The Cable

Obama and Bibi Trade New Blows Over Controversial Speech

The war of words between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama is heating up again.

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The war of words between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama is flaring up again, and both sides are fanning the flames higher.

In Israel, Netanyahu used a campaign appearance Monday to reiterate his opposition to a U.S. nuclear deal with Iran and stress that he was “determined to go to Washington to present Israel’s position to the members of Congress and the American people.” Obama countered during a White House press conference that the Israeli prime minister broke diplomatic protocol when he accepted House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) invitation to speak to Congress without consulting the White House.

“She wouldn’t have asked for one,” Obama said Monday at a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, referring to Boehner not checking in with the White House before asking Netanyahu to address U.S. lawmakers two weeks before an election in Israel. The Israeli leader is widely expected to criticize the president’s push to finalize a nuclear deal with Iran and to endorse, perhaps implicitly, an on-again, off-again congressional push to ready new sanctions now in case the talks fail.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steele told Foreign Policy in an email that Netanyahu did not ask to address U.S. lawmakers; he said the invitation came from the House speaker. But Obama’s comments underscore the tension between Washington and Jerusalem as U.S. and Iranian negotiators push for a deal.

Both sides said this weekend that there would not be another extension beyond the deadline at the end of June. But there appeared to be growing space for agreement: Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Sunday “I would go along with any agreement that could be made.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif in Munich as the two sides make a final push for a permanent deal.

“Their meeting was focused on the ongoing nuclear negotiations and they discussed the recent meetings of the P5+1,” a senior U.S. State Department official told Reuters, referring to negotiators from the U.S., France, Russia, Britain, Germany, and China.

Meanwhile, there is growing pressure on Netanyahu to change his planned speech. A new poll by Israeli Army Radio found 47 percent of Israelis think Netanyahu should cancel the talk while 34 percent say he should go ahead with it. Others have suggested the prime minister address a smaller group of U.S. lawmakers as opposed to the entire Congress. Reuters reported that some Israeli officials are considered having Netanyahu address Congress behind closed-doors as opposed to on live TV or shifting the speech to AIPAC’s annual conference instead of having it on Capitol Hill.

Some U.S. lawmakers have already said they will skip the address, with Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, announcing Monday that he would boycott the speech. Saunders is the first senator to do so, though others are believed to be weighing making similar moves.

Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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

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