Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday turned down an invitation to meet privately with Senate Democrats next week during his visit to Washington, saying the session “could compound the misperception of partisanship” surrounding his trip.
Angering the White House and Democrats, Netanyahu accepted an invitation from Republican leaders to address a joint meeting of Congress on March 3 and speak about Iran. The GOP leaders did not consult with the Obama administration, which the White House called a breach of protocol.
Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on Monday invited Netanyahu to meet in a closed-door session with Democrats during his visit. He declined the invitation on Tuesday and expressed regret about the politically fraught tone of his trip.
“I regret that the invitation to address the special joint session of Congress has been perceived by some to be political or partisan,” Netanyahu wrote. “I can assure you that my sole intention in accepting it was to voice Israel’s grave concerns about a potential nuclear agreement with Iran that could threaten the survival of my country.”
Netanyahu said to meet with Democrats “at this time could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit.”
More than a half dozen House and Senate Democrats have said they will skip the speech, calling it an affront to President Barack Obama and the administration as they engage in high-level negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Vice President Joe Biden will be traveling and has no plans to attend the speech.
Obama has no plans to meet with Netanyahu, with the administration saying such a session would break with past practices of engaging with world leaders close to elections. Israel’s elections are set for March 17.
Durbin said in a statement that he regretted that Netanyahu could not meet with the Democrats.
“We offered the Prime Minister an opportunity to balance the politically divisive invitation from Speaker (John) Boehner with a private meeting with Democrats who are committed to keeping the bipartisan support of Israel strong,” Durbin said. “His refusal to meet is disappointing to those of us who have stood by Israel for decades.”
Elsewhere National Security Advisor Susan Rice in an interview Tuesday with journalist Charlie Rose on PBS, said US relations with Israel have always had a bipartisan nature. But the invitation for the speech now breaks that tradition and adds a political component, she said.
“What has happened over the last several weeks by virtue of the invitation that was issued by the Speaker and the acceptance of it by Prime Minister Netanyahu two weeks in advance of his election is that on both sides there has now been injected a degree of partisanship,” Rice said.
“Which is not only unfortunate, I think it is destructive of the fabric of the relationship,” Rice added.
“It has always been bipartisan. We need to keep it that way. We want it that way. I think Israel wants its that way, the American people want it that way.”
Rice declined to say if she thought Netanyahu intended to influence the election in his country by making the speech.
“When it becomes injected with politics that’s a problem,” she added, however.
“The point is we want the relationship between the US and Israel to be unquestionably strong, immutable, regardless of political seasons in either country,” Rice said.