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Washington Braces for Controversial Netanyahu Address to Congress

  • Michael Bowman

An increasingly-strained relationship between the Obama administration and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu will be on display this week, as the prime minister visits Washington to address a joint meeting of Congress. Netanyahu will decry a potential accord on Iran’s nuclear program in a speech organized by House Speaker John Boehner, without White House consultation, sparking controversy in Washington and Jerusalem.

Netanyahu insists he respects President Barack Obama, but adds:

“It is my obligation to see to the security of Israel," he said. "Therefore, we strongly oppose the agreement being formulated with Iran and the major powers, which would endanger our very existence.”

Vice President Joe Biden and several Democratic lawmakers will not attend Netanhayu’s address Tuesday, and the prime minister’s itinerary does not include a visit to the White House. Even so, Secretary of State John Kerry is downplaying any lasting damage to U.S.-Israeli relations.

“The prime minister is welcome in the United States at any time. We have an unparalleled, close security relationship with Israel,” said Kerry.

But whatever case the prime minister makes, it will not shake the Obama administration’s belief that negotiations with Iran are worth pursuing.

"We have slowed, even set back, Iran’s nuclear program," he said. "And we are going to continue now to the next step to see - I cannot promise you we can (succeed) - but we are going to test whether or not diplomacy can prevent this weapon from being created, so you do not have to turn to additional measures, including the possibility of a military confrontation.”

Speaker Boehner’s invitation to a foreign leader without consulting the White House is an unusual, and some would say inflammatory, move. Boehner has been unapologetic.

“I wanted the prime minister to come here," said Boehner. "There is a serious threat facing the world, and radical Islamic terrorists are not going to go away. These are important messages that the Congress needs to hear and the American people need to hear.”

In Israel, a divided public.

“I believe that America is a country that is for freedom of speech, so I think the prime minister has a right to say what he wants to say like everybody else has a right to say what they want to say,” said Anthony Simon who lives in Jerusalem.

Anotehr Jerusalem resident, Mati Simantov, said he thought it was not good for Israel's relations with the United States.

"We have to be in a good position with the United States. They are friends, probably our only friends in the world, so we have to be very gentle with them," he said.

The perception of a U.S.-Israeli rift has not gone unnoticed in Iran, where Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Netanyahu of scare-mongering and standing in the way of peace.

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