The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Netanyahu’s Congress speech stirs growing backlash in Israel and the U.S.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flashes the sign of victory as he gives a speech during a Likud party campaign meeting for the 20th Knesset in Tel Aviv on Jan. 5. (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

House Speaker John A. Boehner's decision last week to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress in March, just ahead of an election in Israel, appears to be backfiring.

Netanyahu is expected to speak his mind about the threat posed by Iran, a move aimed both at giving momentum to congressional efforts to expand sanctions on the regime in Tehran as well as burnishing the Israeli premier's "Churchillian" chops back home ahead of elections he risks losing.

But, as The Post's Morning Plum observes, it has galvanized Democrats to get behind President Obama, who is staunchly opposed to a sanctions vote because it would undermine current diplomatic efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. The plan to stage the speech was apparently hatched in secret by Boehner (R-Ohio) and Israel's U.S.-born ambassador, Ron Dermer, a former Republican operative, without notifying top Obama administration officials. The White House now deems Netanyahu's visit a breach of protocol and says Obama will not meet with the prime minister so close to his country's elections.

"There are things you simply don’t do. [Netanyahu] spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave," an unnamed White House official told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price."

It's well known there's no love lost between Obama and Netanyahu, but the Israeli premier's arrival on the behest of Boehner has been widely perceived to cross a sort of red line -- an act that's not only politically provocative, but also shows disrespect to the institution of the presidency. Even Fox News was upset about it, as well as prominent Israel-friendly commentators.

And many in Israel are similarly not impressed. On Wednesday, on the sidelines of a memorial honoring the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, former Israeli president Shimon Peres scolded the current premier, who happened to also be in attendance. "Bibi [Netanyahu] can make speeches at any place or date, but when the president of the United States asks him not to come before elections, he must respect that request," said Peres.

After news of the invitation first broke, prominent Israeli journalist Tal Schneider quipped that Boehner "has just joined the Likud campaign," referring to Netanyahu's political party.

Schneider has since published an open letter to Boehner, accusing the speaker of "interfering with our democratic process in a blunt, unforgivable manner." She accuses Boehner of allowing Netanyahu to divert the conversation in Israel away from the real issues important to voters right now:

Mr. Boehner, Israel is undergoing such a severe housing crisis such that people feel they have no recourse, and the Finance Minister attempted to find a solution to the problem, albeit in a clumsy and odd way. Netanyahu at first agreed, then disagreed, in short zigzagged, and Israeli citizens are furious that in six years in office he has been unable to restrain galloping housing and cost-of-living prices. Did you know that going to the grocery store is much, much more expensive in Tel Aviv than it is in America?
Despite the fact that Netanyahu wants to talk about Iran and terror 90 percent of the time, polls here, in our little Zionist country, show that people are actually concerned about how they will make it to the end of the month. A big social justice movement took over our streets a few years ago and Netanyahu promised to help the simple people, a promise he has failed to keep.
And then you show up, with a crassness I don't remember, and shove Netanyahu's Congressional address on Iran and extremist Islam onto our public agenda, despite the fact that Iran deadlines have come and gone for years now. Who knows this better than I, who has covered it for years?

Perhaps Netanyahu's most interesting detractor is his former ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, who happens to be contesting a seat in the upcoming election for another right-wing party. Oren spent four years as Netanyahu's Washington envoy, and he has been scathing about the Obama administration in the past, saying it has a "worldview that is not in accord with any Israeli government."

But he came out strongly against Boehner's invitation to Netanyahu, which he claims creates "the impression of a cynical political move." Oren went on: "It's advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government. Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior are needed to guard interests in the White House."

As the New York Times reports, Israelis are almost as concerned about maintaining bipartisan American support as they are vexed by the putative threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. In that context, Netanyahu's gambit may only deepen his country's sense of insecurity.