03:33 - Source: CNN
Obama talks Netanyahu visit

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Netanyahu scheduled to address Congress March 3

Speech has stirred controversy among Democrats

(CNN) —  

Israeli officials are looking at changing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to address a joint meeting of Congress, including potentially relocating the speech, according to an Israeli source.

The debate follows mounting criticism of Netanyahu’s move to use the high profile address to criticize President Barack Obama’s policy on Iran. While a range of ideas are being discussed there is no final decision yet, the Israeli source stressed.

An official in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office insists “at this moment” the speech is still on, suggesting the Israelis were leaving themselves some wiggle room.

“In recent days the Prime Minister has received a number of inquiries about his visit to the US. At this moment there is no change to the plans,” this official told CNN.

House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu last month to speak in the House chamber, but did not consult with the White House before officially reaching out to the Israeli leader.

The speech is slated for March 3 but many congressional Democrats have urged the Israeli leader to reconsider delivering the speech, and have also asked the Speaker to shift the date. They argue the timing – two weeks before the election in Israel – is inappropriate.

Platform for criticism

But Democrats’ larger issue with the speech is it gives Netanyahu a broad public platform for his strong criticism of the Obama Administration’s negotiations with Iran. They worry that the Israeli leader’s message could jeopardize the international talks over Iran’s nuclear program, which are approaching a critical deadline.

A move to shift the speech to a venue outside the Capitol, or deliver the speech in a closed chamber could be a face saving compromise for Netanyahu. He could still deliver his sharp message on Iran, but also repair the damage he’s done to his relationship with Democrats on the Hill, who are angry their allegiance to a key ally is being questioned.

Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. made the rounds last week on Capitol Hill, meeting with frustrated House Democrats, including some Jewish members, who lashed out at his handling of the matter. Dermer met with Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee. He also met with others including Rep. Steve Israel, D-New York, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, Rep. Sander Levin, D-Michigan, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-New York. While affirming their support for Israel, these members urged Netanyahu to reconsider coming to the House floor, and suggested moving the speech to another venue –anywhere in Washington outside the chamber, according to one source familiar with these discussions.

An Israeli source says they are looking at the possibility of Netanyahu speaking somewhere else, or in a closed session on the House floor. In exchange for the shift, Netanyahu would potentially add a meeting with top congressional leaders to his schedule. They also hope to have a meeting with White House officials in which the President could drop by, though there’s little evidence the administration is interested in making such a deal.

One senior House Republican leadership aide tells CNN the Speaker’s office is moving forward with plans for Netanyahu’s visit.

Obama acknowledged his “very real difference” with Netanyahu over Iran at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday. He also reiterated his position that he didn’t support a public address so close to the Israeli election.

“We have a practice of not meeting with leaders right before their elections, two weeks before their elections. As much as I love Angela, if she was two weeks away from an election, she probably would not have received an invitation to the White House, and I suspect she wouldn’t have asked for one,” Obama said.

Joe Biden

On Friday, Vice President Joe Biden’s office announced he would not attend the speech because he will be traveling abroad. When foreign leaders are invited to address the House and Senate, the Vice President typically attends speeches and sits on the dais behind the leader - a public image beamed around the world. Biden’s office did not release any details of his trip but said it had been in the works for a while.

“As we have consistently said, this is an event that was coordinated between the Israelis and Speaker Boehner. We are not playing a role in this event,” a senior Obama Administration official told CNN.

Last week, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she hoped that Netanyahu’s speech would be cancelled. While Pelosi conceded that she had no reason from her discussions with Israeli officials to think that the speech that Netanyahu would withdraw from the invitation, she strongly suggested circumstances could change.

“You never know, things happen in people’s schedules,” Pelosi said.

Asked if she planned to attend the joint meeting, Pelosi said, “as of now it is my intention to go.”

But other House Democrats, including several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, say they will boycott the speech if it goes ahead as scheduled.

Netanyahu’s Likud party is in a close election race with the center-left opposition led by Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog and former justice minister Tzipi Livni, who leads a small centrist party. Both Herzog and Livni, who have teamed up to form an alliance in the election, have criticized Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress and have urged him to cancel it.

Netanyahu has campaigned on a tough-against-Iran platform and has been accused of using the speech as a way to play up those credentials with voters.

On Sunday, he addressed French-speaking members of his Likud party, doubling down on the decision to address Congress on March 3, saying “I will go any place I’m invited to convey the Israeli position against those who want to kill us”.


But there are signs the controversy is impacting Netanyahu’s standing in the polls, with the Israeli media and public voicing concern that Netanyahu is contributing to further strains between Israel and the United States, its closest ally.

An Israel Army Radio poll on Monday said only 34% of Israelis think Netanyahu should go ahead with the address, while 47% think he should cancel. Another poll published by the Times of Israel on Monday showed Netanyahu’s party four seats in the Knesset behind Herzog and Livni’s Zionist Camp alliance.

CNN’s Jim Acosta contributed to this report