Sunday, Apr 14, 2024

Controversy Rages Over Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress

For the past two weeks, a partisan political controversy has raged in Israel and Washington over the invitation issued by House Speaker John Boehner to Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress, which was allegedly offered and accepted by Netanyahu without notifying the White House. That prompted President Obama's White House spokesman to complain that both Boehner and Netanyahu had violated standard diplomatic protocol by failing to clear the invitation with the White House before announcing the visit.

In addition, the White House said that Obama would not meet with Netanyahu during that visit, because of the March 17 Knesset election in Israel, and an administration policy against doing anything which might be seen as interfering with a campaign in progress.

White House supporters also complained that it was inappropriate for a visiting foreign leader to lobby members of Congress to vote one way or another on a bill that Congress is considering. Boehner was very clear that the purpose of his invitation to Netanyahu was to enable him to lobby in favor of a bill now before Congress which would fully restore and tighten sanctions on Iran.

But it has now emerged that the White House was informed of the invitation extended by Boehner to Netanyahu by the Speaker’s office on the morning of January 21, before it was announced that the prime minister had accepted it. When the White House failed to respond to the notification, one way or another, Boehner went ahead with the announcement of the visit. In doing so, the Speaker’s office said that it was following a precedent set in 2011. At that time, when Boehner notified the White House that he intended to invite Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress, and the White House never responded, Boehner went ahead with the arrangements, and the White House raised no objections about violating protocol.

The Clinton White House had no reluctance to schedule a meeting between President Clinton and then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in April, 1996. Their well-publicized meeting took place less than a month before a Knesset election in which the White House openly supported Peres against Netanyahu, who ultimately won and became prime minister.

Administration objections to Netanyahu trying to influence Congress on the Senate bill to tighten sanctions on Iran also seem to be inconsistent. The White House apparently encouraged British Prime Minister David Cameron during his recent visit to Washington, when he publicly urged Congress to vote against the Iran sanctions bill. Apparently, such lobbying is only inappropriate when it is opposed to the administration’s position.


Privately, administration officials have made no secret of their strong preference to see Netanyahu defeated in the upcoming election, and his government replaced with one led by his opponents, Yitzchok Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who are much more supportive of Obama’s proposals for a peace agreement with the Palestinians and his opposition to Israel’s West Bank settlement policy.

While they would deny it, the fingerprints of the White House are all over the decision by Obama’s 2012 national field director, Jeremy Bird, to go to Israel to manage a nationwide grass roots campaign to oust Netanyahu as prime minister in the March election.

If the harsh White House criticism of Netanyahu’s visit to address Congress was intended to hurt his popularity with Israeli voters, it does not seem to be working. Since the dispute has emerged in the headlines, Netanyahu’s personal popularity, and the projections of his party’s Knesset vote, have been rising, after having fallen slightly behind the projections for the “Zionist Union” faction formed by Herzog and Livni.

The Obama administration should be careful of overdoing its efforts to undermine Netanyahu’s domestic support. There is a history of Israeli voter resentment at blatant US attempts to manipulate their elections. Some say that the anonymous White House campaign consisting of thinly veiled threats, leaks to the media and criticism of the prime minister’s statements and actions has already gone too far. The underhanded tactics have diminished the White House in the eyes of some Israeli voters, and possibly generated some sympathy for Netanyahu as the victim of unfair media attacks.


Over the weekend, two separate Israeli media reports said that the US had privately made another concession to Iranian demands that the final agreement permit them to keep most of their current uranium enrichment capability. One said that the US had agreed to increase the number of uranium enriching centrifuges Iran would be allowed to keep 6,500 of the 9,000 centrifuges it now has.

When the negotiations started last year, the US demanded that Iran reduce its centrifuge count to less than 2,000. By November, the US had eased that demand and was willing to let Iran keep half (4,500) of their centrifuges. Now the US position has weakened even further. Obama’s critics say that these concessions reflect an increasing desperation to reach almost any kind of deal on Iran’s nuclear program in order to end his presidency with a major foreign policy accomplishment.

