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US Congress Awaits Controversial Netanyahu Speech

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, March 2, 2015.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, March 2, 2015.

U.S. lawmakers remain divided over a planned speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner stirred controversy by inviting the Israeli leader without consulting with the White House first.

Most Republicans say Americans need to hear Netanyahu's thoughts about the dangers of a possible deal with Iran over its nuclear program, but some Democrats have said they will not attend the speech because of the way it came about and its close proximity to the Israeli elections.

Tickets in demand

Boehner strongly defended his invitation, and said demand for tickets to attend the speech in the House gallery is unlike anything he has ever seen before, with 10 times as many requests as there are seats available.

Boehner said staff members are setting up ticket-only overflow rooms in the Capitol to help accommodate the number of people who want to hear the speech.

Most Republican members of Congress say they are eager to listen to what the Israeli prime minister has to say about the international negotiations on Iran's nuclear program and about the threat posed by Islamic extremism.

But about 40 Democrats lawmakers said they will not attend Netanyahu's speech.

Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia said the timing - just days before Israel's general elections - is highly inappropriate, and he will not attend.

Vice President Joe Biden, who as the head of the Senate would normally sit behind the foreign leader, will not be there. He is away in Guatemala for meetings with Central American leaders.

Possible leaks

The White House, too, is concerned, indicating that Tuesday’s speech could reveal sensitive details of the tentative nuclear deal with Iran and present them as a threat to Israel’s security, damaging ongoing negotiations.

U.S. media reports based on leaks from the talks say negotiations are now focused on a 10- or 15-year pact that would allow Iran to keep a limited number of centrifuges for uranium enrichment, while dismantling others.

According to ABC News, the latest talks have mentioned capping the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges that Iran has at 6,500, down from a previous agreement of 9,000, and shipping out much of its stockpile of already enriched material to Russia.

The deal would include a strict regime of inspections to ensure that Tehran’s nuclear program is a peaceful one. In exchange, the world would gradually ease sanctions against Tehran.

In Geneva Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the issue of leaks ahead of another round of talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

"We are concerned by reports that suggest selective details of the ongoing negotiations will be discussed publicly in the coming days," Kerry said. "I want to say clearly that doing so would make it more difficult to reach the goal that Israel and others say they share in order to get a good deal."

White House spokesman Josh Earnest echoed the worry that some unnamed Israeli officials have used information shared by the U.S. or other sources in classified briefings “to try to cherry pick some facts about the negotiations in a way that radically distorts the negotiating position of the U.S. and our international partners.”

Kerry said Monday that any deal, if reached, would have to be considered in its entirety, and “measured against alternatives.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday that a lot of technical work still remains to be done before the March 31 deadline for a political framework on Iran’s nuclear program.

Congress, US public divided

Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers and the public remain divided over the speech.

Most members of the Congressional Black Caucus are not attending the address, with some saying they feel that President Barack Obama was disrespected by not being consulted before the event was publicly announced.

Some Jewish Democrats have said privately they feel they have been put in the difficult position of choosing between Obama and Netanyahu.

A number of Democrats have criticized both the timing of the speech and what they say is a breach of protocol in the invitation, but indicated they will attend.

Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Dick Durbin of Illinois sent a letter to the prime minister saying, in part, that “this unprecedented move threatens to undermine the important bipartisan approach toward Israel.”

But Feinstein has said she will attend and listen respectfully, though she would not be “jumping up and down.”

A number of Republicans said the timing is just right, coming weeks before the March 31 deadline.

Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey introduced legislation last week that would give Congress the power to review any agreement that the U.S. and five other countries might reach with Iran.

The Obama administration has said that any action by Congress now could harm the international negotiations at a critical time.

Just like lawmakers, a new poll indicates that the American public is also divided over the speech - mainly along party lines. Some 48 percent of Americans disapprove of the invitation by congressional Republicans to Netanyahu without informing the president, while some 30 percent approve.

Analysts also have expressed differing opinions, with some saying Congress has a role to play in foreign policy and can invite whomever it wants.

Others, including San Diego State University Professor Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, argue that Boehner’s invitation was actually a breach of the U.S. Constitution which assigns the president and not Congress the job of “receiving ambassadors and other public ministers” from foreign governments.

This is the third time Netanyahu will address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.

The only other world leader to have done so is the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Boehner plans to give the Israeli leader a bust of Churchill on Tuesday.

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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.