Netanyahu’s maneuver has prompted 10 Democrats to peel off and give the White House until the end of March to negotiate an agreement.

Behind the scenes, officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel lobby, have been leaning on Democrats to attend the speech. But in an unusual move, a group of pro-Israel House Democrats met Wednesday with Dermer, the Israeli ambassador, in an effort to persuade Netanyahu to postpone his speech until after Israel’s elections. “The conversation was: ‘What do we need to do in order to get back to the substance [of U.S.-Israel relations] so that you’re not writing about the thumb in the eye and the F-yous,’ Democrat Steve Israel of New York told reporters on Capitol Hill.

The congressmen said the talks with Dermer focused on the possibility of postponing the speech until April, when it should be clear whether a nuclear deal is possible.

Meanwhile, American and Iranian negotiators resumed their work in Vienna this week, and reports said they’re discussing a compromise that would allow Tehran to keep much of its uranium-enrichment technology but restrict its potential to make nuclear weapons.