Divided over the principles, timing and politics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Democrats and Republicans are bracing for an historic address from the premier concerning Iran on Tuesday, an event set in motion on Sunday with his unceremonious arrival in the US capital.
Congressmen are scavenging for tickets to the event, which – despite a boycott by some Democratic lawmakers – will likely fill the chamber of the House of Representatives.
Gearing up for the speech, Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that the prime minister is welcome anytime in the United States – despite the “odd, if not unique” circumstances of his current visit.
“The prime minister of Israel is welcome to speak in the United States, obviously,” Kerry said Sunday in an exclusive interview on ABC’s This Week. “I talk to the prime minister regularly, including yesterday.”
“We don’t want to see this turned into some great political football,” added Kerry.
Kerry called Netanyahu before his flight to Washington to discuss his trip, negotiations with Iran, and the possibility of a financial collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
“We have intervened on Israel’s behalf in the last two years more than several hundred – a couple of hundred – times in over 75 different fora in order to protect Israel,” Kerry said after the call.
One senior State Department official would not characterize the tone of the phone call, beyond stating the topics discussed. But Kerry expressed concern, the official noted, over the fragile state of the PA – an issue largely sidelined in the press, as tensions boil over between Washington and Jerusalem regarding negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
Privately, another senior administration official told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend that the public, increasingly partisan divide between the allies only serves to strengthen Iran’s position in the talks.
Kerry refused to speak to that notion on Sunday, only reiterating US President Barack Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security and underscoring the success of an interim nuclear accord with Iran from last year, known as the Joint Plan of Action.
“We are going to continue now to the next step, to see” if world powers can reach an agreement, he said. “I can’t promise you we can. But we are going to test whether or not diplomacy can prevent this weapon from being created, so you don’t have to return to additional measures, including the possibility of a military confrontation.”
Kerry flies to Switzerland on Monday to continue intensive negotiations with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, now at a critical Bernadette Meehan noted over the weekend that diplomats are “in the final weeks” of their historic effort, hoping to reach a political framework agreement with Iran by March 31.
Talks between Kerry and Zarif are expected to continue through Tuesday, the date of Netanyahu’s address. State Department officials say the timing of their meetings was not planned with Netanyahu’s visit in mind.
Speaker of the House John Boehner eschewed reports of a “boycott” against Netanyahu’s impending address, claiming that anticipation among congressional members is unprecedented.
“The demand for seats in the House, the demand for tickets – I’ve never seen anything like it. Everybody wants to be there,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday.
Boehner asserted that Congress and the American public are clamoring to hear what Netanyahu has to say about the Iranian nuclear threat.
“This is a serious issue, and we’re not going to resolve the issue by sticking our heads in the sand,” he said. “The prime minister can talk about this threat, I believe, better than anyone.
The US Congress wants to hear from him, and so do the American people.”
That assertion, however, was challenged by a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Sunday, which revealed that 48 percent of Americans think Netanyahu should not have been invited to speak by Boehner without prior consultation with Obama.
Suggesting a possible partisan divide regarding Israel’s popularity among the American public, 66% of Democrats among the respondents said initial consultation with Obama was necessary before extending the invitation, while only 28% of Republicans believe Obama should have been notified.
Boehner, in contrast, downplayed the fear that the speech – and the tension resulting from it – would transform American support for Israel into a partisan issue.
“That relationship is going to continue between the Congress and Israel, between the US and Israel. Really the only conflict here is between the White House and Israel,” he said.
Pitting himself and Netanyahu against the Obama administration, Boehner said, “It has been frankly remarkable to me the extent to which, over the last five or six weeks, the White House has attacked the prime minister, attacked me, for wanting to hear from one of our closest allies.”
While acknowledging that he believes Obama is doing his best to secure a good deal in the P5+1 negotiations, he said that there are both Democrats and Republicans who fear that the final result will not be good enough.
Sunday’s US morning shows featured a wide range of opinions on the prime minister’s controversial address. Former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman said that fellow Democrats “were making it partisan by their absence,” and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican, also lent his support to Netanyahu.
Former Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren, listed with Kulanu in the upcoming elections on March 17, tempered his criticism of the prime minister in an interview with CNN.
“There’s absolutely no daylight between Netanyahu and me” on the graveness of the threat posed by Iran, Oren said, asserting that the Israeli public aligns more closely with Netanyahu on the nuclear issue than with Obama. “We all see Iran with nuclear weapons as an existential threat to Israel.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California strongly doubted the effectiveness of Netanyahu’s speech.
Citing his warmly received 2011 address, Feinstein said, “I didn’t believe it was helpful then, and I don’t believe it’s going to be helpful now.”
“I hope that the prime minister will address what he believes will happen if there is not an agreement, or if there is an agreement between the other nations, including the big powers,” she told Face the Nation.
Earlier in the day, she took to CNN to reject Netanyahu’s “arrogant” claim that he is lobbying for entire Jewish population.
“He doesn’t speak for me on this,” Feinstein told CNN’s State of the Union. “I think it’s a rather arrogant statement. I think the Jewish community is like any other community. There are different points of view. I think that arrogance does not befit Israel, candidly.”
The senator said that she will attend Netanyahu’s speech, even though at least five of her Democratic colleagues in the upper chamber plan to stay away, in protest of what they consider to be an overt effort to undermine the Obama administration.
“I intend to go, and I’ll listen respectfully,” Feinstein said. “I don’t intend to jump up and down.”