By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress without consulting President Barack Obama, and a White House spokesman questioned whether protocol had been violated.
An Israeli official said Netanyahu, whose relationship with Obama has often been tense, was looking into the possibility of meeting with Obama when he comes to Washington to address a joint session of Congress on Feb. 11.
Boehner was asked by a reporter if inviting Netanyahu without speaking to the White House was a "poke in the eye" to Obama. "The Congress can make this decision on its own," said Boehner, a Republican. "I don’t believe I’m poking anyone in the eye."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, "The protocol would suggest that the leader of one country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there. This particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol."
Netanyahu's visit to the United States is scheduled for five weeks before Israel's March 17 elections. It could help him underscore his main campaign theme that he is best placed to tackle regional security threats.
Opinion polls show Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party running neck-and-neck with center-left Labour but give him the best chance of forming a governing coalition with far-right and Jewish Orthodox factions after the vote.
Netanyahu was first served as Israeli prime minister from 1996 to 1999. He was reelected to that office in 2009.
Speaking to reporters traveling with Obama aboard Air Force One, Earnest said the White House was reserving judgment on Netanyahu's trip until there was a chance to discuss it with Israeli officials.
He said the White House would wait to hear more before deciding whether to meet with Netanyahu.
“We'll need to hear from them about what their plans are and what he plans to say in his remarks to Congress before we have a decision to make about any meeting,” Earnest said.
In a statement announcing the invitation, Boehner said, "In this time of challenge, I am asking the prime minister to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life."
Iran's nuclear program has been one of the more contentious issues in the Netanyahu-Obama relationship and congressional Republicans have often criticized the president for not being sufficiently supportive of Israel.
The invitation to Netanyahu came the day after Obama said in his State of the Union address that he would veto legislation to toughen sanctions against Iran while Washington and other powers negotiate with Tehran over its nuclear program.
Obama also said he would be asking for new congressional authorization to use force against Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq, but Boehner accused Obama of understating the threat from some groups.
"There is a serious threat that exists in the world and the president last night kind of papered over it," Boehner told reporters. "The fact is that there needs to be a more serious conversation in America about how serious the threat is from radical Islamist jihadists."
Boehner said the House would likely at some point hold hearings on more sanctions against Iran, and Obama's request for authorization for military force against Islamic State.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bill Trott, David Storey, Toni Reinhold)