Icy White House response over planned Netanyahu speech to Congress

The White House on Wednesday gave an icy response to news that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (above) has been invited to address Congress next month, suggesting it would be a departure from protocol. -- PHOTO: AFP
The White House on Wednesday gave an icy response to news that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (above) has been invited to address Congress next month, suggesting it would be a departure from protocol. -- PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The White House on Wednesday gave an icy response to news that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been invited to address Congress next month, suggesting it would be a departure from protocol.

“We haven’t heard from the Israelis directly about the trip at all,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

The White House added it would “reserve judgment” on any possible meeting between Obama and Netanyahu for now.

“The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he is travelling there. That is certainly how President Obama’s trips are planned.

“So this particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”

While Israel and the United States remain close allies, Obama and Netanyahu have publicly clashed over Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and about how to tackle Iran’s disputed nuclear programme.

The Obama administration, Earnest said, would want to hear about plans for the trip and Netanyahu’s message “before we have a decision to make about any meeting.”

Obama’s allies fear the trip could be used by Israel and Republicans to rally opposition to a deal on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme, just as sensitive talks reach a critical stage.

Washington and other global powers resumed talks with Iran last weekend in Geneva.

Negotiators have said they would like to see a framework deal in place by March.

The complex agreement would see Iran rein in its nuclear programme, which the West believes is aimed at developing a bomb but which Teheran insists is for purely civilian use.

Netanyahu has called Iran’s nuclear push the most “vital national security challenge we face,” and in December he asserted that Israel played a critical role in stopping a deal with Iran that would have left that country as a “threshold nuclear power.”

The Israeli premier had been invited to address a joint meeting of the Congress by Obama’s Republican opponents, who also favour a tougher line.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama warned that Republican plans to toughen sanctions against Iran “will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails .”

Obama vowed to veto any such legislation, arguing a deal would secure “America and our allies - including Israel, while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.”

Announcing Netanyahu’s invitation, House Speaker John Boehner said the Israeli leader was “a great friend of our country, and this invitation carries with it our unwavering commitment to the security and well-being of his people.”

Netanyahu has addressed the US Congress twice before, in 1996 and 2011.

The speech is scheduled to take place on Feb 11.