Israeli officials, U.S. lawmakers meet amid fuss over Netanyahu visit

Democrats consider staying away from Israeli prime minister's address to Congress

Top Israeli officials worked the halls of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday amid continued fallout from House Speaker John A. Boehner's decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress.

Some Democrats say they are considering not attending the speech.

The speaker of Israel's Knesset met separately with Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), while the Israeli ambassador to the United States met with a small group of pro-Israel Democrats who expressed concern at how the planned visit has devolved into a partisan fight.

Boehner announced Netanyahu's visit the day after President Obama's State of the Union address last month, in which he promised to veto any congressional action that might derail sensitive negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. The invitation was extended and accepted without input from the White House, in violation of diplomatic protocol.

Netanyahu is expected to urge Congress to back new sanctions on Iran, against the president's wishes. The timing and partisan nature of the visit has raised concerns even among Democrats inclined to support the bill.

Last week Democratic supporters of the sanctions bill said they would only support final passage if international talks have failed to produce an agreement by a key March deadline.

This week, a group of Democrats that includes Reps. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress, are collecting signatures for a letter to Boehner asking him to postpone the speech until after the talks are resolved, saying the invitation "has the potential to harm U.S. foreign policy."

"Aside from being improper, this places Israel, a close and valued ally, in the middle of a policy debate between Congress and the White House. We should not turn our diplomatic friendship into a partisan issue," the letter reads. "When the Israeli prime minister visits us outside the specter of partisan politics, we will be delighted and honored to greet him or her on the floor of the House."

Also Wednesday, the White House would not say whether Vice President Joe Biden would attend the March 3 address, as is customary in his role as president of the Senate. Press secretary Josh Earnest noted that Biden has only missed one joint session address by a foreign leader during his time as vice president, when he was traveling overseas. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) were among the Democrats who told reporters Wednesday that they might not attend.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who hosted a meeting between Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer and another half-dozen Democrats on Wednesday, said the lawmakers were seeking to "defuse" the political tension the invitation has prompted. Though he declined to comment extensively on the substance of the conversation, Israel said lawmakers did discuss the timing of Netanyahu's speech and whether his visit would undermine the traditional bipartisan nature of U.S. support for Israel.

Dermer told the lawmakers that, as in previous speeches to Congress, Netanyahu would discuss how such bipartison support is the "most important strategic asset" Israel has. Dermer also said he would relate the Democrats' concerns to the prime minister.

"The timing of this and the speaker's decision not to consult with the president is distracting us from the important substance of negotiations and our relationship with Israel," Israel said. "If they can find ways to relieve some of the concerns over timing, then that might be better."

Boehner's office declined to say whether Knesset Speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein's visit with Democrats was connected to the controversy over Netanyahu's visit.

A spokesman for Pelosi said that in her meeting with Edelstein she "expressed her concern that casting a political apple of discord into the relationship is not the best way forward given the formidable challenges our two countries are facing together."

Pelosi also spoke by phone with Netanyahu last week after returning from a trip to India with the president. She said it was inappropriate for Netanyahu to be invited to the U.S. so close to Israeli elections and without involving the White House.

"With all the respect in the world for the prime minister and all the love in the world for the state of Israel, I don't know that even everyone in Israel is supportive of the invitation," Pelosi told reporters.

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