Israeli ambassador meets with Senate Democrats after Netanyahu speech offends White House

WASHINGTON — Israel’s ambassador to the United States got an earful on Wednesday from seven House Democrats angered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acceptance of a Republican invitation to address Congress next month.

Ron Dermer met privately with Jewish Democrats to discuss Netanyahu’s plans for a March 3 speech on Iran right in the middle of delicate negotiations involving the United States, other Western powers and Tehran over its nuclear program.

House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation — and Netanyahu’s willingness to address a joint meeting — has infuriated the White House and angered congressional Democrats.

Dermer asked Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., to set up the Capitol Hill meeting with the House Democrats, in which they complained about the escalating partisanship surrounding the upcoming speech and made clear to Dermer that Israel needs to find a way to lower the political temperature, according to a senior congressional aide.

Several Jewish House Democrats had met last week during the party’s retreat in Philadelphia to try to figure out what to do about the speech.

“I organized the meeting with Ambassador Dermer, and I invited key congressional Democratic supporters of Israel to attend,” Israel said in a statement. “There were a wide range of views that were discussed, but one thing we all agreed on emphatically is that Israel should never be used as a political football.”

Participating in the meeting with Dermer were Democratic Reps. Sander Levin of Michigan, Jerrold Nadler and Nita Lowey of New York, Ted Deutch of Florida, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who also heads the Democratic National Committee.

The aide was not authorized to publicly discuss private sessions and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Last Friday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California was asked if Netanyahu would be well-advised to speak out in favor of heavier sanctions on Iran somewhere other than a joint meeting of Congress. She said “the opportunities are great” and noted that the Israeli leader often appears on Sunday talk shows in the U.S.

Netanyahu has been an outspoken critic of the international efforts to negotiate a deal with Iran, which does not recognize the Jewish state, and supports anti-Israeli militants like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.

He is sensitive, though, to Israel’s important relationship with the United States.

Last week, Netanyahu called Pelosi, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, in hopes of blunting their opposition to the invitation from Boehner, R-Ohio.

Congressional aides say the calls so far have not changed the minds of the senior Democrats, who think the invitation turns sensitive international negotiations into a partisan ploy.

The timing of the speech is at issue, too.

March 3 is just 21 days ahead of when the U.S. and its international partners are supposed to have reached a framework agreement with Iran — one that would provide an outline for a more comprehensive deal set to be finalized by the end of June.

The U.S. and its allies want to prevent Iran from having the capability to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran denies any interest in nuclear weapons and says its program is for peaceful uses such as nuclear power and medical technology.

Boehner says the House is an equal branch of government and has the right to invite the Israeli leader to “talk to the members of Congress about the serious threat that Iran poses and the serious threat of radical Islam.”

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