Planned Netanyahu Speech To Congress Continues To Cause Political Uproar

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At the heart of the dispute is an Obama administration effort to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's efforts to derail it.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The strained relationship between the U.S. and its close ally Israel has been much talked about. At the heart of the dispute is the Obama administration's push to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's efforts to derail that deal. Those efforts include a speech he's set to make next week to a joint meeting of Congress. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: When House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak to a joint meeting of Congress and the prime minister said yes, the White House called it a breach of protocol. In a speech earlier this month, Netanyahu batted away criticism that it was a purely political move.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I think the real question that should be asked is, how could any responsible Israeli prime minister refuse to speak to Congress on a matter so important to Israel's survival?

KEITH: That matter that Netanyahu describes as an existential threat is the Iran nuclear negotiations. Netanyahu went so far as to say the negotiators have given up on stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The speech Netanyahu plans to give to Congress is causing a political uproar both here in the U.S. and Israel, where national elections are a little more than two weeks away. Enter Obama's National Security adviser Susan Rice, who appeared on the "Charlie Rose" show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHARLIE ROSE")

U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER SUSAN RICE: There has now been injected a degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate, I think it's - it's destructive of the fabric of the relationship.

KEITH: And that angered Republicans. Here's Senator John McCain's reaction to Rice's comments.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Totally uncalled for, only throws gasoline on the fire and almost unprecedented.

KEITH: Meanwhile, every day it seems another congressional Democrat says they won't attend the Netanyahu address. The stated reason - it's too close to the Israeli election. The unstated reason - the slight of President Obama. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois invited Netanyahu to meet privately with Senate Democrats, but that invitation was declined.

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: He is double downing on the Boehner invitation. I had hoped that he would acknowledge that this has become politically divisive and that he would at least meet with us, but he decided not to.

KEITH: An Israeli official says the prime minister also turned down multiple requests for private meetings with Republicans. Oded Eran is a former Israeli diplomat and is senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.

ODED ERAN: I can hardly recall a similar situation...

KEITH: At least in the last couple of generations.

ERAN: ...Where there are very bitter personal relations between the two heads of state and when there is at least a strong perception. It's not a reality. This is now a partisan issue.

KEITH: In Israel, Netanyahu's Likud Party is in power. And its views align more naturally with the Republicans here in the U.S. But many worry relations with Democrats have gotten so bad, it could hurt Israel, which relies on U.S. aid. Jeremy Ben-Ami is president of J Street, a pro-Israel group aligned with Democrats.

JEREMY BEN-AMI: That's where the danger is - that the partisan gamesmanship gets played out to the point that some of these fundamental bipartisan agreements actually start to shred.

KEITH: Jonathan Sarna takes the long view. He's a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and points back to decades of disagreements between U.S. presidents and Israeli leaders.

JONATHAN SARNA: You know, it's a bit like an old married couple that look back on various spats that they've had over the years, even seeming crises...

KEITH: But the real story, he says, is a long marriage that has been sustained even through tough times like these.

SARNA: And my sense is that this marriage is likely to succeed in the long run.

KEITH: Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.