US Congress chief invites Netanyahu without consulting Obama

John Boehner denies he’s ‘poking anyone in the eye’ with decision on Israeli leader

US president Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu after meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington DC, in 2010. File photograph: Ron Sachs/Getty Images

US president Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu after meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington DC, in 2010. File photograph: Ron Sachs/Getty Images


US House of Representatives speaker John Boehner on Wednesday invited Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress without consulting President Barack Obama, and a White House spokesman questioned whether protocol had been violated.

An Israeli official said Mr Netanyahu, whose relationship with Obama has often been tense, was looking into the possibility of meeting with Mr Obama when Mr Netanyahu comes to Washington to address a joint session of Congress on February 11th.

Mr Boehner was asked by a reporter whether inviting Mr Netanyahu without speaking to the White House was a “poke in the eye” to Mr Obama. “The Congress can make this decision on its own,” said Mr Boehner, a Republican. “I don’t believe I’m poking anyone in the eye.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: “The protocol would suggest that the leader of one country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there. This particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”

Mr Netanyahu’s visit to the US is scheduled for five weeks before Israel’s March 17th elections. It could help him underscore his main campaign theme that he is best placed to tackle regional security threats.

Best chance

Opinion polls show Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party running neck-and-neck with centre-left Labour, but give him the best chance of forming a governing coalition with far-right and Jewish Orthodox factions after the vote.

Mr Netanyahu first served as Israeli prime minister from 1996 to 1999. He was re-elected to that office in 2009.

Speaking to reporters traveling with Mr Obama aboard Air Force One, Mr Earnest said the White House was reserving judgment on Mr Netanyahu’s trip until there was a chance to discuss it with Israeli officials.

He said the White House would wait to hear more before deciding whether to meet with Mr Netanyahu.

“We’ll need to hear from them about what their plans are and what he plans to say in his remarks to Congress before we have a decision to make about any meeting,” Mr Earnest said.

In a statement announcing the invitation, Mr Boehner said, “In this time of challenge, I am asking the [Israeli] prime minister to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life.”

Contentious issues

Iran’s nuclear programme has been one of the more contentious issues affecting the Netanyahu-Obama relationship, and congressional Republicans have often criticised the president for not being sufficiently supportive of Israel.

The invitation to Mr Netanyahu came the day after Mr Obama said in his State of the Union address that he would veto legislation to toughen sanctions against Iran while Washington and other powers negotiate with Tehran over its nuclear programme.

Mr Obama also said he would be asking for new congressional authoridation to use force against Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq, but Mr Boehner accused Mr Obama of understating the threat from some groups.

“There is a serious threat that exists in the world and the president last night kind of papered over it,” Mr Boehner told reporters. “The fact is that there needs to be a more serious conversation in America about how serious the threat is from radical Islamist jihadists.”

Mr Boehner said the House would likely at some point hold hearings on more sanctions against Iran, and Mr Obama’s request for authorisation for military force against Islamic State.