The White House’s outrage over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to speak before Congress in March—a move he failed to coordinate with the administration—began to seep through the diplomatic cracks on January 23, with officials telling Haaretz that the Israeli leader had “spat” in President Barack Obama’s face.
“We thought we’ve seen everything,” Haaretz quoted an unnamed senior US official as saying. “But Bibi managed to surprise even us.
“There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price,” he said.
Officials in Washington said that the “chickenshit” epithet—which an anonymous administration official branded Netanyahu several months ago—was mild compared to the language used in the White House when news of Netanyahu’s planned speech came in.
In his address, Netanyahu is expected to speak about stalled US-led nuclear negotiations with Iran, and to urge lawmakers to slap Tehran with a new round of tougher sanctions in order to force it to comply with international demands.
Haaretz reported that Obama had personally demanded that Netanyahu tone down his pro-sanctions rhetoric in a phone call between the two last week. The president has said that a sanctions bill would cripple negotiations with Iranian leaders at a critical stage, and has threatened to veto such a bill should it come through.
The Washington Post reported that Netanyahu’s apparent disrespect for US leadership was particularly offensive to Secretary of State John Kerry, who over the last month had made frenzied efforts on Israel’s behalf on the world stage—making dozens of calls to world leaders to convince them to oppose a UN Security Council resolution which would have set a timeframe for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
“The secretary’s patience is not infinite,” a source close to Kerry told the Post. “The bilateral relationship is unshakable. But playing politics with that relationship could blunt Secretary Kerry’s enthusiasm for being Israel’s primary defender.”
The White House said on January 22 that Obama would not meet with Netanyahu when he travels to Washington, with a spokeswoman citing a “long-standing practice and principle” by which the president does not meet with heads of state or candidates close in close proximity to their elections. Kerry will also not meet with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu will be in Washington in part for a March 3 address to a joint session of Congress. House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress without consulting the Obama administration.
The White House initially reacted icily to Netanyahu’s plans to address Congress, an appearance apparently meant to bolster opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran as it is currently shaping up, as well as opposition to new sanctions against Tehran.
White House Spokesman John Earnest suggested on January 21 that Netanyahu and Boehner had broken with protocol in not informing Obama of the prime minister’s travel plans.
“We haven’t heard from the Israelis directly about the trip at all,” he said, adding the White House would “reserve judgment” about any possible face-to-face meeting until explanations are made.
“The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he is traveling there. That is certainly how President Obama’s trips are planned,” explained Earnest.
“So this particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”
Speaking several hours after Earnest, top US diplomat Kerry said that Netanyahu was welcome to give a speech at “any time”” in the United States. However, Kerry agreed that it had been a “little unusual” to hear about Netanyahu’s speech to US Congress next month from the office of Boehner and not via the usual diplomatic channels.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, said that Boehner blundered when he invited Netanyahu to address Congress amid sensitive negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program and in the shadow of Israel’s elections.
“If that’s the purpose of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit two weeks before his own election, right in the midst of our negotiations, I just don’t think it’s appropriate and helpful,” Pelosi told reporters on January 22 at her weekly news conference. The speech, Pelosi suggested, could give Netanyahu a political boost in elections a few weeks later and inflame international talks aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel is scheduled to hold elections March 17.
Netanyahu confirmed on January 22 that he would address Congress in early March. He was initially scheduled to speak on February 11, but changed the date so that he could attend the AIPAC conference.
“The Prime Minister is expected to arrive in the US at the beginning of March and will also participate in the AIPAC conference,” read a statement from the PMO. “The speech in front of both houses of Congress will give the prime minister the opportunity to thank President Barack Obama, Congress, and the American people for their support of Israel.
“I look forward to the opportunity to express before the joint session Israel’s vision for a joint effort to deal with [Islamist terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program], and to emphasize Israel’s commitment to the special bond between our two democracies,” Netanyahu said, according to the statement.
Israel and the US are close allies, but personal relations between Obama and Netanyahu have reportedly deteriorated over the years.
The pair has publically clashed over Israeli settlement in the West Bank and about how to tackle Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
Obama’s allies fear that Netanyahu’s March trip could be used by Israel and by Republicans to rally opposition to a nuclear deal, undercutting years of sensitive negotiations just as they seemed poised to bear fruit.
In November, the already faltering ties between the leaders were served a new blow when an anonymous US official was quoted calling Netanyahu a “chickenshit” in an article published by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in the American magazine The Atlantic. The article portrayed the rift between the United States and Israel as a “full-blown crisis.”