Obama Takes Preemptive Jab at Netanyahu Ahead of Speech to Congress

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TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - MARCH 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an official welcoming ceremony on his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport on March, 20, 2013 near Tel Aviv, Israel. This will be Obama's first visit as president to the region, and his itinerary will include meetings with the Palestinian and Israeli leaders as well as a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  (Photo by Marc Israel Sellem-Pool/Getty Images)
Netanyahu welcomes Obama to Tel Aviv, Israel on March, 20, 2013.Photo: Pool/2013 Getty Images

On Monday Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu kicked off his trip to the U.S. by striking a conciliatory tone, telling the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that his speech to Congress “is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds.” Apparently, Obama was unmoved (possibly because he didn’t even watch Netanyahu’s AIPAC address). In an interview with Reuters several hours later, Obama said the current rift between the U.S. and Israel is “not a personal issue” and isn’t “permanently destructive” to the relationship between the two countries. Then he offered some thoughts on why no one should trust Netanyahu’s assessment of the situation with Iran.

Obama said Netanyahu’s speech is a “distraction” from the ongoing effort to negotiate a deal that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon:

Now keep in mind the prime minister, when we signed up for this interim deal that would essentially freeze Iran’s program, roll back its highly enriched uranium - its 20 percent highly enriched uranium - and so reduce the possibility that Iran might breakout while we were engaged in these negotiations, when we first announced this interim a deal, Prime Minister Netanyahu made all sorts of claims. This was going to be a terrible deal. This was going to result in Iran getting 50 billion dollars worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement. None of that has come true.

The president reiterated that he finds it inappropriate that Netanyahu is addressing Congress two weeks before the Israeli election, saying it “makes it look like we are taking sides.” He asked if those applauding House Speaker John Boehner for inviting the prime minister to address Congress would have done the same if Democrats had reached out to the president of France in the lead-up to the Iraq War and asked him to “criticize or to air those disagreements.” “I think most people would say, well, that wouldn’t be the right thing to do,” Obama said. “I guarantee you that some of the same commentators who are cheerleading now would have suggested that it was the wrong thing to do.”

The partisan rift grew even deeper on Monday night, with senators Al Franken and Elizabeth Warren announcing that they plan to boycott the speech. According to The Hill’s tally, that means 55 Democrats — eight senators and 47 House members — will skip the address. “This has unfortunately become a partisan spectacle, both because of the impending Israeli election and because it was done without consulting the administration,” said Franken. “I’d be uncomfortable being part of an event that I don’t believe should be happening.”

That’s fine with Republicans, particularly because it means more tickets for them. Over the past few days, lawmakers have been rushing to claim the tickets their Democratic colleagues won’t be using, and there have been ten times as many requests as there are gallery seats. Many lawmakers are calling Netanyahu’s speech “the hottest ticket in town,” but according to the New York Times, many felt even that phrase doesn’t capture the enthusiasm. Senator Chuck Schumer declared “The tickets are hotter than fresh latkes,” and Senator Lindsey Graham said there could only be more demand “if it was Garth Brooks – maybe.”

But the best comparison came from Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman: “If Taylor Swift and Katy Perry did a joint concert at Madison Square Garden wearing white-and-gold and black-and-blue dresses, accompanied by dancing sharks and llamas, that’s the only way you’d have a tougher ticket.” The GOP is officially too excited about this speech, so don’t be surprised if you see them dancing in the aisles, just like T. Swift.