Democrats caught between Obama, Netanyahu on speech

AP News
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Posted: Feb 27, 2015 2:47 PM
Democrats caught between Obama, Netanyahu on speech

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jewish House Democrats personally offered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a chance to lower the political temperature after he accepted a Republican invitation to speak to Congress next week on Iran — a less provocative, closed-door session.

Netanyahu turned them down, frustrating members of President Barack Obama's party who are caught between the White House and the Israeli leader.

Democrats face an unenviable choice on Tuesday: Attend the speech and listen to the Israeli leader criticize the president over his effort to negotiate a deal with Iran on its nuclear capability. Or skip it and face complaints that they failed to show solidarity with Netanyahu.

Democrats are largely resigned to the situation although still bitter about being caught in between. They're directing their wrath at House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who invited Netanyahu without consulting with the White House and State Department. And they're publicly disagreeing with the Israeli leader, too.

Rep. Sander Levin, R-Mich., called Boehner's invitation to Netanyahu "a strictly political ploy by the speaker to try to reinforce the Republicans' position on Israel and divide Democrats."

Netanyahu was "mistaken to agree to it," he said. "Speaker Boehner is playing politics with the critical issue of Israel's security. That's beyond pardon as far as I'm concerned."

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who urged Israeli officials to move or postpone the speech, said the temperature "has remained at a simmer for some time. I think the important thing is we not let the critical significance of the Iranian nuclear issue be overshadowed."

Some Democrats will skip the speech, but Schiff will attend.

"My advice is, listen respectfully," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who separately met with Ron Dermer, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. "Eventually it's going to go away, and the issue that's going to remain is what do we do about Iran."

Late last year, Boehner, in coordination with Senate Republican leaders and Dermer, arranged for the invitation to Netanyahu. Dermer is an American-born official who worked with GOP political operatives before appointment to his Israeli position.

Democrats have howled that the invitation was a breach of protocol, that the timing was inappropriate ahead of March 17 Israeli elections and that it injected partisanship into the relationship between Israel and the U.S.

The Obama administration was furious, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice said this week that the planned speech was "destructive" to relations between the two countries. Vice President Joe Biden will be traveling and won't attend. Obama has no plans to meet with Netanyahu during his U.S. visit.

The White House did decide to send Rice and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power to speak to AIPAC, America's leading pro-Israel lobby's meeting, next week.

Boehner has defended the speech decision, saying Americans need to hear from Netanyahu, who insists that preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is paramount to ensure the survival of Israel, and that Iran can't be trusted in any talks.

Majority Republicans are making sure the event stings Obama and his fellow Democrats — for the world to see.

"It's our House," said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas. "Did anyone tell them not to come? If they choose to sit it out, that's their problem."

Nearly a dozen lawmakers have chosen to skip the speech, and across Congress, Democrats have labored to keep their fury focused on Boehner.

"You don't put your thumb on the scale of the Israeli election," said Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who wrote Boehner last month to request a postponement. "They were not interested in my request, so I'm not coming."

But Democrats clearly are vexed, too, with the prime minister over what many see as his effort to sabotage a possible nuclear deal.

None are more anguished than Congress' Jewish Democrats. Even as they restated their staunch support for Israel, they splintered into an array of angry responses and strategies, none of which succeeded in changing Netanyahu's plans.

The political controversy threatens to "completely eclipse the substance of a deal with Iran," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who with Nadler is one of seven Jewish Democrats who met with Dermer earlier this month.

The Israelis are angry and so are the Democrats, said Israel, who will attend the speech. The only one who's not, he said, "is John Boehner, who's getting the headlines that he engineered."

In meetings with Dermer and a call to Netanyahu, Democrats suggested he deliver his speech in the congressional auditorium behind closed doors, a venue that would allow for any classified information that Israel might have on Iran's capabilities.

Netanyahu will deliver his speech in the storied House chamber, from the podium where presidents speak.

This week, the angst deepened among Jewish Democrats. In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein of California co-authored an invitation to Netanyahu to meet privately with Democrats. Within hours, Netanyahu rejected it, saying such a session could "compound the misperception of partisanship."

"There's nothing to be gained by Democrats criticizing Bibi Netanyahu," Israel said.

And yet, some let it fly from Congress' highest ranks.

"His refusal to meet is disappointing to those of us who have stood by Israel for decades," fumed Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who co-authored the separate invitation with Feinstein.

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who in a Feb. 13 phone call personally urged Netanyahu to move the speech, said she'll attend anyway.

"I'm going to focus on all the work that has to be done between the prime minister and President Obama to repair the relationship," she said. "We'll get through it and we'll move forward."

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Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this article.