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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
Netanyahu invited to address Congress on Iran
White House says it was not informed of Netanyahu's plans; invitation comes day after Obama said he would veto legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran.

House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday to address a joint session of Congress next month and discuss the threats from Iran and radical Islam.

 

 

"In this time of challenge, I am asking the Prime Minister to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life," Boehner said in a statement, noting Netanyahu is quite capable of addressing that issue.

 

Netanyahu addresses Congress in May 2011 (Photo: AFP) (Photo: AFP)
Netanyahu addresses Congress in May 2011 (Photo: AFP)

 

Boehner said in a statement that Netanyahu "is a great friend of our country, and this invitation carries with it our unwavering commitment to the security and well-being of his people. In this time of challenge, I am asking the prime minister to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life. Americans and Israelis have always stood together in shared cause and common ideals, and now we must rise to the moment again."

 

An Israeli official said Netanyahu, whose relationship with President Barack Obama has often been tense, was looking into the possibility of meeting with Obama when he comes to Washington to address a joint session of Congress on Feb. 11.

   

Netanyahu and Obama at White House in 2014 (Photo: AP) (Photo: AFP)
Netanyahu and Obama at White House in 2014 (Photo: AP)

 

The White House, however, said it has not yet spoken with Israeli government officials about the planned visit. Typically, requests for foreign leaders to address Congress are made in lengthy consultations with the White House and the State Department.

 

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said US officials will reserve judgment on the visit until they hear from counterparts about Netanyahu's plans.

 

"We'll need to hear from them about what their plans are and what he plans to say in his remarks to Congress before we have a decision to make about any meeting," Earnest said.

 

"The protocol would suggest that the leader of one country would contact the leader of another country when he's traveling there," Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama aboard Air Force One. "This particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol."

 

Iran's nuclear program has been one of the more contentious issues in the Netanyahu-Obama relationship and congressional Republicans have often criticized the president for not being sufficiently supportive of Israel.

 

Boehner is enlisting Netanyahu as a powerful messenger who could argue for a tougher stance toward Iran and an individual who carries considerable sway with Congress. The prime minister repeatedly has warned that a nuclear deal could undercut Israel's security.

 

Boehner was asked by a reporter if inviting Netanyahu without speaking to the White House was a "poke in the eye" to Obama. "The Congress can make this decision on its own," said Boehner, a Republican. "I don't believe I'm poking anyone in the eye." 

 

The invitation was a coordinated effort involving Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with staff discussions beginning last year, according to a senior Republican aide.

 

Boehner contacted the Israeli ambassador earlier this month to assess Netanyahu's interest and received a positive response. In turn, several dates were suggested, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the individual wasn't authorized to publicly discuss the private talks.

 

The invitation comes at a crucial time for Netanyahu, who is in the midst of a tough fight to win re-election in Israel's upcoming March vote.

 

The trip would be five weeks before Israel's March 17 elections and could give Netanyahu a boost with voters at home and help him underscore his main campaign theme that he is best placed to tackle regional security threats.

 

Opinion polls show his right-wing Likud party running neck-and-neck with center-left Zionist Camp but give him the best chance of forming a governing coalition with far-right and Jewish Orthodox factions after the vote.

 

Netanyahu has addressed a joint meeting of Congress on two previous occasions, in July 1996 and May 2011.

 

Showdown over Iran sanctions 

The invitation came a day after Obama said in his State of the Union address he would veto legislation that toughens sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

 

Obama also said he would be asking for new congressional authorization to use force against Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq, but Boehner accused Obama of understating the threat from some groups.

 

"There is a serious threat that exists in the world and the president last night kind of papered over it," Boehner told reporters. "The fact is that there needs to be a more serious conversation in America about how serious the threat is from radical Islamist jihadists."

  

Obama last week warned that rash action by Congress would increase the risk of a military showdown with Iran, and that "Congress will have to own that as well." In an unusual step, British Prime Minister David Cameron had called members of Congress to urge them to hold off on sanctions.

 

Boehner also told a private meeting of Republican lawmakers that Congress would move ahead on new penalties against Iran despite Obama's warning that any legislation would scuttle diplomatic negotiations over the country's nuclear program.

 

"You may have seen that on Friday, the president warned us not to move ahead with sanctions on Iran, a state sponsor of terror," Boehner told colleagues. "His exact message to us was: 'Hold your fire.' He expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran.

 

"Two words: 'Hell no!' ... We're going to do no such thing," the speaker said.

 

At a heated hearing by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Sen. Bob Corker vigorously pushed legislation that would allow Congress to take an up-down vote on any agreement that the Obama administration and its international partners reaches with Iran to prevent it from being able to develop a nuclear weapon.

 

Corker, now the committee chairman after the November elections gave the Republicans control of the Senate, said he had talked directly with US, French and European Union negotiators, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Israeli intelligence officials and no one has said that permitting Congress to have an up-down vote would hamper the ongoing talks - and could even strengthen the US position.

 

The panel's top Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez, reiterated his support for legislation he has drafted with Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican, that would ramp up sanctions against Iran if a deal is not reached by July 6. The bill does not impose any new sanctions during the remaining timeline for negotiations, but if there's no deal, the sanctions that were eased during the talks would be reinstated and then Iran would face new punitive measures in the months thereafter.

 

"The Iranians are playing for time. ... After 18 months of stalling, Iran needs to know that there will be consequences for failure," Menendez said.

 

Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of state, said any new sanctions and even legislation that would trigger new ones if a deal is not reached would not help and could provoke "Iran to walk away from the negotiating table."

 

He argued that the talks have halted Iran's rush toward larger stockpiles of enriched uranium and other nuclear activities and have led to more intrusive and frequent inspections. Blinken said the existing sanctions are stifling Iran's economy.

  

The US and other Western countries believe that Iran is intent on trying to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran claims its nuclear program is peaceful and exists only to produce energy for civilian use.

 

Reuters contributed to this report.

 


First published: 21.01.15, 17:23
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