This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington, D.C. to address high-ranking U.S. government officials — but not the president of the United States — in a barrage of public speeches and private meetings. Netanyahu will address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday as a sort of precursor to his anticipated speech before a joint session of Congress the following day. Although he won't be invited into the White House during his time here, the Israeli prime minister will directly take on one of President Obama's second-term priorities: a deal with Iran on the nation's nuclear program.
Netanyahu's visit to America is particularly controversial considering the discord between the Israeli prime minister and the White House. Much to the dismay of the Obama administration, Netanyahu was invited to address Congress by House Speaker John Boehner without approval from the White House. Boehner, leader of the Republican majority in the House, opposes Obama's nuclear program agreement with Iran.
So, of course, Netanyahu won't be meeting with the president. But it's not like Obama and Netanyahu have ever really liked each other to begin with. Their public discontent can be documented all the way back to 2011, when Obama and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy were caught on a voice recorder openly expressing their dislike of Netanyahu. At the time, Sarkozy called Netanyahu a "liar" and Obama told him: "You are fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you."
Lately, their relationship has been more on edge as the president begins moving on his deal with Iran, which would lift the harsh sanctions imposed on the nation on several conditions. Now, Netanyahu is here in the States to make his case for why the deal would be dangerous for Israel and the Western world.
Here's a brief overview of the two world leaders' most recent political sparring...
2012 Presidential Election Spells Trouble For Netanyahu
In 2012, Netanyahu's close ties to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney were brought to the public's attention, though the Israeli prime minister refused to officially endorse Romney. In an interview with Meet the Press a few months before the election, Netanyahu said he didn't want to get "drawn into the American election." However, there was widespread speculation that Netanyahu preferred Romney over Obama.
Following Romney's loss to Obama, Netanyahu had to go on an apology tour of sorts, sending out a press release to the state of Israel and privately calling Obama to congratulate him on his win. However, it may have been too lately, as many Americans and Israelis alike were already wondering if the prime minister weakened relations with America.
"A Real Difference" Around Iran
Fast forward more than two years later, and Netanyahu and Obama are still in a rough patch. Over the last month, the two leaders have made their disagreements — or what Obama has called "a real difference" — on Iran's nuclear program very clear. Obama, who has been trying to make amends with Iran and President Hassan Rouhani, would like to reach a deal on the country's nuclear program and crushing sanctions by the end of March. Meanwhile, Netanyahu believes Iran would continue to make nuclear weapons, despite assurance from Rouhani and other Iranian officials that that's not the case.
In early February, Obama sent an amusing yet strong message to Netanyahu while conducting a press conference alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Obama expressed his skepticism over Netanyahu, who is visiting America just two weeks before the Israeli elections, saying:
I talk to him all the time. Our teams constantly coordinate. 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.
It was a pretty big burn for Netanyahu, but the prime minister has since rebounded. Just before leaving Israel, Netanyahu told reporters, "I respect U.S. President Barack Obama." However, Israeli officials traveling on his flight to the United States told reporters that Netanyahu was putting most of his faith in Congress, calling it "the last brake" to halt the nuclear deal with Iran.
Politics At Play
To be sure, the unfolding drama is not just between Obama and Netanyahu. Lawmakers and security officials on both sides believe this feud with Iran is also being used as a political pawn for U.S. Republicans, who are intent on blocking the president's policies over the next two years and safeguarding a GOP win for the White House in 2016.
Last week, National Security Adviser Susan Rice questioned Netanyahu's motive, tell PBS' Charlie Rose that the prime minister's trip is causing partisanship that will be "destructive of the fabric of the relationship" between the United States and Israel.
On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry, acting as a conciliator between the White House and Israel, warned everyone about playing "political football."
"Obviously, it was odd, if not unique, that we learned of it from the speaker of the House and that an administration was not included in this process,” Kerry said on ABC's This Week. However, Kerry added that the administration did not want to turn this visit into a game of partisan politics that would surely further drive a wedge between the Republican-controlled Congress and Obama.
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