Boehner off to Israel; Netanyahu's ties to Obama hit new low

AP News
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Posted: Mar 20, 2015 2:14 PM
Boehner off to Israel; Netanyahu's ties to Obama hit new low

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker John Boehner is heading to Israel as already strained relations between the White House and newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit a new low this week.

On the surface, the Republican leader's announcement Friday that he'll visit Israel looks like a jab at the White House.

But a congressional aide insisted that Boehner's trip — during the two-week congressional recess that begins March 30 — was planned before new rifts developed over Netanyahu's address to Congress and the prime minister's remarks this week about the peace process. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to publicly disclose details of the trip.

President Barack Obama bristled when Boehner invited Netanyahu to address U.S. lawmakers earlier this month about his fears that an emerging nuclear agreement would pave Iran's path to nuclear weapons.

Relations took another hit Monday when Netanyahu made hard-line statements against the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Speaking on the eve of his re-election, Netanyahu said there could be no Palestinian state while regional violence and chaos persist — conditions that could rule out progress on the issue for many years. That ruffled the Obama administration, which views a two-state solution as a top foreign policy priority and had dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry for months of shuttle diplomacy in an effort to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that never materialized.

On Thursday, Netanyahu seemed to backtrack, saying in a TV interview that he remains committed to Palestinian statehood — if conditions in the region improve. Netanyahu told MSNBC that he hadn't changed his policy and that he remained committed to the two-state vision he spelled out in a landmark 2009 speech.

Obama called Netanyahu to congratulate him on his re-election, but also told the Israeli leader that the U.S. is reassessing its approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace in light of his comments about a Palestinian state. A White House official said Obama also raised Netanyahu's critical comments about Israeli Arabs ahead of the election, which the White House has denounced as a "cynical" effort to mobilize voters.

Asked whether Obama got a better understanding of Netanyahu's position on a Palestinian state after talking with him, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday: "That was not the result of the call."

Earnest said the administration has not decided what a reassessment in policy might mean. But he noted that in the past, the U.S. has regularly opposed U.N. resolutions to create a Palestinian state by arguing that such a two-state arrangement should be negotiated between the parties.

"What has now changed is that our ally in those conversations, Israel, has indicated that they are not committed to that approach anymore," Earnest said.

Republicans have seized on the strained ties.

On Capitol Hill on Thursday, Boehner, R-Ohio, mocked the administration's chilly reaction to Netanyahu's election victory.

Asked about Obama's lukewarm response, Boehner said, "Lukewarm?" and laughed heartily.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who wrote a letter signed by 46 other GOP senators that warned Iran that any deal could be scrapped by Obama's successor, scolded administration officials for their handling of U.S.-Israel relations.

"The Obama administration ... has gone off the deep end and let their personal bitterness towards the Israeli prime minister drive their public foreign policy toward our closest ally," Cotton said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a potential presidential candidate, said in a floor speech Thursday that the rift between Obama and Netanyahu needs to be worked out privately to avoid empowering U.S. and Israeli enemies.

"This president is making a historic mistake," Rubio said. "Allies have differences, but allies like Israel, when you have a difference with them and it is public, it emboldens their enemies to launch more rockets out of southern Lebanon and Gaza, to launch more terrorist attacks, to go to international forums and delegitimize Israel's right to exist. And this is what they're doing."

"This is outrageous. It is irresponsible. It is dangerous, and it betrays the commitment this nation has made to the right of a Jewish state to exist in peace," Rubio said.

But the rift remains for now.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough plans to give a speech Monday to a liberal-leaning Jewish group that often criticizes the Israeli government, especially Netanyahu, and has expressed deep disappointment at his re-election.

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Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.