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Most Americans oppose GOP move to invite Netanyahu to address Congress

Historically, support for Israel has been a bipartisan affair on Capitol Hill. But the prospect of Prime Minister Netanyahu criticizing President Obama over Iran policy in a speech to Congress next month has sparked partisan ire.

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    Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c.) attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Feb. 15, 2015. Netanyahu, who is due to address the US Congress on Iran on March 3 – over the objections of the Obama administration – has vowed 'to foil this bad and dangerous agreement.'
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A new CNN/ORC poll shows that a majority of Americans oppose the decision of Congressional Republicans to invite Israel’s prime minister to speak to Congress over the objections of the White House:

A large majority of Americans believe that Republican congressional leaders should not have invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress without consulting the White House, according to a new CNN/ORC survey.

The nationwide poll, released Tuesday, shows 63% of Americans say it was a bad move for congressional leadership to extend the invitation without giving President Barack Obama a heads up that it was coming. Only 33% say it was the right thing to do.

And as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to simmer in the Middle East, the survey found that a similar majority thinks the U.S. should stay out of that fight altogether.

House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu sparked a minor international incident and further strained already tense relations between the U.S. and Israeli leaders. Netanyahu is expected to make the case to Congress next month for increased sanctions on Iran, a key point of contention between the Israeli leader and Obama, who has been urging Congress to hold off on further sanctions for fear of jeopardizing nuclear talks with the nation.

Obama has said he will not meet with Netanyahu during his visit because the trip comes too close to Israel’s elections. A growing number of Democrats in both chambers have announced over the past two weeks that they won’t be attending the speech, prompting some to question whether the Israeli leader should cancel or move his speech.

Though the speech has become a partisan issue on Capitol Hill, even Republicans are split on whether it was a good idea for leadership to invite Netanyahu without alerting the White House, with a slight majority – 52% – backing the move. Just 14% of Democrats say it was the right thing to do, and just over a third of independents support the move.

But Americans overall believe the U.S. should stay out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with 66% in the new poll advocating the U.S. remain neutral. Of those who do support picking a side, the majority, 29%, back Israel, while only 2% support Palestine.

Even Republicans, typically seen as the party offering the strongest defense of Israel, are split on whether the U.S. should officially support Israel in the conflict. Forty-nine percent support backing the nation, while 47% say the U.S. should stay out of it.

To some degree, at least, this is a surprising result, given the fact that the American public has generally been quite supportive of Israel. The one exception to that general rule recently came during last summer's Gaza War, when polling indicated that Americans were divided on whether or not Israel was justified in pursuing its actions against Hamas, many of which had devastating impacts for civilians who just happened to be living in areas near Hamas military targets. At the time, some commentators wondered whether the daily images of civilian casualties would have an impact on the American public’s historic support for Israel, and for the fact that Americans tend to have a more positive view of Israel than they do of Palestinians. At the time, I suggested that the American people would likely maintain their generally positive views of the US-Israeli relationship, but these numbers raise the possibility that we may be looking at a change in that position. The reason for that, though, seems to have less to do with Israel itself or with the policies of the Israeli government than it does with modern American politics.

Historically, support for Israel has been a bipartisan affair from which there was very little dissent. It was a Democratic president, Harry Truman, who was among the most important supporters of the establishment of the State of Israel, for example, and while the relationship between the US and Israel during the 1950s and 60s was quite different than it it today, the two nations have maintained a close relationship over what nearly amounts to 70 years at this point, regardless of which party controlled the White House. Additionally, at the congressional level, Israel has always enjoyed strong support from Republicans and Democrats alike. There have been moments of tension, of course, such as during the Suez Crisis in the 1950s, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s, and intermittently over the entire Israeli-Palestinian issue. For the most part, though, critics of Israel in both parties have been in the minority. In recent years, though, and especially since Barack Obama became president, the issue of the US relationship with Israel has taken on a decidedly partisan tone, in the sense that it has often seemed as though the president’s critics in the Republican Party have become stronger supporters of the current prime minister of Israel than of the president of the United States. Speaker Boehner’s decision to go over the president’s head and invite Netanyahu to speak is arguably just the latest manifestation of that trend.

Viewed in that context, these poll numbers are likely more a reflection of the fact that the public does not approve of Congress undercutting the president on foreign policy in such an open and direct manner. In that sense, it’s arguably consistent with other polling that has shown the public’s dislike of how the Republican Congress has acted in its interactions with the president such as during the debt-ceiling showdown in the summer of 2011 or the government shutdown fiasco of 2013. For that reason, I tend to doubt that this one incident will have much of a long-term impact on the American public’s perception of Israel. However, these numbers should stand as a warning to Prime Minister Netanyahu that it isn’t necessarily in his country’s interests to get involved in an internal American partisan dispute in the manner that he has let himself be this time.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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