Obama to Bibi: No Meeting for You

House Speaker John Boehner broke protocol when he invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress, presumably to lobby against a nuclear deal with Iran that many lawmakers already oppose. President Barack Obama responded Thursday, Jan. 22, with a very public snub of the prime minister.

The White House said it won’t schedule a meeting with Netanyahu because it does not want to influence the outcome of Israeli elections, set for two weeks after the March 3 speech in Washington. But given the poor state of relations between the White House and Israel, it’s difficult not to see this as a rebuke of Netanyahu for accepting Boehner’s invitation.

The House speaker has essentially given Netanyahu a chance to lobby Congress to pass legislation imposing new sanctions against Iran, something both the White House and Tehran said would scuttle the deal. The New York Times called it the Israeli response to the president’s State of the Union, in which Obama made the case for negotiations, not economic penalties. Many lawmakers are more inclined to agree with Netanyahu than Obama: There are two legislative proposals out there that would slap Iran with new sanctions, with a third one in the works.

The language used by the White House in announcing that it would skip a meeting with Netanyahu is also telling. In an emailed statement to reporters, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan wrote, “As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country.”

On Thursday, Netanyahu formally accepted the invitation to speak to Congress. While in Washington, he will also attend an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. The congressional forum provided by Boehner gives Netanyahu the opportunity to shape the U.S. debate on Iran, a faux pas of the unwritten diplomatic rules the Israeli prime minister is keenly aware of.

Boehner and AIPAC did not return requests for comment.

A leading left-of-center Jewish advocacy group is urging Boehner and Netanyahu to delay the speech.

“This will inevitably appear to many to be an attempt by a Republican standard-bearer to enlist the support of a foreign leader in a battle to gather votes to overturn a presidential veto,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a statement. “In other words, that foreign leader would be seen as intervening in a domestic battle between two branches of the US government.”

The rebuff is the latest in an increasingly hostile back-and-forth between Washington and Jerusalem. Bad blood over the failed peace process and name-calling has characterized the row so far. It’s also an open secret that Obama and Netanyahu aren’t each other’s biggest fans. The president’s refusal to meet with Netanyahu, speaking just a few miles from the White House, is a very public sign of Obama’s displeasure over Israel’s meddling in American politics.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley/Getty Images News

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