Republican House Speaker John Boehner on Sunday defended his decision to invite Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before Congress, despite vocal opposition from the White House.
Boehner said he purposefully instructed Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, not to tell the White House about the invitation. “I wanted to make sure there was no interference,” he told Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday."
“There’s no secret here in Washington about the animosity the White House has for Netanyahu. I frankly didn’t want that getting in the way, quashing what I thought was a real opportunity,” he said.
The invitation for Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress on March 3 comes as President Barack Obama — along with China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and Germany — are working to reach a deal with Iran on the country’s development of nuclear weapons. The president publicly asked those in Congress not to take any actions that could potentially harm ongoing negotiations. Netanyahu is expected to use the platform given by Congress to directly criticize the administration’s negotiations with Iran, which he believes present a threat to Israel.
Boehner also denied turning talks with Iran into an unnecessarily partisan issue. “The fact is that we had every right to do what we did," he said. "I wanted the prime minister to come here. There’s a serious threat facing the world. And radical Islamic terrorists are not going to go away."
In contrast, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Sunday expressed trepidation with regards to the prime minister’s speech before Congress.
"I'm afraid what is going to happen here with what Netanyahu will do is to make this partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans and that makes it a very dangerous trap," he said on CNN's "State of the Union."
"We need to get back to presidents and Congresses who can work together to try to confront the challenges we face," Panetta added.
The timing of the speech remains a particular issue of contention, as it is set to take place before the loose March 24 deadline for negotiations to conclude with Iran, as well as two weeks before elections in Israel. Many have criticized Congress for providing Netanyahu with a platform for what would essentially be an election speech, allowing him to show that he's willing to jeopardize relations with the United States for the sake of Israeli national security.
Obama specifically came out against that possibility earlier this week. "We have a practice of not meeting with leaders right before their elections, two weeks before their elections," Obama said during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He noted that the White House likely wouldn't have extended an invitation for the German leader to visit two weeks before an election in her country and that she probably wouldn't have asked for one.
Boehner defended the timing of Netanyahu's speech as necessary given the urgency of the situation — an argument made by Netanyahu previously, as well. “When it comes to the threat of Iran having a nuclear weapon, these are important messages that the Congress needs to hear and the American people need to hear,” he said. “And I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu is the perfect person to deliver the message of how serious this threat is."
The timing of the speech is also being criticized by Democrats as a move to undermine Obama’s negotiations with Iran. Many Democrats have reportedly been discussing not attending the speech, and Vice President Joe Biden also has not confirmed that he will attend. Democratic Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen said he's considering not attending, according to Politico. Cohen also teamed up with Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison in authoring a letter, which was sent by the a progressive advocacy group J Street, urging Netanyahu to reschedule the visit.
“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,” said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California in a statement to Haaretz.
Asked on Sunday why he didn’t wait until after the talks concluded, Boehner said that he wanted “to hear what the prime minister has to say, and added that the president “doesn’t quite understand that we’re trying to strengthen his hand” with the invitation.
The House Speaker also pushed Senate Democrats to pass a bill providing for the Department of Homeland Security’s funding, which is set to expire in less than two weeks. The bill, which includes provisions to dismantle the president’s actions on immigration, was passed in the House.
“The House has acted, we’ve done our job,” Boehner insisted. “Senate Democrats are the ones who are putting us in this precarious position. It’s up to Senate Democrats to get their acts together.”
And if the funding fails to pass before the deadline, Boehner knows exactly where to point his finger. “Then Senate Democrats are the ones to blame,” he insisted.