From the moment, Speaker of the House of Representative John Boehner’s office announced on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015 that the speaker had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress there was a partisan “political firestorm.” The lines were drawn; Republicans whole-heartedly support the invite, but President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats oppose the invitation. Excuses were made about protocol and the timing of Israeli elections, however, after an unnamed Obama Administration has issued a threat that the president will retaliate for the address, since then the White House has officially tried to back down from tough rhetoric. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats however, are not giving up ramping up their partisan fight, as Pelosi continues her campaign hoping to force Boehner to cancel Netanyahu’s speech on March 3.
The partisan and Democratic anger from the start focused on the fact Boehner did not coordinate his invitation with White House, not following protocol or at the very least courtesy for the president. Almost immediately, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest commented, “this particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi D-CA issued a statement calling the whole invitation “inappropriate” criticizing Netanyahu, “If that’s the purpose of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit two weeks before his own election, right in the midst of our negotiations, I just don’t think it’s appropriate and helpful.” Pelosi than disparaged Boehner, “It’s out of the ordinary that the Speaker would decide that he would be inviting people to a joint session without any bipartisan consultation.” Democrats in general followed suit to condemn the invitation based on orders from the top.
Boehner invited Netanyahu to address the Congress about Iran just as the nuclear talks are coming to a head. Originally set earlier on Feb. 11, the address is now set for March 3, will coincide with the prime minister’s speech at the Israel lobby, the American-Israel Public Affair Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference. A deal has to be made be made with Iran by the June 30, 2015 deadline and a framework by March 24. Congressional Republicans are already worried about the ramifications if a deal is not reached by then and they are already instituting contingency plans.
Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Bob Menendez have created a bipartisan bill instituting new sanctions on Iran on June 30 if a deal on the nuclear program. The bill is already advancing, with US Senate Banking Committee voting 18 to 4 on Thursday, Jan. 29 to allow the bill to proceed beyond the committee stage. Menendez stated, “This legislation has been carefully calibrated to achieve our ultimate goal, which is to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapon capability.” Still Senate Democrats will not allow a vote until after March 24, the deadline for a framework on the Iran nuclear deal, to which Menendez and Kirk agreed.
In his original invitation, Speaker Boehner simply explained the rationale behind the invite and address to Congress; “Prime Minister Netanyahu is a great friend of our country, and this invitation carries with it our unwavering commitment to the security and well-being of his people. 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. Americans and Israelis have always stood together in shared cause and common ideals, and now we must rise to the moment again.” The timing of the announcement, the day of the State of the Union led the press and the White House to feel it was retaliation to Obama’s positions in his address.
In no time, the disagreement became ugly, almost entirely on the side of the White House and Democrats. Apparently, Secretary of State John Kerry was also upset, and although he publicly gave an open invitation to Netanyahu to come to the US, he called this situation it “little unusual.” Kerry expressed; “With respect to the prime minister and his visit here, look, we welcome the prime minister of Israel to come and speak in America anytime. And obviously, it’s a little unusual to learn of an invitation from the speaker’s office…. We may have … some difference in tactics of how you achieve that goal. But we are determined that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.”
Kerry is also hurt because Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, met with for two hours, before the announcement, yet failed to tell him about Netanyahu’s address. Neither Kerry nor Obama have any intention to meet with Netanyahu on the trip, citing that it is “long-standing practice and principle” not to meet with leaders so close to elections, Israel votes on March 17. Netanyahu’s Likud is facing a tough race against the left’s Labor-Hatnua alliance.
Netanyahu and the Republicans share a similar viewpoint on the Iran nuclear weapons talks and deal taking place with the P5 +1 nations. Netanyahu recognizes the grave threat from Iran and have advocated against any deal, that that would give Iran any ability to continue their nuclear, program. Netanyahu has firmly stood by the fact that Iran should not be allowed any centrifuges to continue enriching uranium in any potential deal. He has always been concerned Obama is be too lax with Iran for diplomatic reasons, as have the Congressional Republicans, and is always willing to speak about the situation in attempt to sway the U.S. not to agree to a bad deal.
Boehner found it troubling that Obama did not even mention the threat from Iran or terrorism in his State of the Union Address. Supposedly, Boehner pointed out “[Obama] expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran. Two words: ‘Hell no!’ … We’re going to do no such thing.” As soon as Boehner made the invite public, he was forced to defend his actions, arguing, “The Congress can make this decision on its own. I don’t believe I’m poking anyone in the eye. There is a serious threat that exists in the world and the president, last night, kind of papered over it. And the fact is that there needs to be a more serious conversation in America about how serious the threat is from radical Islamic jihadists and the threat posed by Iran.”
The speaker later explained on CBS News’ 60 Minutes on Sunday, Jan. 25 why Netanyahu was needed to speak to Congress about Iran. According to Boehner “There’s nobody in the world who can talk about the threat of radical terrorism – nobody can talk about the threat the Iranians pose, not just to the Middle East and to Israel… but to the entire world – (better) than Bibi (Benjamin) Netanyahu.” The main point of Netanyahu’s address will be to convince Congress to pass legislation to impose new sanctions as an incentive to Iran to make a deal, because as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated Iran will “know things could get considerably worse if they do not.”
