The Cable

Democrats Huddle With Israeli Ambassador to Discuss Delay of Netanyahu Speech

Following a wave of criticism over the Israeli prime minister's planned address to Congress, a group of pro-Israel Democrats met with Israel’s ambassador on Wednesday to discuss postponing the speech.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyah
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as he is watched by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner (R) before a joint session of Congress May 24, 2011 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Following a wave of criticism over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned address to Congress in March, a group of pro-Israel Democrats met with Israel’s ambassador on Wednesday to discuss postponing the speech.

“If they can find ways to relieve some of the concerns over timing, it might be better,” Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the organizer of the meeting, told reporters on Capitol Hill.

“The conversation was: ‘What do we need to do in order to get back to the substance [of the U.S.-Israel relationship] so that you’re not writing about the thumb in the eye and the F-yous,’” he said.

A growing number of Democrats in recent days have privately, or in some cases publicly, threatened to boycott Netanyahu’s speech, which was devised by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer to offer the prime minister a soapbox to criticize the Obama administration’s international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

Seven Jewish Democratic lawmakers — Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ted Deutch of Florida, Nita Lowey, Jerry Nadler and Israel of New York, Sander Levin of Michigan, and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois — attended the meeting, according to one official who was there.

Israel noted that the “bad optics” of Netanyahu’s planned visit, which comes days away from Israel’s March 17 national elections, are turning the Jewish state into a “political football.”

“The timing of this and the speaker’s decision not to consult with the president is distracting us from the important substance of the negotiations and our relationship with Israel,” the congressman said.

Israel said the group discussed whether Netanyahu’s speech could be rescheduled for April, and no final decision was made. Canceling the speech outright was not considered, he said.

White House officials remain furious with Netanyahu for failing to notify the administration about the address to Congress, a breach of diplomatic protocol. The prime minister has had a tense relationship with the White House, and agreed to the speech shortly after his government held several high-level discussions with Obama aides, including one multi-hour meeting between Dermer and Secretary of State John Kerry.

In retaliation, the White House has publicly said it will not meet with Netanyahu when he comes to Washington, and Vice President Joe Biden has not committed to attending the joint session.

The public riff has forced Democrats to pick sides between Israel and the White House, a tough decision for even some of the most hawkish pro-Israel supporters.

Behind the scenes, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying outfit, AIPAC, is pushing lawmakers to support the Netanyahu address, while the dovish, but less-connected, pro-Israel group J Street opposes the visit.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who often relishes opportunities to break with the White House on Israel, told Foreign Policy on Wednesday that a delay could be beneficial. “Washington is more beautiful during April — you’ve got cherry blossoms,” he said.

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