Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to fly to Washington in mid-February to address a joint session of Congress and discuss Iran and Islamist extremism, sources in his office confirmed on Wednesday.
Speaker of the House John Boehner sent an invitation to Netanyahu “on behalf of the bipartisan leadership of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate.”
This would be Netanyahu’s third address to a special joint session of Congress, with Winston Churchill the only other foreign leader to have addressed that body three times. Former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert each addressed the body once.
Reacting to the invitation on Wednesday, the White House expressed displeasure with the handling of the visit.
Aboard Air Force One en route to Idaho, US President Barack Obama’s press secretary said that typical protocol for the visit of a national leader had been breached somewhere along the way. “The protocol would suggest that the leader of one country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there,” press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama. “This particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”
Boehner told reporters he did not inform the White House of his plans to invite Netanyahu to the US until Wednesday morning.
One official in the Prime Minister’s Office said that the invitation was received only on Wednesday, and that it would be dealt with according to protocol. Since Netanyahu had not formally accepted the invitation, it was not clear whether Earnest’s criticism was directed at Boehner or Netanyahu.
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Although the speech, scheduled for February 11, would necessitate Netanyahu traveling to the US just over a month before the election, he is expected to take advantage of the opportunity, because it would likely mute criticism that he has badly damaged relations with Washington.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office said it is too early to discuss whether a meeting would be arranged with US President Barack Obama. The White House declined to comment on whether the president would receive Netanyahu during his visit.
Boehner issued a statement saying that “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.”
The House leader said that, “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.”
Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress during his first term in July 1996, and then again in May 2011. During that speech, coming at a time of tension in his relations with Obama, he was received very warmly by Congress, receiving 29 standing ovations.
The invitation comes at a time when Congress and Obama are poised to do battle over whether to ratchet up sanctions against Iran.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, Obama said that diplomacy has led to a situation where for the first time in a decade Iran has halted its nuclear progress and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.
Obama said that new, conditional, sanctions, which many in Congress are advocating, would “all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.”
He said that such a move does not make sense, and that he would veto any sanctions bill “that threatens to undo this progress.”
Netanyahu has come out in favor of stepping up sanctions against Iran, saying this is the only way to get Tehran to agree to roll back its nuclear program. Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office, when asked whether Netanyahu would not be stepping into the middle of a bitter US domestic battle by speaking on the issue to Congress, stressed that the invitation from Boehner was made on behalf of the leadership from both parties.
MK Eitan Cabel, chairman of the Labor-Hatnua faction, reacted furiously to the invitation, charging that Netanyahu “ran” to arrange an invitation to address Congress because he is in “hysteria” over polling results showing the Likud lagging behind Labor-Hatnua in the polls.
“Unfortunately for him, the end of the Netanyahu era has come, and in his political condition not even the American Congress can save him,” Cabel said. He said that this invitation, which was apparently not coordinated with the White House, is liable to make the prime minister’s ties with the Obama administration even worse.
But, Cabel said, “Netanyahu has never had a problem sacrificing the country’s vital interests for a photo- op.”
Labor MK Nachman Shai, who heads the Knesset Caucus on US-Israel relations, called on Boehner to be fair and also invite opposition leader Isaac Herzog to speak.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.
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