POLITICS

Netanyahu Considering Changes To Congress Speech After Criticism

02/09/2015 09:34 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

* Israeli prime minister to address U.S. Congress on March 3

* Speech on Iran comes ahead of March 17 Israeli election

* Latest poll shows Netanyahu's party losing ground (Adds Boehner's spokesman comment, paragraph 6)

By Luke Baker

JERUSALEM, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Israeli officials are considering amending the format of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned address to the U.S. Congress next month to try to calm some of the partisan furore the Iran-focused speech has provoked.

Netanyahu is due to address a joint session of Congress about Iran's nuclear program on March 3, just two weeks before Israeli elections, following an invitation from John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the house.

Boehner's invitation has caused consternation in both Israel and the United States, largely because it is seen as Netanyahu, a hawk on Iran, working with the Republicans to thumb their noses at President Barack Obama's policy on Iran.

It is also seen as putting Netanyahu's political links to the Republicans ahead of Israel's nation-to-nation ties with the United States, its strongest and most important ally, while serving as a pre-election campaign booster.

As a result, Israeli officials are considering whether Netanyahu should speak to a closed-door session of Congress, rather than in a prime-time TV address, so as to drain some of the intensity from the event, a source said.

Boehner's spokesman, Michael Steel, said the speech was still scheduled to go ahead as planned on the appointed date but he declined to comment on the report that Israeli officials were considering amending the speech's format.

Another option is for the prime minister to make his speech at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington the same week, rather than in Congress.

"The issue has been under discussion for a week," said a source close to the prime minister's office. "(Netanyahu) is discussing it with Likud people. Some say he should give up on the speech, others that he should go through with it."

But Netanyahu told voters from the Russian speaking community on Monday evening that he was determined to discuss Israel's objections in Washington to an emerging deal with Iran but he did not say if that meant a public speech in Congress.

"I am ... determined to go to Washington to present Israel's position to the members of Congress and the American people," Netanyahu said, repeating that nuclear weapons in Iran's hands would constitute an existential threat to Israel.

An opinion poll by Israel's Army Radio on Monday said 47 percent of people think Netanyahu should cancel the address, while 34 percent say he should go ahead with it.

Since the issue arose, there are signs it is having an impact on his poll ratings ahead of the March 17 election.

Obama said his decision not to meet with Netanyahu followed basic protocol of not meeting with world leaders before an election.

"Some of this just has to do with how we do business, and I think it's important for us to maintain these protocols because the U.S.-Israeli relationship is not about a particular party," Obama said at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Washington.

A poll by the Times of Israel on Monday showed Netanyahu's Likud would win 23 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, four fewer than the center-left opposition. Earlier polls showed Likud and the opposition alliance neck-and-neck on 24 seats.

Speaking on radio last week, Israel's deputy foreign minister suggested Netanyahu had been "misled" about the speech, believing it to be bipartisan when the Democrats were not entirely on board.

While that may have created some room for Netanyahu to get out of it if the pressure at home and from Washington becomes too great, it may be too late.

If he withdraws now it may make him look weak with core voters. Furthermore, he needs an opportunity to play up his tough-on-Iran credentials before election, with national security an overriding issue for voters. (Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Ralph Boulton, Toni Reinhold)

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