By Luke Baker
Israeli officials are considering amending the format of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned address to the US Congress next month to try to calm some of the partisan furore the Iran-focused speech has already provoked.
Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress about Iran’s nuclear programme on March 3, just two weeks before an Israeli parliamentary election, following an invitation from John Boehner, Republican speaker of the house.
The invitation has caused consternation in Israel and the United States, largely because it is viewed as Netanyahu, a hawk on Iran, working with the Republicans to thumb their noses at President Barack Obama’s policy towards Tehran.
It is also seen as putting Netanyahu’s political links to the Republicans ahead of Israel’s bilateral relationship with the United States, while giving the Israeli prime minister a publicity boost ahead of the March 17 election.
As a result, Israeli officials are considering whether Netanyahu should speak in a closed session of Congress or in smaller meetings with Congressmen rather than in a prime-time TV address, so as to defuse the tensions around the event.
Another option is for the prime minister to make his speech at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington the same week rather than in Congress.
“The issue has been under discussion for a week,” said a source close to Netanyahu’s office. “(Netanyahu) is discussing it with Likud people. Some say he should give up on the speech, others that he should go through with it.”
Likud is the right-wing party that Netanyahu leads.
Officials in Netanyahu’s office said that for now his schedule had not changed.
“In the past days the prime minister has been approached several times about his trip to the United States,” one official said. “At the moment there is no change in the plans.”
An opinion poll by Israel’s Army Radio on Monday said 47 per cent of people think Netanyahu should cancel the address, while 34 per cent say he should go ahead with it.
There are signs the issue is impacting his poll ratings.
A poll by the Times of Israel on Monday showed Likud would win 23 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, four fewer than the centre-left opposition. Earlier polls had shown Likud and the opposition alliance neck-and-neck on 24 seats each.
Speaking on radio last week, Israel’s deputy foreign minister suggested Netanyahu had been “misled” about the speech, believing it to be bipartisan when Obama’s Democrats were not entirely on board.
While that may have created some room for Netanyahu to pull out if the pressure at home and from Washington becomes too great, it may be too late.
If he withdraws now it may make him look weak with core voters. He also needs an opportunity to play up his tough-on-Iran credentials before the election, with national security an overriding issue for voters.
Addressing French-speaking members of his party on Sunday, Netanyahu appeared to commit fully to the March 3 appointment saying: “I will go any place I’m invited to convey the Israeli position against those who want to kill us”.