WASHINGTON – In a sometimes heated meeting with Israel's ambassador to the U.S., several House Democrats expressed anger Wednesday over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's acceptance of a Republican invitation to address Congress next month.
Some of the seven lawmakers — all of whom are Jewish and strong supporters of Israel — urged the prime minister to postpone the speech or hold it somewhere other than Congress, participants said. They told Ambassador Ron Dermer that Netanyahu was unwise to accept a GOP invitation that bypassed President Barack Obama, and to schedule the speech only two weeks before Netanyahu seeks another term in Israel's elections.
The meeting's purpose was "to try to defuse the optics" of the planned speech to Congress, and to return to substantive issues involving the two nations, said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who hosted the gathering in his House office. Some attendees suggested a different time or venue for a Netanyahu speech, Israel told reporters, but "we have a while to go before we have to address whether or not he's coming."
Netanyahu's March 3 speech would focus largely on Iran — and its nuclear program — amid delicate negotiations involving the United States, other Western powers and Tehran. Netanyahu's acceptance of House Speaker John Boehner's invitation has infuriated the White House and many congressional Democrats.
Rep. Israel said the problem began when Boehner "decided that Israel would be a political football and he'd spike it in the end zone."
Dermer asked for the Wednesday meeting in hopes of defusing some of the tension, lawmakers said.
Several Jewish House Democrats had met last week during the party's retreat in Philadelphia to discuss what to do about the speech.
"I organized the meeting with Ambassador Dermer, and I invited key congressional Democratic supporters of Israel to attend," Israel said in a statement. "There were a wide range of views that were discussed, but one thing we all agreed on emphatically is that Israel should never be used as a political football."
Other participants were Reps. Sander Levin of Michigan, Jerrold Nadler and Nita Lowey of New York, Ted Deutch of Florida, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who also heads the Democratic National Committee.
Last Friday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California was asked if Netanyahu would be well-advised to speak out in favor of heavier sanctions on Iran somewhere other than a joint meeting of Congress. She said "the opportunities are great" and noted that the Israeli leader often appears on Sunday talk shows in the U.S.
Netanyahu has been an outspoken critic of the international efforts to negotiate a deal with Iran, which does not recognize the Jewish state, and which supports anti-Israeli militants like Lebanon's Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.
He is sensitive, though, to Israel's important relationship with the United States.
Last week, Netanyahu called Pelosi, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, in hopes of blunting their opposition to the invitation from Boehner, R-Ohio.
The issue has split many U.S. Jewish organizations and communities, with some liberal groups criticizing the planned speech and others cheering it.
March 3 is 21 days before the U.S. and its international partners are supposed to have reached a framework agreement with Iran — one that would provide an outline for a more comprehensive deal set to be finalized by the end of June.
The U.S. and its allies want to prevent Iran from having the capability to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran denies any interest in nuclear weapons and says its program is for peaceful uses such as nuclear power and medical technology.
Boehner says the House is an equal branch of government and has the right to invite the Israeli leader to "talk to the members of Congress about the serious threat that Iran poses and the serious threat of radical Islam."