Washington (CNN)The White House has significantly lowered the level of representation it is sending to the annual conference of a large pro-Israel lobbying group, as tensions between the U.S. and Israel continue to mount.
White House gets confrontational before Netanyahu visit
National Security Adviser Susan Rice and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power will be deployed to provide a forceful defense of the administration's Iran policy as the White House appears to shift into campaign mode to push back against Israel's criticism of U.S. dealmaking with Tehran.
Rice, who recently leveled some of the harshest criticism to date at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Power are much lower in the pecking order than previous administration speakers at AIPAC. During Obama's tenure, the vice president, secretary of state and the president himself have been the ones to address the group. Rice and Power, however, are still prominent senior figures, and their being tapped ended speculation that the White House might not send a Cabinet-level representative.
During his visit to Washington, Netanyahu will meet with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders, though he turned down an invitation from Senate Democrats for a separate session. An aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said Netanyahu's request for the meeting with leaders was standard for a visiting head of state.
Administration officials have already begun pushing back against Netanyahu's claims that Iran negotiations are inching Tehran toward a nuclear weapon. Gone are the muted responses to Netanyahu's scheduled March 3 speech to a joint session of Congress. Top Obama administration officials have shifted to a much more confrontational tone.
While senior administration officials deny they are offering a pre-buttal to what they expect to be a blistering attack from the prime minister, the White House is sending clear signals that U.S.-Israeli relations are being damaged by Netanyahu's visit.
The barbs started Tuesday when Rice warned in an interview with Charlie Rose that Netanyahu's planned speech reflected a partisanship that would be "destructive to the fabric of the relationship" between the two countries.
Prior to Rice's comments, White House officials had only said Netanyahu and House Speaker John Boehner had broken protocol by not notifying the administration about the planned speech to a joint session of Congress. Obama, his aides said, would not schedule a meeting with the prime minister during his visit to Washington because of upcoming Israeli elections.
White House officials, in a show of campaign discipline, backed Rice's remarks.
"What she said was entirely consistent with what the President said publicly before," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
One day after Rice's comments, Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Netanyahu was "wrong" to oppose the administration's initial framework deal with Iran, reached in late 2013.
"Today he's saying we should be extending that interim agreement," Kerry complained to the committee.
A separate senior administration official joined Kerry's assessment.
"Suddenly he doesn't mention the (Joint Plan of Action) anymore because, hey, what do you know, it was actually great for Israel and he doesn't want to admit he was completely wrong?" a senior administration official said of Netanyahu.
The official said Rice and Kerry were only answering questions posed to them, not speaking out as part of a coordinated effort to get ahead of Netanyahu's speech.
Boehner slammed Rice's comments.
"I couldn't disagree more," he said Thursday. "The American people and both parties in Congress have always stood with Israel. Nothing -- and no one -- should get in the way of that."
Netanyahu dismissed the White House criticism as less important than a matter he considers vital to Israel's survival.
"I respect the White House and the President of the United States, but on such a fateful matter that can determine whether not we can survive, I must do everything to prevent such a great danger for Israel," Netanyahu said Wednesday.
In another sign of the deepening frustration inside the administration, the White House delayed naming who will speak at the AIPAC conference, which begins Sunday. Until Thursday the White House refused to say if any administration would attend at all.
There is a notable figure from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's orbit slated to attend. On the list of confirmed speakers, which includes current and former members of Congress, as well other Washington foreign policy experts, Ann Lewis, a former adviser to Clinton, is scheduled to speak.
"I think that the White House has overreacted and overshot, and it's now backfiring. Big mistake," said Dan Senor, one of AIPAC's confirmed speakers and a former foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney.
But a growing number of Democrats are rallying behind the official White House in its opposition to Netanyahu's speech.
"As a long-time supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship, I believe the timing of Prime Minister Netanyahu's address to Congress -- just days before Israeli elections -- is highly inappropriate," said Senator Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, in a recent letter to Boehner.