A week later the speaker still had to continue to defend his actions and decision, Boehner’s office released an unprecedented timeline of the invite, and a formal explanation in a blog post entitled; “Background on Invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu.” The speaker’s press office attempted to debunk the conspiracy theories surrounding the invite; “A handful of media reports have claimed that the Israelis “orchestrated” the invitation. This is flat-out wrong. As Speaker Boehner has said, the Congress is a separate and co-equal branch of government. It was the Speaker’s right to invite the Prime Minister of Israel, and he did so for one reason and one reason only: so the Prime Minister could speak about one of the most important issues facing the Middle East and the world – the stakes regarding Iran.”
Boehner later appeared on Fox News’ “Special Report with Bret Baier,” explaining again why he chose to invite Netanyahu and why Congress has a right to do so; “The Israeli prime minister can also talk with some expertise about the growing threat of radical Islam. We’ve got a serious problem in the world and the president just wants to act like it’s going to just disappear. And so as a co-equal branch of our government, I don’t have any problem at all in doing what I did to invite the prime minister to come to Congress and address those concerns.” Continuing, Boehner pointed out he has no plans to back down; “And I’m frankly proud of the fact the prime minister has accepted our invitation, and will be here on March 3 to talk to the members of Congress about the serious threat that Iran poses, and the serious threat of radical Islam.”
Boehner and McConnell’s offices organized the invite with Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, who also facing criticism for his role in scheduling the Congressional address. The whole process was rather quick Boehner called Dermer on Jan. 8, and Israeli Embassy quickly agreed, however, the New York Times points out Netanyahu’s official acceptance was only after Borhner notified the White House. The problem according to the Obama administration was that they were not consulted and the speaker only told them about Netanyahu’s scheduled address less than three hours before Boehner made the official announcement. Dermer has been forced in tight spot defending his actions and respect for protocol and Netanyahu’s decision to speak. Boehner has taken on all the blame for instructing Dermer not to inform the White House about the plans.
Dermer gave an interview to the Atlantic published on Friday, Jan. 30, 2015 where he said Netanyahu’s acceptance was not meant to offend President Obama. Dermer explained, “The prime minister and the president have disagreed on issues, but the prime minister has never intentionally treated the president disrespectfully – and if that is what some people felt, it certainly was not the prime minister’s intention…In fact, I can tell you, as someone very close to the prime minister, that he has a great deal of respect for the president.” The ambassador went on to emphasize how important the issue is to Israel’s security, indicating that Netanyahu “has a moral obligation, as the leader of Israel and in living memory of an attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, to speak up about a deal that could endanger the survival of the one and only Jewish state.”
Dermer placed on the blame and responsibility on the speaker’s office as he was directed, and explained he was told it was “the speaker’s responsibility and normal protocol for the Speaker’s office to notify the administration of the invitation. That is why I felt it would be inappropriate for me to raise the issue with the administration.” The ambassador recounted how it all played out, “The speaker’s office apparently informed the administration about it the morning of the announcement, around two hours before it was publicized. After it was publicized, we were in contact with administration officials, both here and in Jerusalem.” Still Dermer does not feel he did wrong telling the Times of Israel, “I have no regrets whatsoever that I have acted in a way to advance my country’s interests.”
The controversy all became uglier when an Obama Administration official revealed to the liberal Israeli publication Haaretz on Friday, Jan. 23 that Netanyahu “spat in our face publicly.” The official, who remained anonymous throughout his verbal assault, issued a veiled threat against Netanyahu and Israel; because the administration believes the prime minister went too far this time. The whole threat as quoted warned, “There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.” Just days later on Wednesday, Jan. 28, another senior official directed “unusually sharp criticism” towards Dermer for his part in this arrangement according to the New York Times. The Times of Israel observed, “The outrage the episode has incited within President Obama’s inner circle… Such officially authorized criticisms of diplomats from major allies are unusual.”
Boehner believes the administration is reacting this way because of Obama’s “antipathy” towards Netanyahu. Boehner explains “Of course there is. They don’t even try to hide it…. Israel has been our strongest ally in the region for decades. We have a great relationship with them, and we ought to look for ways to work together on behalf of our shared interest, not have the kind of antipathy that we’ve seen over the last several years.” The past couple of years have there have been strings of insults and derogatory remarks towards Netanyahu coming Obama and his administration, and each time it is worse.
Even before the issue went out of hand, Netanyahu’s office tried to defuse the whole issue by attempting to compliment Obama for American support of Israel, writing in the official statement, “The Prime Minister is expected to arrive in the US at the beginning of March and will also participate in the AIPAC conference. The speech in front of both houses of Congress will give the prime minister the opportunity to thank President Barack Obama, Congress, and the American people for their support of Israel.” Continuing Netanyahu expressed, “I am touched by the invitation to appear for the third time in front of both houses of the US Congress. We are approaching the moment of decision on the Iranian nuclear issue. I have fought for years against Iran’s attempts to achieve a nuclear weapon, and it is very important that Israel’s message be heard. This is a grand gesture to the State of Israel and to our common struggle along alongside all civilized people.”
