Has Bibi gone too far this time? That’s the question a lot of Israelis are asking.
Even in a country where chutzpah is not necessarily viewed as a political liability, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s escalating tussle with the Obama administration is beginning to overshadow other election issues — and heightening fear of long-term damage to Israel’s most vital friendship.
In the face of a rare public rebuke from President Obama amid the furor over the Israeli leader’s planned address to a joint session of Congress next month, Netanyahu — universally known by his nickname, Bibi — yet again brushed aside criticism and declared that he would use the speech to warn against the dangers of a nuclear deal with Iran.
A bit of nose-thumbing at Washington is a long Israeli tradition. But what began weeks ago as a seeming breach of protocol — House Speaker John A. Boehner inviting Netanyahu to address lawmakers without first clearing it with the White House, and the prime minister pressing ahead despite Obama’s evident displeasure — has grown into what some veteran diplomatic observers are describing as a full-blown threat to the staunch support that Washington has long offered Israel in the international arena.
“This is the sort of thing that leaves scars,” former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Itamar Rabinovich said Monday, speaking on Israeli radio. “I fear that this sets the prime minister and the U.S. administration on a collision course.”
With Israel’s election campaign in full swing, and the prospective speaking date falling only two weeks before the March 17 vote, Netanyahu’s election opponents have cried campaign foul since plans for the speech were unveiled.
In the latest salvo, Zehava Galon of the left-leaning Meretz party asked the main electoral body to block live broadcasts of the speech by Israeli media. Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu’s main opponent, called the planned address a “strategic” mistake.
The Netanyahu camp has denied any political motive for the speech. Netanyahu struck a conciliatory note Tuesday evening, with his office announcing that he had offered condolences over the death of U.S. hostage Kayla Mueller, who had been held captive by Islamic State militants. In the same statement, the prime minister appeared to be trying to lower the temperature on the speech controversy.
“This is not a personal disagreement between President Obama and me,” the prime minister was quoted as saying. “I deeply appreciate all that he has done for Israel in many fields. Equally, I know that the president appreciates my responsibility, my foremost responsibility, to protect and defend the security of Israel. I am going to the United States not because I seek a confrontation with the president, but because I must fulfill my obligation to speak up on a matter that affects the very survival of my country.”
The prime minister’s defenders tend to cast the controversy as a reflection of the well-documented friction between him and Obama, a passing irritant rather than genuine imperilment of a close bilateral relationship. Moreover, they say, the late March deadline for an accord on Iran’s nuclear program justifies the timing of Netanyahu using a high-profile platform to speak out against such a deal.
Although Obama’s aides had previously put out word that he was furious over what was viewed as a blatant show of disrespect on Netanyahu’s part, the White House is publicly characterizing the dispute as an issue of timing. The president had already said he would not meet Netanyahu during this U.S. visit, because it was too close to the vote and could create the appearance of interfering in the Israeli election.
Asked about the controversy at a joint news conference Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama suggested that Netanyahu’s behavior had rendered him something of an outlier among U.S. allies.
“As much as I love Angela, if she were two weeks from an election, she probably would not have received an invitation to the White House,” the president said, pointedly adding, “And I suspect she wouldn’t have asked for one.”
Merkel vigorously nodded in agreement.
The perceived affront to Obama has not sat well with congressional Democrats. Two Democratic senators, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, along with Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caususes with the Democrats, said this week that they would skip the speech, and others are considering doing the same. Sanders and Schatz are among nine Jewish members of the Senate.
FOR THE RECORD
Feb. 11, 9:13 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is a Democrat. He is an independent.
Vice President Joe Biden, who in his role as president of the Senate would have been seated at the rostrum during the speech, has announced travel plans that will preclude him from attending.
Republican leaders have enjoyed watching a rift widen between the Israeli government and Democratic supporters of Israel. The Republican Jewish Committee, a group long supported by Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, has promised to campaign against any Democrat who boycotts the speech. Adelson is one of Netanyahu’s major backers.
American Jewish groups have also found themselves in a quandary, not wanting to pick a quarrel with either the administration or Netanyahu. Still, both Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, and Rick Jacobs, leader of the Union of Reform Judaism, have called on Netanyahu to cancel the speech. The left-leaning group J Street has begun a social media campaign urging supporters to post a message saying: “I’m a Jew. Bibi does NOT speak for me.”
Other groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee, have issued no public statements on the controversy.
There has been speculation that some compromise could be in the works. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who met Tuesday with the speaker of Israel’s parliament, raised the possibility that Netanyahu will look for a way out.
“You never know. Things happen in people’s schedules,” she said.
The Reuters news agency reported Monday that talks were underway in Israel regarding possible changes to the format of the planned speech. The Netanyahu camp, however, fears a backlash from hard-right voters — an important part of his political constituency — if he backs down now.
Although Israelis tend to be bullishly pro-American, Obama is not an especially popular figure here. A poll published by the conservative Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in December found that while 73% of Israelis believe the United States is a true ally, only 37% believe Obama has a positive attitude about Israel and fewer than 20% support his Mideast policies.
In its earlier stages, the unusually public spat with Obama appeared to put Netanyahu on a footing he has traditionally used to good effect politically: appearing as the underdog, defending Israel despite the costs. But as the dispute has dragged on, more Israelis are expressing qualms, even though polls suggest the prime minister’s voter base has remained mainly stable.
The widely listened-to Army Radio aired a poll on Monday saying that nearly half of those surveyed — 47% — thought Netanyahu should call off the Washington trip. Only about a third said he should go ahead. But there’s also a degree of fatigue with the issue, which the Yediot Aharonot newspaper described as an “unending saga.”
Even some of those who agree with Netanyahu on the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions believe it would be counterproductive for him to go make the Capitol appearance.
“The question that must be asked is whether a brilliant speech at Congress is what will make the difference,” said Yaakov Peri, a lawmaker who formerly led Israel’s domestic spy agency. “The price Israel will pay for this crisis is too high.”
Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer King from Cairo. Staff writers David Lauter and Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.