Joe Biden to skip Netanyahu speech, raising stakes in US-Israel drama

Vice President Biden will now be out of the country on March 3, when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress. Congress's invitation was issued without consulting the White House, causing a breach of protocol.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
In this May 24, 2011 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks with House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio on Capitol Hill in Washington. Israel’s ambassador to the US has gotten an earful from a half-dozen House Democrats angered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acceptance of Boehner's invitation to address Congress next month, just ahead of Israeli elections and amid ongoing negotiations between the Obama administration and Iran over its nuclear program.

Vice President Joe Biden will be out of the country when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint session of Congress next month.

The news, reported by Politico, raises the stakes in the drama over House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to the prime minister, which was made without consulting the White House. The breach of protocol has roiled already tense relations between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. In his speech, the Israeli leader is expected to express concern about US negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons capability.

On Friday, the vice president’s office confirmed to Politico that Mr. Biden plans to skip the speech, because he will be in an as-yet-unnamed foreign country.

“We are not ready to announce details of the trip yet, and normally our office wouldn’t announce this early, but the planning process has been under way for a while,” a Biden spokesperson said.

Just a day earlier, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that the vice president’s schedule for the first week of March, when Netanyahu is due to visit, was “not yet set.” But he confirmed that Biden would attend Pope Francis’s address to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 24.

Netanyahu is scheduled to address Congress on March 3, just two weeks before Israelis go to the polls. Mr. Obama will not meet with Netanyahu during his visit; Obama administration policy is not to meet with a foreign leader so close to an election.

But the question of whether Biden would attend the speech has been hanging over the brouhaha since it broke last month. Israel is the US’s closest friend in the Middle East and enjoys strong bipartisan support. In his capacity as president of the Senate, Biden would be in the frame, just behind the prime minister, in any television coverage of the speech. 

On Thursday, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said there would not be a “boycott,” but she suggested there might be more than a few Democratic no-shows. 

"When these heads of state come, people are here doing their work, they're trying to pass legislation, they're meeting with their constituents and the rest,” Congresswoman Pelosi said. “It's not a high-priority item for them."

She also said there was a possibility that the event may not take place. "As of now, it is my intention to go. It's still my hope that the event will not take place."

Israeli officials have spent the week doing damage control. On Friday, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said that Netanyahu was misled into thinking the invitation was bipartisan.

"It appears that the speaker of Congress made a move, in which we trusted, but which it ultimately became clear was a one-sided move and not a move by both sides," Mr. Hanegbi told 102 FM Tel Aviv Radio on Friday, according to Reuters.

On Wednesday, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein met with members on Capitol Hill to try to quell the controversy, though unsuccessfully.  It was the US-born Ambassador Dermer, a one-time Republican operative, who set up Netanyahu’s visit.

The drama puts Democrats, particularly Jewish Democrats, in a tough spot.

“I always respect the right of a president of a nation to come before us, but I think the time is totally inappropriate, just before the Israeli election,” two-term Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D) of California told The Hill newspaper.

“It’s a deliberate attempt to try to influence the Israeli election and done right after the State of the Union address in which the president said foreign policy is getting better, and Mr. Boehner wants to demonstrate that things are not getting better," he added.

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