The Obama administration too is trying to calm the controversy publicly before it explodes internationally beyond control, by emphasizing strong US-Israel relations. Obama dispatched White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to calm the waters, speaking on NBC’s Meet The Press on Sunday, Jan. 25 McDonough confirmed, “I’m not going to get hyperbolic or emotional about this. Our relationship with Israel is many faceted, deep and abiding. It’s focused on a shared series of threats, but also, on a shared series of values.”
As the second week of the controversy ends, the firestorm continues. As much as the Obama administration tries to publicly cool the situation, anonymous administrations officials keeping popping up, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Democrats keep fanning the flames, in what has become a downright partisan war. Although most of the administration’s rumblings have been behind the scenes leaked from anonymous sources, Pelosi’s and Democrats following here have made their assault public, and it is clearly a partisan war aimed at the Boehner and Congressional Republican majority.
Pelosi was quick to respond from the start, and has not let up. At her weekly press conference on Thursday, Jan. 22, she commented, “If that’s the purpose of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit two weeks before his own election, right in the midst of our negotiations, I just don’t think it’s appropriate and helpful…. These negotiations have gone on for a long time. They’re delicate.” Two days later on Friday, Jan. 23 Pelosi’s rhetoric become much harsher attacking both Boehner and Netanyahu. Pelosi expressed “It’s out of the ordinary that the Speaker would decide that he would be inviting people to a joint session without any bipartisan consultation.” While commenting on Netanyahu criticizing, “It’s hubris to say ‘I rule, I’ll decide,’ without any sensitivity” to the upcoming elections.
The next week, Pelosi spoke out again against the invite in a press conference on Wednesday, Jan. 28, saying the address will be a hindrance “Such a presentation could send the wrong message in terms of giving diplomacy a chance. It’s a serious big honor that we extend. That it should be extended two weeks before an election in the country without collaboration [with] the leaders in Congress and without collaboration with the White House is not appropriate.”
Now the minority leader is spearheading a campaign to cancel Netanyahu’s address. Speaking to the press at the Democrats’ retreat in Philadelphia, Pelosi pointed out the Israeli prime minister has other venues to address the topic, “the opportunities are great.” Pelosi also hinted that Democrats might boycott the address responding, “I don’t know,” when asked if they will attend. Continuing Pelosi tried to justify the Democrats position, saying, “With all the respect in the world for the prime minister, and all the love in the world for the state of Israel, I don’t know that even everyone in Israel is supportive of the invitation.”
Pelosi is not alone, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV also objects to Netanyahu’s address based primarily on the timing and having not been consulted, but has been less vindictive in his rhetoric. This past week Netanyahu has been calling the Democratic Congressional leadership trying to convince them to put aside their objections, and explained his prospective. Reid, a strong supporter of Israel recounted to the New York Times on Friday, Jan. 30 his conversation with the Israeli leader, Reid told Netanyahu “It’s hurting you… ‘You [Netanyahu] have to understand this. I’m not telling you what to do or what not to do, but you have to understand the background here from my perspective.'” Reid put the blame on Boehner saying the way he went about it “was not the right thing to do.” Reid related that Netanyahu promised the address will be non-partisan, and “He proceeded to tell me how distrustful he is of Iran, and that is kind of an understatement.”
Three Democratic Representatives Steve Cohen (TN), Maxine Waters (CA) and Keith Ellison (MN) are circulating a letter requesting that Boehner postpone Netanyahu’s address. The Jewish Telegraph Agency obtained the letter and published it. The Democratic Reps wrote, “Our relationship with Israel is too important to use as a pawn in political gamesmanship.” Continuing, they asked Boehner, “We strongly urge you to postpone this invitation until Israelis have cast their ballots and the deadline for diplomatic negotiations with Iran has passed… When the Israeli prime minister visits us outside the specter of partisan politics, we will be delighted and honored to greet him or her on the Floor of the House.” They are looking to gather enough signatures before sending the letter.
The Israeli Prime Minster is unfazed by all the controversy and negative press surrounding his upcoming address. Netanyahu expressed on Friday, Jan. 30, 2015 that the most important thing is to ensure Iran cannot gain nuclear weapons capability, every other issue can be dealt with; “We can resolve procedural issues with regard to my appearance in the US, but if Iran arms itself with nuclear weapons, it will be a lot harder to fix.” Currently Netanyahu’s Likud is just barely leading the polls, but his decision to speak to Congress so close to Israel’s elections, should not surprise Obama, it is a play taken out Obama’s own game book. In 2012, Obama was able to tip the election in his favor primarily from acting presidential during Superstorm Sandy just days before the election. As for the White House, Obama and Netanyahu will never see eye to eye, just as much as the Democrats and Republicans can never agree, ideologically it has become impossible, because it is all partisan.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.