The White House on Wednesday backed comments by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who said in an interview that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's March 3 speech in Congress is "destructive" to the relationship between the two countries.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, White House spokesman Josh Earnest was asked about Rice’s comments and responded, “I believe what Susan was referring to is how reducing the U.S.-Israeli relationship to just a relationship between two political parties is destructive to a relationship between our two countries that for generations had been strengthened through bipartisan cooperation, not just in this country but in Israel.”
“The President himself has raised this concern. The President has said that the relationship between the U.S. and Israel can't just be reduced to a relationship between the Republican Party and the Likud Party,” added Earnest.
The White House spokesperson said that Washington hopes “that we'll continue to see leadership in this country and in Israel that will not allow the relationship between our two countries to be dragged down by party politics.”
Earnest was then asked whether President Barack Obama agrees with Rice that by accepting the invitation to speak to Congress, Prime Minister Netanyahu has done something “destructive to the fabric of the U.S.-Israeli relationship”.
“Again, I think it is entirely consistent with what the President has already said, that the U.S.-Israel relationship has been strengthened because you have seen leaders in both parties in both countries signal their strong support for that relationship. And allowing this relationship to be subjected to party politics does weaken the relationship. It's not good for that relationship,” Earnest replied.
Asked why Obama is not asking Netanyahu to call of his speech if he believes it is “destructive”, Earnest responded, “Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to make these decisions for himself. He’s the Prime Minister of Israel. He’s the person who should be setting his own schedule. And he’s the one that has to make the decisions about what will be in his country’s best interest -- in the same way that the President of the United States has to make those kinds of decisions for his country.”
In her interview with journalist Charlie Rose on Tuesday, Rice said, "What has happened over the last several weeks by virtue of the invitation that was issued by the speaker and the acceptance of it by Prime Minister Netanyahu two weeks in advance of his elections is that on both sides there have been injected some degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate, I think it's destructive of the fabric of the relationship."
"It's always been bipartisan. We need to keep it that way. When it becomes injected with politics that's a problem," she added.
Netanyahu’s speech has raised the tensions between Israel and the United States, with Democrats and Republicans quarreling about it as well.
The invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress was extended by House Speaker John Boehner, who did so without consulting the White House or the Democrats, and later explained he felt it was important to do an end-run around White House "interference".
Democrats were outraged, with Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy saying he would not attend the speech and accusing Republican leaders in the House of Representatives of "unilaterally" arranging and politicizing Netanyahu's planned address.
Other lawmakers threatened to boycott the speech as well. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said there would be no organized "boycott" of Netanyahu's speech, but she suggested some lawmakers might “be too busy to attend”.
Senior Democratic Senators Richard Durbin and Dianne Feinstein invited Netanyahu to a closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats - separate from his Congress speech - during his trip to Washington. Netanyahu declined the invitation, explaining that accepting it would “compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit.”
Meanwhile, the White House has made clear that neither President Barack Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry would meet with Netanyahu while he is in Washington, citing the proximity of his visit to the elections in Israel.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki has indicated that Kerry will “probably be out of town” during Netanyahu’s speech, and Vice President Joe Biden has also announced that he will be travelling abroad and would not be attending the speech.