Unyielding support for Israel has long been a bipartisan pillar of US foreign policy. But Prime Minister Netanyahu's planned address to Congress has further strained his already tense relationship with the White House.
Israeli leaders normally receive a glowing bipartisan welcome in Washington. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress in 2011, he received 29 standing ovations from both Democrats and Republicans.
But this time around it will be different. More than two dozen lawmakers, mostly Democrats, have vowed to boycott Netanyahu's speech on Tuesday. Vice President Joe Biden will be skipping town for an impromptu trip to South America, and President Obama has declined to meet with Netanyahu during the Israeli leader's visit to Washington.
The controversy started in January when House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to address Congress on "the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life." Boehner, a Republican, did not consult the White House before extending the invitation. He criticized President Obama for devoting too little attention to Islamic fundamentalism in his state of the union speech. Netanyahu would fill in the gaps for the American people, according to Boehner.
"I frankly didn't want them getting in the way and quashing what I thought was a real opportunity," America's third most senior elected official told Fox News, referring to the Obama administration.
Leading Democrats were outraged. Not only had the president been rebuffed, but Netanyahu was scheduled to address Congress just two weeks before parliamentary elections in Israel. Susan Rice, the White House national security adviser, suggested that the invitation was motivated by political partisanship, calling the move potentially "destructive" to the "fabric" of the US-Israel relationship.
"Much of the controversy has been over whether this was a deliberate political maneuver by Boehner to put the Democrats in a defensive position of either appearing to be critical of Israel by not coming to the speech, or showing up and giving legitimacy to what will certainly be a critique of the Obama administration," William Quandt, who served on the National Security Council in the Nixon and Carter administrations, told DW.
Iran nuclear negotiations
Netanyahu's speech coincides with a critical stage in the Iran nuclear negotiations. The Obama administration wants to cut a framework deal with Tehran by the end of March. But negotiators have had to contend with very public criticism from the prime minister, who views White House efforts to improve ties with the Islamic Republic as a threat to Israel's security.
"Netanyahu is looking obsessively at one issue, Iran, saying that this is so important that it justifies taking the unusual step of coming to the United States at this time and sounding a very loud alarm bell," said Quandt, who was involved in the negotiations that led to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
But there's evidence that Netanyahu has been prone to political hyperbole. In 2012, he delivered a speech to the UN General Assembly, claiming that Iran was just a year away from building a nuclear weapon. The Mossad seemed to disagree. Israel's intelligence service said that Tehran "was not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons," according to leaked documents published by the Guardian and Al Jazeera#.
The Israeli prime minister's public campaign against the negotiations has soured his relations with the White House, which were already tense over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as well as Israel's conduct during the war in Gaza last summer. Obama administration officials have accused Netanyahu of selectively leaking information to frame the US position on Iran as weak. According to a report by the New York Times, the White House has gone so far as to reduce information sharing with the Israelis about the nuclear negotiations.
But many Republicans and some Democrats share Netanyahu's view that the Obama administration is upgrading ties with an enemy at the expense of a close ally. Members of the Senate are advancing legislation that would impose additional sanctions against Iran if a nuclear deal isn't reached by June. The president has said the legislation would torpedo the current negotiations and vowed to veto it.
"That's what worries countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel," Quandt said. "They see that the nuclear deal is not the end of the road. This is possibly the beginning of the restoration of a more cooperative US-Iran relationship."
Democrats extend olive branch
In an effort to defuse the controversy, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Richard Durbin invited Netanyahu to meet with Democrats "to maintain Israel's dialogue with both political parties in Congress." According to a CNN/ORC poll, 63 percent of Americans said House Speaker Boehner was wrong to invite Netanyahu without consulting President Obama.
"This unprecedented move threatens to undermine the important bipartisan approach towards Israel - which as long-standing supporters of Israel troubles us deeply," Feinstein and Durbin wrote in a letter obtained by the Reuters news agency.
"It sacrifices deep and well-established cooperation on Israel for short-term partisan points - something that should never be done with Israeli security and which we fear could have lasting repercussions," the leading Democrats said.
But Netanyahu declined the invitation to meet separately with Democrats. The Israeli prime minister said that such a meeting would only fuel speculation that his visit was partisan. He also declined invitations to meet individually with Republicans and conservative think tanks while in Washington.
"In his view, as long as he has strong support in Congress - and particularly in the more conservative part of Congress - he doesn't have to worry very much," Quandt said."There's no price that's going to be paid. They're not going to have aid cut."