Criticism in the Democratic Party over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned Congress address is refusing to die down. Despite marathon phone calls between Netanyahu and senior Democrats in an effort to convince them to tone down their objections to the speech, the underlying message relayed by the Democratic representatives in the House and the Senate is that Netanyahu ought to cancel it.
The most direct statement yet was issued by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Friday, who did not rule out the possibility that many Democratic lawmakers would boycott Netanyahu's speech on March 3.
Asked if most House Democrats would attend a Netanyahu speech to Congress, Pelosi said, “I don’t know."
Pelosi laid into Netanyahu, noting that if he wants to discuss his concerns over the Iran's nuclear program he has many other opportunities to do so, and he does not have to do it in a joint session of the two houses of Congress.
“The opportunities are great,” Pelosi said, and noted that the Israeli leader often appears on Sunday talk shows in the U.S.
The senior House Democrat and former House speaker clarified that Netanyahu's planned speech is a controversial subject not only in the U.S., but also in Israel.
“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,” she told journalists at a Democratic retreat in Philadelphia.
The invitation extended to Netanyahu last week to address Congress created a serious crisis in relations between the White House and the Prime Minister's Office. It lobbed Israel into the political clash between Republicans and Democrats, headed by President Barack Obama, over diplomatic negotiations with Iran. The White House and senior officials in the Democratic Party said Netanyahu's conduct in the affair was "inappropriate."
On Friday, Netanyahu downplayed the significance of the criticism leveled against him, describing the problems surrounding his Congress address as merely procedural. "The procedural problems around my speech in Congress are solvable, but Iran with a nuclear weapon is a much bigger problem to solve," Netanyahu said while visiting wounded Israeli soldiers at Rambam Hospital in Haifa.
Dermer tries to explain
Israel's ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, who organized the Congress invitation together with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, tried to explain the turn of events over the weekend and denied that he acted behind the back of the White House and State Department.
In an email interview with the Atlantic's Jeffery Goldberg, Dermer stressed that though Netanyahu and Obama disagreed on some issues, Netanyahu "has never intentionally treated the president disrespectfully - and if that is what some people felt, it certainly was not the prime minister’s intention."
Dermer said Boehner was to blame for not updating the White House over the invitation. "It was also made clear to me that it was the speaker’s responsibility and normal protocol for the Speaker’s office to notify the administration of the invitation," Dermer said.
"That is why I felt it would be inappropriate for me to raise the issue with the administration, including in my meeting with the secretary of state, until the speaker notified them. The speaker’s office apparently informed the administration about it the morning of the announcement, around two hours before it was publicized," Dermer said.
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