Amid mounting criticism, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his upcoming visit to the U.S. just weeks before Israelis go to the polls to decide whether to give him another term.
On March 3, the hawkish Israeli leader is set to address the U.S. Congress, speaking on behalf of his State to make the case against negotiating an Iranian nuclear deal. On Sunday, he said ”As prime minister of Israel, I am obligated to make every effort to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weaponry that will be aimed at the State of Israel. This effort is global and I will go anywhere I am invited to make the State of Israel’s case and defend its future and existence.”
But the way in which he was invited – and the timing of his visit – has only highlighted difficulties in relations between Netanyahu and President Obama’s administration.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner invited the Israeli leader without notifying the Obama administration – a move the White House is calling a breach of protocol. The trip also comes just two weeks before an Israeli election; his upcoming address has been lambasted as an “election speech.”
A get-tough-with-Iran speech before a friendly Republican-controlled Congress could help Netanyahu’s reelection bid at home and position him as willing to harm relations with the White House in the name of Israel’s own national security interests.
But many Israelis and their American supporters argue that the trip will not impact Iran and will only weaken a U.S.-Israeli allegiance when it is most vital. The very public spat between Netanyahu and the White House, set off by the visit, will be hard for the Iranians to ignore.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday said that Obama will not meet with Netanyahu during that trip. “The U.S. should stay clear of Israeli politics,” McDonough said.
When Netanyahu first ran for prime minister in 1996, he accused his opponent of carrying out a cynical ploy for visiting Washington just three weeks before that election. “I can’t find an example of any previous Israeli government whose prime minister, on the eve of elections, made a cynical attempt to use relations between Israel and the United States as a party advertisement,” he said at the time. Forced to respond to his decision now to come to Washington, Netanyahu tried to couch it as a national security imperative.
But even longstanding supporters of the prime minister called it inappropriate. It’s unclear how a last-minute trip to Washington before the election will impact the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Related: Obama v. Boehner: a Netanyahu story
In a statement to Haaretz, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California called Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress ”highly inappropriate.”
“Inviting Prime Minister Netanyahu without consulting the administration is clearly a breach of protocol and an unwelcome injection of partisan politics into our foreign policy,” Feinstein said, adding that imposing new sanctions on Iran “is reckless and dangerous.”
Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said that Netanyahu should cancel his trip. ”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,” he said, according to YnetNews. Rep. Adam Schiff said on “State of the Union” that “for us to extend an invitation two weeks before the Israeli election gives the Israelis the impression we’re meddling in their election.”
Obama and Netanyahu already have a tenuous relationship – particularly over Iran. The Obama administration has been in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program; as long as those talks are ongoing, Obama is opposed to new sanctions on Iran – something Netanyahu is expected to propose during his visit.
Netanyahu, who is raised in the United States, has enjoyed a favorable coverage in the U.S. media over the years. But the March trip has been remarkably different. Even Fox News host Chris Wallace called the move “wicked.” “[Netanyahu] wouldn’t come here if he didn’t think it was to his political advantage,” he said. The New York Times said in an editorial this weekend that ”Republicans apparently see value in trying to sabotage any possible success for Mr. Obama, even if it harms American interests.”