Netanyahu considering changes to Congress speech after criticism

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 09, 2015 9:38 AM

By Luke Baker

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli officials are considering amending the format of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned address to the U.S. Congress next month to try to calm some of the partisan furor the Iran-focused speech has provoked.

Netanyahu is due to address a joint session of Congress about Iran's nuclear program on March 3, just two weeks before Israeli elections, following an invitation from John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the house.

Boehner's invitation has caused consternation in both Israel and the United States, largely because it is seen as Netanyahu, a hawk on Iran, working with the Republicans to thumb their noses at President Barack Obama's policy on Iran.

It is also seen as putting Netanyahu's political links to the Republicans ahead of Israel's nation-to-nation ties with the United States, its strongest and most important ally, while serving as a pre-election campaign booster.

As a result, Israeli officials are considering whether Netanyahu should speak to a closed-door session of Congress, rather than in a prime-time TV address, so as to drain some of the intensity from the event, a source said.

Another option is for the prime minister to make his speech at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington the same week, rather than in Congress.

"The issue has been under discussion for a week," said a source close to the prime minister's office. "(Netanyahu) is discussing it with Likud people. Some say he should give up on the speech, others that he should go through with it."

An opinion poll by Israel's Army Radio on Monday said 47 percent of people think Netanyahu should cancel the address, while 34 percent say he should go ahead with it.

Since the issue arose, there are signs it is having an impact on his poll ratings ahead of the March 17 election.

A poll by the Times of Israel on Monday said Netanyahu's Likud would win 23 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, four fewer than the center-left opposition. Earlier polls had suggest Likud and the opposition alliance were neck-and-neck on 24 seats.

Speaking on radio last week, Israel's deputy foreign minister suggested Netanyahu had been "misled" about the speech, believing it to be bipartisan when the Democrats were not entirely on board.

While that may have created some room for Netanyahu to get out of it if the pressure at home and from Washington becomes too great, it may be too late.

If he withdraws now it may make him look weak with core voters. Furthermore, he needs an opportunity to play up his tough-on-Iran credentials before election, with national security an overriding issue for voters.

Addressing French-speaking members of his party on Sunday, Netanyahu appeared to commit fully to the March 3 appointment saying: "I will go any place I'm invited to convey the Israeli position against those who want to kill us".

(Writing by Luke Baker; editing by Ralph Boulton)