WASHINGTON - Controversy over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress next month is growing, as is the list of Democrats who say they'll boycott the speech.
House Speaker John Boehner has defended his decision to break with protocol and — without first talking to the White House — invite Netanyahu to speak about ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.
"I don’t believe I am poking anyone in the eye,” the Ohio Republican has said.
But the White House was reportedly furious about not being consulted on the speech, because negotiations with Tehran are said to be at a sensitive stage.
President Barack Obama said the speech strains U.S.- Israeli relations and referred to concerns that it forces Democratic members of Congress to choose sides in the U.S. administration's dealings with Israel.
“This isn’t a relationship founded on affinity between the Labor Party and the Democratic Party or Likud and the Republican Party, this is the U.S.-Israeli relationship," he said. "That extends beyond parties.”
The March 7 speech will come two weeks before elections in Israel. Some see the speech as a political move that gives Netanyahu a forum to talk tough on Iran to boost his re-election campaign.
“Some staunch supporters of Israel have called me and said it is outrageous — and they are supporters of Netanyahu — that our floor of the House would be used, exploited in that way, for a political purpose in Israel and in the United States," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.
But conservative Jewish organizations and conservative members of Congress see it differently. Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations noted that it's the Israelis "who are threatened by Iran. The Iranians don’t threaten to wipe out the United States. So if [Netanyahu] has an opportunity to speak to Congress, when we know that Congress is going to act on this one way or another, I think it is hard for an Israeli prime minister to say, no, that is not important enough.”
The speech plunges the already strained Obama-Netanyahu relationship to a new low. Alan Eisner of the liberal American Jewish organization J Street said, "It is hard for me to put myself in Netanyahu’s head, but the only logical explanation is that he has just written off this White House and this president and he has decided to throw in his lot with Republicans on Capitol Hill."
Abrams agreed that "things have gotten very bad. I think it is unfortunate, but I think we shouldn’t exaggerate. At the worst it is a problem between Obama and Netanyahu. It is not a problem between Israel and the United States.”
Calls for Netanyahu to cancel the speech are growing louder in the U.S. and Israel, but he has vowed to go ahead with it anyway.