Netanyahu says no to Dem meeting: 'Misperception of partisanship'

Jerusalem (CNN)Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined an invitation to hold a closed-door session with Democratic senators during his visit to Washington next month, saying such a meeting would "compound the misperception of partisanship" surrounding his planned address to Congress.

Sens. Dick Durbin and Diane Feinstein sent a letter to the Prime Minister on Monday, saying House Speaker John Boehner's unilateral invitation to Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress about Iran threatened to turn Israel into a partisan political issue in American politics that could have "lasting repercussions."
"This unprecedented move threatens to undermine the important bipartisan approach toward Israel -- which as a long standing supporters of Israel troubles us deeply," the senators wrote. They invited the prime minister to a closed-door session with Democrats.
But Netanyahu turned down the meeting. In a letter to the senators, obtained by CNN, he wrote, "Though I greatly appreciate your kind invitation to meet with Democratic Senators, I believe that doing so at this time could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit."
    Netanyahu expressed regret for the politically charged tone of the visit.
    "I can assure you 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 wrote.
    Netanyahu said he would be glad to address a bipartisan meeting of senators during a future visit to Washington and expressed hope the Senators would visit Jerusalem in the near future.
    Durbin criticized Netanyahu's rebuff, calling his refusal to hold the closed-door session "disappointing to those of us who have stood by Israel for decades."
    "We offered the Prime Minister an opportunity to balance the politically divisive invitation from Speaker Boehner with a private meeting with Democrats who are committed to keeping the bipartisan support of Israel strong," Durbin said.
    But Israeli officials say Netanyahu turned down a host of other requests -- including Republican lawmakers who sought individual meetings and conservative think tanks that wanted to host him -- for the same reason he rejected the Democratic invitation.
    Among the requests he turned down were the Heritage Foundation and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the officials said.
    Netanyahu is expected to use the early-March speech to lobby Congress for tough new sanctions against Iran --- putting him at odds with President Barack Obama, who has threatened to veto additional sanctions as he tries to hash out a deal to halt Iran's nuclear program.
    But the visit has strained already tense relations between the two leaders, in part because Boehner invited him without informing the President. Several Democrats have said they'll boycott Netanyahu's address.
    Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) is the latest to say he won't attend, calling Netanyahu's visit "highly inappropriate" on Wednesday. "There is no reason to schedule this speech before Israeli voters go to the polls on March 17 and choose their own leadership. I am disappointed that, as of now, the speech has not been postponed," he said.
    Feinstein, though, said Wednesday that she will attend.
    National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Tuesday called the speech "destructive" to the relationship between the two countries.
    "The relationship between the U.S. and Israel has always been bipartisan and we have been fortunate that the politics have not been injected into this relationship," Rice said in an interview with Charlie Rose.
    "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 before his elections is that on both sides there have been injected some degree of partisanship," Rice said. "It is not only unfortunate but it is also destructive of the fabric of the relationship. It has always been bipartisan and we want to keep it that way. When it becomes injected with politics that's a problem."