Consuls in U.S. Warn: Israel's Friends Fear Netanyahu's Speech to Congress Will Harm Ties

Despite the extensive criticism, Netanyahu tells group that he has no intention of backing out of the speech.

AP

Israeli consuls general in the United States have warned the Foreign Ministry to expect fierce negative reactions to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned March 3 speech to Congress, including from U.S. Jewish communities and Israel allies.

Despite the extensive criticism, Netanyahu has no intention of backing out of the speech, he told a group of visitors to his home Tuesday.

A senior Foreign Ministry official said the consuls general in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia have sent the ministry worried cables in the past two weeks about widespread dissatisfaction regarding Netanyahu’s speech.

They also expressed concern about the implications of the deepening crisis between Netanyahu and the Obama administration.

“The recurrent message in all the consuls’ reports is that Israel’s friends in the United States think Netanyahu’s speech in Congress is a bad mistake and could harm U.S.-Israel relations,” the official said.

The most troubling cable came from Israel’s consul general in Philadelphia, Yaron Sideman, who previously served as the Foreign Ministry’s director of congressional affairs.

In a cable sent this week, Sideman wrote that critics of Netanyahu’s decision to accept the Republican invitation to speak to Congress come from “both Jewish and non-Jewish communities, cutting across parties.”

“The criticism is aimed mainly toward three [officials]: the prime minister, who is seen as treating the U.S. president with insensitivity and disrespect, House Majority Leader John Boehner and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer.”

Sideman added that the planned speech is evoking primarily negative reactions from many Americans. “We receive a considerable quantity of emails and telephone calls and are confronted incessantly with penetrating questions on the issue every time we appear before Jewish audiences,” he wrote.

Sideman said he was told about the criticism by Jewish and non-Jewish activists who care about Israel and keep in touch with the consulate. “The speech is seen by them as sticking a finger in the eye of the president and the administration,” he wrote.

He said the primary supporters of Netanyahu’s speech are groups identified with the most conservative side of the U.S. political map, like the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Zionist Organization of America and Christian evangelical leaders. “It is our impression that these people’s support for the speech stems from their identification with, and admiration for, a move to defy and humiliate President Obama, more than from the importance they attribute to the Iranian issue, which should be the center of the speech,” he wrote.

Israel’s mission heads in North America are scheduled to attend a conference in Jerusalem next week that will focus on the tension between the White House and Netanyahu and the internal political argument in the United States over Netanyahu’s speech.

Dermer, who worked with congressional Republicans to snag the invitation, is also expected to attend the conference.

Dermer met Wednesday with seven high-profile Jewish Democratic lawmakers who voiced their objection to Netanyahu’s planned speech, Politico reported.

“I organized the meeting with Ambassador Dermer, and I invited key Congressional Democratic supporters of Israel to attend,” Rep. Steve Israel of New York told Politico. “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.”

The seven suggested that instead of a public speech to Congress, Netanyahu could speak to lawmakers privately on the Iranian issue.

Objections to the speech center around its having been planned without coordination with the White House and its proximity to Israel’s March 17 national election.