Another Israeli media report, citing a “very senior” Israeli government source, said that Obama’s desire to reach an agreement had prompted him to agree to “80% of Iran’s demands” including permission to keep 7,000 of its centrifuges. The report added that Iran would then have the ability to “breakout” and produce “enough material for a bomb” in just a few months, whenever it wants to do so. The same report said that when asked, “a very senior American official” denied the allegations of fresh US concession to Iran as “nonsense, unfounded, not true.”

However, an AP report on Tuesday citing two diplomats involved in the negotiations confirmed that the US has agreed in principle to allow Iran to keep operating most of the centrifuges it already has, as long as they are reconfigured to reduce the concentration of the enriched uranium they produce. In return, Iran has reportedly agreed to limit the amount of uranium gas which they will keep on hand to process in the centrifuges and to ship most of the enriched uranium they produce to another country.

The problem with that arrangement is that if Iran decides, at any time, to break these agreements, it could reconfigure the centrifuges, piping them together in cascades, to produce bomb-grade enriched uranium and build nuclear weapons within a matter of a few months.


Pressure is increasing on the negotiators as the talks resume this week. The final deal was supposed to have been reached during a six month freeze on Iran’s nuclear program which expired last July. The deadline has been extended twice since then, with little progress toward an agreement.

Critics of the process say this is proof that the Iranians are stalling in the expectation that Obama will eventually give in to their demands rather than risk admitting failure. When the freeze deal was first announced, Netanyahu warned against it saying that it would probably result in endless stalling by the Iranians. He and other critics of the administration policy on Iran say that the only way to end the Iranian nuclear threat is to restore and step up the pressure on Iran’s economy from the sanctions, which have had a devastating impact.

David Cohen, the Treasury Department official in charge of the US financial sanctions on Iran told the Wall Street Journal last week that without sanctions relief, Iran’s economy will not be able to recover. Since the latest round of sanctions were applied in 2012, Iran’s oil exports have been cut in half, its currency has lost most of its value, inflation has soared and its standard of living has fallen. “They’re stuck. They can’t fix this economy unless they get sanctions relief,” Cohen said. “I think they are coming to the negotiations with their backs to the wall.”


The measure which the Senate is considering would tighten sanctions against Iran if the current P5+1 negotiations with Iran fail to reach a comprehensive agreement by the current March 24 deadline. The White House has promised that Obama would veto the bill if it reaches his desk before then. The administration argues that its passage is likely to cause Iran to break off the talks. Obama has also asked Netanyahu to stop publicly urging the House and Senate to pass it.

There have been reports that in private talks with Iranian officials, such as the meeting last week between Secretary of State John Kerrey and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, the US has given in to several key Iranian demands, including allowing it to keep 7,000 to 10,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges which would give it the capability to keep building nuclear weapons after the agreement is completed. Based upon those reports, Boehner has expressed the belief that passage of sanctions legislation is necessary to prevent the administration from making a serious mistake by allowing Iran to realize its nuclear ambitions. He issued the invitation to Netanyahu so that he can explain the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program to senators and congressmen who will be voting on the bill.

The issue is politically explosive in both Israel and Washington. Netanyahu’s outspoken position against the negotiations with Iran and the negative reaction to it by the Obama administration are major talking points in the campaign leading up to the Israeli elections on March 17. Netanyahu’s opponents say that his acceptance of the invitation to speak to Congress has further alienated the White House against Israel’s interests, while his supporters say that his efforts have successfully galvanized bipartisan opposition to the inadequate agreement that the White House is negotiating with Iran.


Last week, the Senate Banking Committee voted by 18-4 to send the “Nuclear Free Iran Act of 2015” to the Senate floor for a vote, with six Democrats joining twelve Republicans to approve the bill. The bill is co-sponsored by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Robert Menendez, who has been outspoken in supporting Netanyahu’s position on the need to toughen the sanctions on Iran. With Republicans now in control of both houses of Congress, passage of the bill is certain, but President Obama has threatened to veto the legislation.

