Obama outraged at Israel over Netanyahu’s upcoming address to Congress on Iran

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President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.

President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.
President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.
The Obama administration, after days of mounting tension, signaled on Wednesday how angry it is with Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted Republican leaders’ invitation to address Congress on Iran without consulting the White House.

The outrage the episode has incited within President Obama’s inner circle became clear in unusually sharp criticism by a senior administration official who said that the Israeli ambassador, Ron Dermer, who helped orchestrate the invitation, had repeatedly placed Mr. Netanyahu’s political fortunes above the relationship between Israel and the United States.

The official who made the comments to The New York Times would not be named, and the White House declined to comment. The remarks were the latest fallout after Mr. Dermer, without the White House’s knowledge, worked with House Speaker John A. Boehner to arrange the speech, which is scheduled for March.

The remarks are likely to escalate a feud between the White House, Republicans on Capitol Hill and Mr. Netanyahu over the invitation, which has led to a new low in American-Israeli relations and threatened to mar the long tradition of bipartisan support for Israel in Congress.

Such officially authorized criticisms of diplomats from major allies are unusual.

In a telephone interview late Wednesday, Mr. Dermer said, “I have no regrets whatsoever that I have acted in a way to advance my country’s interests.” He said he never meant to slight the White House by keeping the confidence of the House speaker, who had suggested the invitation. He said he left it to Mr. Boehner to notify Mr. Obama’s team.

“My understanding was that it was the speaker’s prerogative to do, and that he would be the one to inform the administration,” Mr. Dermer said. “The prime minister feels very strongly that he has to speak on this issue. That’s why he accepted the invitation, not to wade into your political debate or make this a partisan issue, and not to be disrespectful to the president.”

Mr. Dermer, an American-born former Republican political operative who is so close to Mr. Netanyahu that he is often called “Bibi’s brain,” became Israel’s envoy to the United States in 2013. White House officials were at first wary that Mr. Dermer would politicize relations between the United States and Israel, but over time cultivated a working relationship with him after concluding that there were advantages in his closeness to Mr. Netanyahu.

The last week has borne out their initial concerns.

Mr. Dermer relayed the invitation to Mr. Netanyahu from Mr. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, without notifying top officials in Washington or Jerusalem. American and Israeli officials said that Mr. Dermer, in the course of a lengthy meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry just before Mr. Netanyahu’s speech was announced, never mentioned it.

In response, the White House has called the invitation a breach of diplomatic protocol and announced that Mr. Obama would not meet with Mr. Netanyahu when he visits. Administration officials maintained that the decision to avoid Mr. Netanyahu was consistent with a policy of not meeting with world leaders close to their elections — Israel’s is two weeks after the speech — to avoid the appearance of influence. But that policy has been ignored in the past. On Capitol Hill, Democrats have called the invitation a political stunt to undercut the president. It has also inserted Mr. Netanyahu into the middle of a dispute between Mr. Obama and congressional Republicans over new Iran sanctions, which the president opposes until international negotiations to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon play out.

For those who have tracked Mr. Dermer’s rise — from his days as a young operative working under Republican strategist Frank Luntz during the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress to his ascent to Mr. Netanyahu’s inner circle — the maneuvering over the speech appears to be in character.

“He’s a political operative, he’s not really an ambassador,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former United States ambassador to Israel. “What he did was totally unacceptable from a standpoint of diplomacy. To think about going behind the back of a friendly country’s administration and working out this kind of arrangement with the parliament or the Congress — it’s unheard-of.”

Mr. Kurtzer said while it was unlikely the Obama administration would take the extraordinary step of declaring Mr. Dermer “persona non grata” — the official method for a foreign diplomat to be ousted from a country — it could request that Mr. Dermer be reprimanded or removed.

“He has soiled his pad; who’s he going to work with?” Mr. Kurtzer said.

Mr. Dermer’s allies counter that he has been effective at precisely the job he holds: relentlessly representing Israel’s interests in the United States, although with less diplomatic finesse than his predecessors.

“He’s more direct than they are, he’s less judicious with his words, but he makes it up with principle,” said Mr. Luntz, who taught Mr. Dermer at the University of Pennsylvania before hiring him in 1993. “He’s got tremendous courage and he’s prepared to take a principled risk. I don’t know anyone who is as focused on a specific goal and is prepared to walk through brick walls to get there.”

Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said Mr. Dermer had been “extremely strong and successful” at his most important tasks, which are to represent Israel’s interests and defend Mr. Netanyahu’s prerogatives at a critical time for Israel’s security.

“This administration has repeatedly sought to both undermine and embarrass this prime minister, and the same Democrats who now profess to be so outraged by this have been notably silent,” Mr. Brooks said. “When the dust settles on this — and the dust will settle — I think that he’ll continue to be effective on the range of issues that are important to Israel’s security.”

Critics argued that Mr. Dermer’s actions had harmed the relationship between the United States and Israel in lasting ways. “To be an ambassador, you need to be a representative of your country to the entirety of the other country, and that has not been his role to date,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of J Street, a Democratic-aligned pro-Israel group.

NY Times