Is Netanyahu playing politics with speech to Congress?

Tensions escalated this week between the White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his upcoming speech to Congress. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner explores the controversy surrounding the address and whether it damages the U.S.-Israel relationship.

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    A rift escalated this week between the White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his planned address to Congress next Tuesday.

    Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret reports.


    As he nears the March 17 finish line in his reelection campaign, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking an unusual 6,000-mile detour Sunday to lobby Congress against President Obama's drive toward a nuclear deal with Iran.

    The prime minister made his feelings about that clear on Wednesday.

  • PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israel (through interpreter):

    The world powers have undertaken to prevent Iran from a nuclear weapon. But from the agreement coming together, it appears they have given up on this commitment.


    Secretary of State Kerry responded, saying Netanyahu had also disparaged the late 2013 interim deal with Iran.

    JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: He called it the deal of the century for Iran, even though it has clearly stopped Iran's program.


    What angers the administration is not the substance of Netanyahu's criticism. It's where and when it will be delivered, here, before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, and how the visit came about.

    REP. JOHN BOEHNER, Speaker of the House: I didn't consult with the White House. The Congress can make this decision on its own.


    In January, Republican House Speaker John Boehner announced he'd invited Netanyahu to speak, without conferring with the White House or Democratic leaders.


    I don't believe I'm poking anyone in the eye. There is a serious threat that exists in the world.


    It later emerged that he'd orchestrated the visit with the Israeli ambassador, longtime Netanyahu political adviser Ron Dermer.

    The administration fired back, saying neither the president nor Vice President Biden would meet with Netanyahu so close to Israel's election.

    SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, (I) Vermont: It politicizes foreign policy in this country in a way that it shouldn't be politicized.


    Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats, plans to boycott the speech. He faults Boehner for playing politics with a sensitive security issue that divides Congress on how to curb Iran's nuclear program.

    What about Prime Minister Netanyahu? Did he cross a line here?


    The answer is yes. I don't think it's a good idea for the speaker to bring the prime minister of Israel to come to the floor of the Congress to trash the president of the United States. And I don't want to see the United States Congress being used as a prop for a political candidate.


    Israeli intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz maintains Netanyahu's visit is driven by the end-of-March deadline to reach a political framework in the Iran talks, not by Israel's election calendar.

    YUVAL STEINITZ, Minister of Intelligence, Israel: So this is the last opportunity for Prime Minister Netanyahu to explain why Israel is so disturbed, and to convince the Congress, the United States of America, and maybe other world powers not to sign a bad deal with Iran.

    This is not neutralizing the Iranian nuclear threat. This is simply postponing, delaying, restraining. This is really about the future of the world, but also about the existence of Israel, of the Jewish state.


    Besides, he says, how could Netanyahu turn down an invitation from the speaker of the House?


    If the prime minister was invited by the Congress, I don't know of any world leader who would refuse such an invitation.


    I think what a world leader would have done, and I suspect most would have, is got on the phone and say, hey, President Obama, guess what? Speaker Boehner invited me. How do you feel about that?


    The U.S. and five other world powers seek an agreement to put verifiable limits on Iran's nuclear program for a decade or more to ensure that Iran couldn't quickly produce enough fuel for a bomb.

    President Obama also sees a deal as a way to avoid military action by the U.S. or Israel against Iran's nuclear sites. Prime Minister Netanyahu wants far more, to have Iran's nuclear enrichment program dismantled entirely. But these differences, the president said, aren't why he won't see Netanyahu this visit.


    The U.S.-Israeli relationship is not about a particular party. The way to preserve that is to make sure that it doesn't get clouded with what could be perceived as partisan politics.


    But it's certainly seen as political in Israel, where Netanyahu is running against a center-left coalition partly on a stand-up-to-Washington message, as in this TV ad.

    In Tel Aviv's largest market, voters were divided on the election, an on the trip.

    Vegetable seller David Cohen is not sold on the prime minister, nor on the speech.

  • DAVID COHEN, Vendor (through interpreter):

    He is going for himself, not for me. He is going there to win the elections.


    Luggage importer Ztafrir Salomon said Netanyahu has to go make Israel's case.