It is not clear whether supporters of Israel have the 67 Senate votes needed to override the veto, thereby imposing tightened sanctions on Iran against Obama’s will, if the current negotiations do not result in an agreement. A pro-Israel advocacy group called the Israel Project said that it already identified up to 68 potential votes to override a veto of the bill. It includes all but two of the 54 Republicans now in the Senate, and another 14 Democrats. The two Republican senators who are considered likely to oppose a veto override are Rand Paul and Jeff Flake.


In the face of extreme pressure from the White House, Senate Democrats who say they support the bill, including Menendez, New York’s Charles Schumer, and eight others, demanded that the vote on the Senate floor be delayed until after the March 24 deadline for the current round of negotiations with Iran to reach a deal.

The delay on the Senate vote is significant because it means that it will take place after Netanyahu has a chance to address to a joint session of Congress. The timing of that address was moved from February 11 to March 3, after the White House expressed its objections, to coincide with the prime minister’s previously scheduled visit to Washington to address an annual meeting of Aipac.

In reaction to the committee vote, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “the president has made the case… that additional sanctions put in place against Iran right now, in the midst of ongoing negotiations, could threat[en] the overall deal.” He also praised the decision by Senate Democrats who support tougher sanctions on Iran to delay the vote “until the end of March.”


The latest target in the controversy over Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu is the Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer. Administration officials claim that Dermer should have notified them immediately when Boehner first asked the ambassador how Netanyahu would react to such an invitation. After consulting with the prime minister’s office, Dermer told Boehner that he would be open, in principle, to accepting it.

Dermer said that in his further discussions with those in the Speaker’s office, he was told that “it was Boehner’s prerogative to inform the White House” of the invitation. Dermer therefore made no effort himself to broach the subject with administration officials.

White House officials have rejected that explanation. They insist that Dermer should have mentioned the invitation to Secretary of State Kerry when the two met the day before Netanyahu’s visit was announced by the Speaker’s office. The White House went public with its criticism of Dermer when an unnamed administration official gave the story to the New York Times, which published it last week.


The American-born Dermer was once a Republican political operative, and served as a close advisor to Netanyahu before being appointed US ambassador in 2013. He has pushed back against the White House criticism and insists that he handled the invitation properly and “in a way to advance my country’s interest.”

When asked for a reaction to the criticism by a New York Times reporter, Dermer spoke out in support of Netanyahu addressing Congress about the need for the US to demand that Iran dismantle its nuclear program. “The prime minister feels very strongly that he has to speak on this issue. That’s why he accepted the invitation, not to wade into your political debate or make this a partisan issue, and not to be disrespectful to the president,” Dermer said.

Further explaining his position at an event in Boca Raton, Dermer said, “There may be some people who believe that the Prime Minster of Israel should have declined an invitation to speak before the most powerful parliament in the world on an issue that concerns the future and survival of Israel. But we have learned from our history that the world becomes a more dangerous place for the Jewish people when the Jewish people are silent. The Prime Minister feels the deepest moral obligation to appear before the Congress to speak about an existential issue facing the one and only Jewish state.”

Dermer’s predecessor as Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, is running in the March 17 election as a candidate of the new Kulanu party. He said Netanyahu’s acceptance of Boehner’s invitation, “created the impression of a cynical political move, and it could hurt our attempts to act against Iran,” Oren told the Israeli website Ynet. “It’s advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government. Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior are needed to guard interests in the White House.”


Despite strong criticism in the US and Israeli media, Netanyahu has shown no willingness to cancel his speech to Congress on March 3.

US reaction to Boehner’s invitation and Netanyahu’s acceptance was not along the usual partisan lines. For example, two Fox News commentators who are usually staunchly pro-Israel were critical of the invitation and said that his address to Congress under the circumstances would be inappropriate.

As a whole, most Republicans tend to support Netanyahu’s effort to highlight the nuclear threat from Iran while criticizing the administration’s dismissive reactions to Israel’s legitimate concerns.

