The Cable

Boehner — Not Obama — Asks Israeli Prime Minister to Address Congress

House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress. In a sharp rebuke to President Obama, he didn't coordinate the invite with the White House.

Mass Unity Rally Held In Paris Following Recent Terrorist Attacks
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 11: French President Francois Hollande (R) welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Elysee Palace before attending a Unity rally in tribute to the 17 victims of a three-day killing spree by homegrown Islamists on January 11, 2015 in Paris, France. A mass unity rally to be held in Paris following the recent terrorist attacks on January 11, 2015 in Paris, France. An estimated one million people are expected to converge in central Paris for the Unity March joining in solidarity with the 17 victims of this week's terrorist attacks in the country. French President Francois Hollande will lead the march and will be joined by world leaders in a sign of unity. The terrorist atrocities started on Wednesday with the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12, and ended on Friday with sieges at a printing company in Dammartin en Goele and a Kosher supermarket in Paris with four hostages and three suspects being killed. A fourth suspect, Hayat Boumeddiene, 26, escaped and is wanted in connection with the murder of a policewoman. (Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress on February 11. But it’s not the White House that asked him to come.

In a sharp reproach to President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) asked the prime minister to speak without involving the Obama administration or the State Department. Typically, invites to foreign leaders to address U.S. lawmakers are coordinated the executive branch. Netanyahu last addressed Congress in 2011.

Boehner’s break with protocol is the latest indication of the widening gap between Obama and lawmakers in both parties. As Secretary of State John Kerry presses ahead on nuclear talks with Iran, both the House and Senate are considering proposals that would slap Tehran with new sanctions if the talks fail. Obama again vowed in his State of the Union address Tuesday night to veto any bill that contains additional punishments against Tehran, arguing that they could scuttle negotiations.

“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,” Boehner said in a statement. “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.”

The White House called the invite a breach of protocol and said it has yet to hear from Israeli officials on the talk. But it’s sure to further muddy the waters between Obama and Israel. Relations with America’s long-time ally have been rocky, at best, in recent years. Kerry pushed to resume peace talks with the Palestinians that failed miserably. Israeli officials publicly and privately said Obama was wrong to trust that Iran was negotiating in good faith and expressed alarm at the White House’s apparent willingness to allow Tehran to retain some uranium enrichment capabilities.

The relationship deteriorated even further when an anonymous Obama administration official called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “chickenshit” earlier this year, while a second said the Israeli leader was a “coward” unwilling to carry out his repeated threats to use military force against Iran if the current talks fail to adequately curb its nuclear ambitions. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, meanwhile, had to apologize after accusing Kerry of having a misplaced “messianic” obsession with the peace process.

The personal attacks mask a deep and fundamental divide over Iran, where many in the newly Republican-controlled Senate share Netanyahu’s staunch opposition to the talks and deep mistrust of Tehran.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday morning, White House officials continued to insist sanctions would be counterproductive.

“Sanctions did not stop the advance of Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiations did, and it is in our interest not to deny ourselves the chance to achieve a long-term, comprehensive solution that would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in prepared testimony. “[I]t is our considered judgment and strongly held view that new sanctions, at this time, are unnecessary and, far from enhancing the prospects for successful negotiations, risk fatally undermining our diplomacy.”

Now, the Israeli prime minister can make his case directly to lawmakers and the American people. If Tuesday’s State of the Union is any indication, Netanyahu is likely to get a warmer reception about Iran than the president did.

 

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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