Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing growing criticism in Israel for a planned speech to the U.S. Congress about Iran, accused by his political rivals of damaging ties with Washington to promote his election campaign.
Netanyahu accepted an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to address a joint session of Congress on March 3, two weeks before the Israeli elections.
The invitation was not coordinated with the White House and it was widely seen as a Republican attempt to enlist Netanyahu, who advocates tougher measures against Iran, in the dispute with President Barack Obama over whether to impose new sanctions on Iran.
In Israel, critics have characterized Netanyahu’s trip as an election ploy and a slap in the face of the Obama administration after it’s worked hard to deflect challenges to Israel at the United Nations and most recently at the International Criminal Court.
Israeli media have highlighted the White House announcement that Obama would not meet with Netanyahu during his visit, calling it a sign that Netanyahu’s strained relationship with the president had sunk to a new low.
“Losing America,” said a headline Monday in the mass circulation daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot, which also highlighted criticism of Netanyahu’s move on the Fox News network, usually a staunch supporter of the prime minister.
Media reports describe American officials as infuriated by Netanyahu’s conduct, portraying it as part of a pattern of cultivating relations with conservative members of Congress to gain leverage against Obama.
Netanyahu and Obama have publicly disagreed over policies toward the Palestinians and Iran. But Netanyahu’s planned address to Congress has taken matters to a new level, commentators said.
In an “unprecedented deal,” Republican lawmakers were “helping Netanyahu defeat his rivals here, and he is helping them humiliate their rival there,” wrote Nahum Barnea, a columnist for Yediot Ahronot. “It’s dangerous, it’s toxic and it’s not so funny anymore.”
Netanyahu pledged Sunday that he’d “go anywhere I am invited” to warn against the dangers of the Iranian nuclear program and a potential deal with Western powers that he said could leave Iran “a nuclear threshold state.”
But the prime minister’s rivals in the election campaign accuse him of alienating Obama and damaging Israel’s strategic alliance with Washington.
“Netanyahu is directly hurting the president of the United States,” Yitzhak Herzog, head of the opposition Labor party, told Army Radio on Sunday. His joint slate with Tzipi Livni, a former justice minister, is running neck-and-neck with Netanyahu’s Likud party, according to recent polls.
“What Netanyahu is doing with this brutish behavior is harming Israel’s security interests,” Herzog added. “The American political system can’t stand this behavior.”
Yair Lapid, a former finance minister who heads Yesh Atid, a centrist party, accused Netanyahu of “destroying our strategic relations with the United States for an election speech.”
Zehava Galon, leader of the leftist Meretz party, filed an appeal to the head of the Israeli election commission, demanding that it bar live broadcasts of Netanyahu’s address to Congress. Under Israeli election laws, campaign messages are prohibited on radio and television starting two weeks before the vote.
Michael Oren, Israel’s previous ambassador to the United States, joined the chorus of criticism Saturday, urging Netanyahu to cancel his planned speech.
Running for Parliament with a new party, Kulanu, Oren said Netanyahu’s conduct had “created the impression that this is a cynical political move, and it could hurt our efforts to act against Iran.”
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.