Congressional Republicans are crying foul over what they see as the Obama administration’s attempt to control debate, stamp out differing opinions and interfere with the legislative branch’s independence, now that Netanyahu has rescheduled his planned address to lawmakers after the White House took umbrage at his invitation.
Netanyahu’s speech, on the threat posed by Iran, has been moved from Feb. 7 to March 3 to coincide with the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
“I support Speaker [John] Boehner’s invitation to Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu to address this body to discuss the Iranian threat and the growing instability in the Middle East due to the rise of global jihadist networks,” Florida congresswoman and Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee chair, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R), said on the House floor on Monday.
“A nuclear capable Iran will spark an arms race in the region and directly threaten America’s interest as Iran continues to make progress on its intercontinental ballistic missile program. But as grave as this threat is to America, it pales in comparison to the existential threat that it poses to our democratic ally the Jewish state of Israel,” she said.
“No other nation is more familiar with the Iranian threat and the pitfalls of our ongoing nuclear negotiations than Israel. And that is why it is imperative that we hear firsthand from Prime Minister Netanyahu on Israel’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear program and other terror threats that are emanating from the Middle East.”
Siding with her is a newly appointed member of the subcommittee, the newest Jewish Republican in Congress, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.).
“Inviting the prime minister of Israel to address Congress should never be viewed as undercutting America’s foreign policy,” said Zeldin. “When that is the case then there is something wrong with America’s foreign policy. I fully support Speaker Boehner’s decision to invite the prime minister and look forward to welcoming him to the United States Capitol.”
Legislation to increase sanctions on Iran in the event a final deal in the negotiations is not reached – which the president vehemently opposes and threatened to veto on numerous occasions, including during his recent State of the Union address – is at the forefront of Congress’ mind.
Netanyahu’s speech would have served as a sort of anti-State of the Union – addressing largely the same audience that, if previous Netanyahu appearances are any indication, would likely be received more enthusiastically than President Barack Obama’s was.
Netanyahu’s argument, originally scheduled mere weeks after the president’s State of the Union, would also have served as Congress’ answer to the president’s recent effort to lobby Congress against sanctions legislation by inviting British Prime Minister David Cameron to meet with him at the White House and lobby Congress toward the president’s perspective.
Back in Israel, the prime minister’s efforts to address Congress appears like a cynical political play and photo-op, since the newly rescheduled address will be just two weeks before Israel’s elections.
One critic is Netanyahu’s former ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, who is running for the Knesset on the center-left Kulanu party ticket. He told the Israeli news website Ynet that he felt the way Netanyahu handled the scheduling of the speech was unwise and harmful to relations between the United States and Israel and could threaten mutual interests.
“The behavior over the last few days created the impression of a cynical political move, and it could hurt our attempts to act against Iran,” said Oren. “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.”
Aside from claiming that Boehner and the Israelis broke protocol by failing to alert the White House of Netanyahu’s visit, the administration claimed that another reason they are not in favor of the prime minister’s visit is because of a longstanding tradition to avoid any influence over foreign elections.
Elliot Abrams, who served as a top national security adviser to President George W. Bush, disputed that notion.
“First, we know that the Clinton administration invited [former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon] Peres here a few weeks before his election (when he lost to Netanyahu), so the United States government has not always had such strict views about this issue,” said Abrams in an email.
“Moreover, this administration asked a foreign leader, Cameron to lobby directly – not give a speech, but call and lobby members. So they have no principled position at all.”
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, who visited the halls of Congress last week to arrange the speech, defended the speaker’s decision in a speech to the leadership of Israel Bonds in Florida.
“…[If it] was important for the prime minister to speak out in Paris about anti-Semitism and the threat from militant Islam, it is even more important for him to speak out in Washington, D.C. about the dangers of a nuclear Iran,” Dermer told the attendees. “The prime minister’s visit here is not intended to show any disrespect for President Obama.…”
The visit, Dermer went on to say, “is also not intended to wade into your political debate. … Rather, the prime minister’s visit to Washington is intended for one purpose — and one purpose only. To speak up while there is still time to speak up. To speak up when there is still time to make a difference.”
Dermer called it the “sacred duty” for Netanyahu to do whatever he can to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.