Additionally, a large minority of Democrats appear ready to join Menendez and Schumer in defying the White House on this issue by voting for the sanctions bill.


On a Sunday news program, Senator John McCain said that it was tragic that relations between the US and Israel have “never been worse” than under the Obama administration.

“I’m not putting the entire blame on the president of the United States, but I will say this: No other president has had such a difficult relationship with Israel since it became a country,” McCain said.

He added that Obama “had very unrealistic expectations about the degree of cooperation that he would get from Israel, particularly on the Palestinian issue as well as on the nuclear issue with Iran.”

While the relationship between the U.S. and Israel has not always been excellent, McCain said, “any observer would argue they’ve never been worse.”

When asked about the dispute over the invitation to Netanyahu, McCain said, “Obviously we would want everybody to work together, but there’s a real crisis going on [over] these negotiations with Iran, which many of us believe are already fatally flawed. The Speaker felt the overriding concern was to have [Netanyahu] appear before the American people and tell them about the dangers of a very bad agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons.”

Another prominent Republican who defended Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu was Congressman Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s GOP running mate in 2012. “Do I think it’s wholly appropriate for the Speaker of the House of a separate but equal branch of government … to invite a foreign leader to address us? Absolutely,” Ryan said.

Ryan rejected the contention that Netanyahu’s appearance would increase the tensions in the US-Israeli relationship. “I don’t know if I would say it’s antagonizing,” he said. “I think we would like to hear from the leader of Israel on his thoughts on Iran.

“The president’s policies with Iran have bipartisan concern,” Ryan continued. “A huge bipartisan majority in both the House and the Senate are very worried about the handling of these negotiations.”

Boehner has also firmly rejected the criticism of his invitation to Netanyahu to speak, insisting that it was entirely appropriate and necessary.


A veteran Republican who has spoken out against Netanyahu’s planned visit is former Secretary of State James Baker. He warned that it could “backfire” against Netanyahu in the Israeli election in the same way it backfired against then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir when he clashed in the early 1990’s with Baker and the first Bush administration. Shamir was defeated in the next election by Yitzchak Rabin.

Baker said that while Boehner has the right to invite anyone he wants to speak to the House, “our foreign policy is best conducted when there’s at least cooperation between the legislative and the executive branches.”

A leading Democrat who also condemned the invitation to Netanyahu as “a mistake” was Senator Dick Durbin. “I don’t want to show any weakness in terms of our commitment to Israel,” Durbin said. “But some of my closest friends in the United States who support Israel have described this Boehner strategy as a disaster. I hope we can find a way to stabilize the situation quickly and take the politics out of it.”

If Netanyahu does make his presentation before a joint session of Congress on March 3, despite White House opposition, the level of partisan political confrontation over the sanctions issue and the US negotiating posture with Iran is bound to increase further.



According to the French daily newspaper Le Monde, Prime Minister Netanyahu feared for his safety before joining world leaders for the Paris anti-terrorism and expressed concern about the security arrangements.

French video footage which captured Netanyahu waiting for a bus to take him to the rally, cutting in line and nervously talking on the phone, has been cast in a new light after details emerged about the behind-the-scenes drama of his participation in the march.

According to the report, Netanyahu stood at the corner of a yard and put on a bulletproof vest with the help of one of his bodyguards. He voiced his concerns to the French president, who reassured him that the whole route was checked and armored bullet proof buses were being used to transport the world leaders.

However, according to the report, the bus was not armored and the route was not examined by security guards in advance.

Netanyahu, the magazine claimed, ignored instructions from the French guards and chose to surround himself with three security guards, unlike the other leaders who were each accompanied by a single guard.

According to the magazine, Netanyahu informed the French he would attend the rally a day before it was scheduled to begin. The French president then reportedly asked his staff to contact Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Mahmoud, you know that I never ask anything of you. You have to come here. Your presence, together with Netanyahu, will make this march a rally of peace,” the French president told Abbas during the midnight phone call.



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