  • ZTAFRIR SALOMON, Luggage Importer (through interpreter):

    Bibi totally understands what he is doing, and he is doing it with his chin up.


    But American-born Israeli Carmel Garber is troubled.

  • CARMEL GARBER, Real Estate Financier:

    I think it's terrible. Whether or not Netanyahu likes Obama or not, it's a crucial ally, and you can't just kind of push him aside as if he's not important.


    The personal relationship between Mr. Obama and Netanyahu has been distant and often testy from the start, notes Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center, a former Middle East peace negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations.

    AARON DAVID MILLER, Vice Pres. & Distinguished Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars: You have perhaps the most dysfunctional relationship between an American president and an Israeli prime minister in the history of the relationship.


    Tamara Wittes, a former State Department official in the Obama administration, agrees.

    TAMARA COFMAN WITTES, Director, Center for Middle East Policy, The Brookings Institution: What I see today is a bitterness, I think, that is different. This is, I think, a much deeper crisis of confidence than I have seen before.


    The tension and distrust between the two extends beyond the Iran issue, to the stalled Israeli- Palestinian peace process and the conduct of last summer's Gaza war.

    Now some Democrats feel caught in a bind, forced to choose between showing support for the president's top foreign policy priority or showing support for Israel.

    So far, three Democratic senators, Vermont's Patrick Leahy, Virginia's Tim Kaine and Hawaii's Brian Schatz, say they won't attend. Some 36 House members are staying away too, warning it could damage longstanding bipartisan cooperation on Israel.

    National Security Adviser Susan Rice raised that red flag Tuesday evening on "Charlie Rose."

  • SUSAN RICE, U.S. National Security Adviser:

    There has now been injected a degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate. I think it's destructive of the fabric of the relationship.


    Aaron Miller concedes the dangers of partisan divisions. But he doesn't think this incident will shake the fundamental U.S.-Israel alliance.


    Unlike Lehman Brothers, this relationship is too big to fail. As the region melts down, the natural tendency to support stable allies, who presumably share and do share American values, goes up. During a crisis, frankly, I think, is when you will see more consensus, rather than division, between the two sides.


    But Brookings' Tamara Wittes is worried the effects will linger and spill over.


    If their fundamental relationship is rocky, it's going to impede their ability to cooperate. It's not just about the relationship between the leaders. The tone permeates down to officials at every level.


    Have the last five years created some permanent dysfunction in the relationship? The only way to actually test that is to test the alternative, a new American president and a new Israel prime minister. For the next 20 months, more than likely, this very odd couple is going to continue this rather peculiar dance.


    A dance 73-year-old beautician Pnina Sherman in Tel Aviv expects to continue too.

  • PNINA SHERMAN, Beautician (through interpreter):

    Give me a break. Our position is strong, also in the United States. He will give a speech, he won't give a speech, he doesn't risk a thing.


    A risk that Netanyahu will run next week.

    I'm Margaret Warner for the PBS NewsHour in Washington.


    And Margaret joins me now.

    Margaret, thanks for that.

    So, you were telling me not only all these other divisions you were just reporting on, but that this has opened up a split inside the American-Jewish community.


    It has, Judy, in the politically active organizations.

    The strength of the so-called Israel lobby has always been its bipartisan nature. So, in AIPAC, for example, the number one in this group, you have got Republicans and Democrats, try really disagree on domestic issues, but they are rock-solid in support for Israel. And that helps undergird the support Israel gets on the Hill.

    Well, AIPAC was caught completely flat-footed. Some of its Democratic members said, hey, we can't be part of this ploy to undercut Obama and help Netanyahu win. But while AIPAC stood back, some of the groups on opposite sides weighed in.

    So the Republican Jewish Coalition essentially is threatening to spend money to undercut members who don't show up for the speech. The liberal J Street group has come out to raise money to protect those. Abe Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, called on Netanyahu to cancel this speech.

    I think they're trying to paper it all over now, Judy, but it has made many Democrats and Republicans uncertain and unhappy that it's opposing — it's injecting a partisan rift that would undercut support for Israel.


    Every which way you look, it's complicated.


    Yes, very.


    Margaret Warner, thank you.

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