President Obama’s national security adviser has said the invitation by House Speaker John Boehner to Israel’s prime minister to address Congress – and Benjamin Netanyahu‘s acceptance of it – has “injected a degree of partisanship” that is “destructive to the fabric of the relationship” between Israel and the U.S.
Susan Rice’s comments on PBS’ Charlie Rose on Tuesday are the harshest remarks by a White House official over Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to Congress on what he sees as the threat posed by Iran.
Netanyahu’s speech is scheduled two weeks before elections in Israel, a reason cited by Obama for why he won’t meet with the Israeli leader, who has said he is “determined to speak before Congress.”
The speech will coincide with the final stretch of negotiations between the U.S. and Iran over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. Israel views Iran as an existential threat. Many members of Congress want to impose further sanctions on Iran, a move that would likely doom the talks that are at a delicate stage.
Rice’s comments came the same day Netanyahu declined an invitation to meet with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., during his visit to Washington.
“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 said in a letter to the two top Democrats.
Durbin responded, saying, “His refusal to meet is disappointing to those of us who have stood by Israel for decades.”
The controversy began last month when Boehner invited Netanyahu to address Congress. The White House, which was not consulted about the invitation, called it a “departure from … protocol.” Boehner defended the decision, saying , “The Congress can make this decision on its own.” (You can read more about how this is done at the House of Representatives’ website.)
Obama, citing the proximity of the Israeli election, then said he won’t meet with Netanyahu during the Israeli prime minister’s visit to Washington. Earlier this month, during a joint appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he reiterated those comments.
“We have a practice of not meeting with leaders right before their elections, two weeks before their elections,” he said. “As much as I love Angela, if she was two weeks away from an election, she probably would not have received an invitation to the White House — and I suspect she wouldn’t have asked for one.”
Relations between Obama and Netanyahu are frosty, but both countries have been careful to say that the U.S.-Israeli relationship goes beyond any two individuals or political parties. But as columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in the Atlantic today:
“The Netanyahu camp is worried about the political impact of its preemptive strike on Capitol Hill, I’m told. Netanyahu understands that he will be burning his remaining bridges to the White House by going up to the Hill next week. Israelis close to Netanyahu have been warning him that his decision to openly align with the Republican Party against a Democratic president is both unprecedented and deeply risky.”
Goldberg reported that Netanyahu’s national security adviser was also against the timing of the speech, but Netanyahu’s office denied that part of the story.