White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough says the United States shouldn’t wade into Israeli politics — even if the country’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, plans to weigh in on American policies.
His comments come days after House Speaker John Boehner announced that Netanyahu will address Congress in March, two weeks ahead of an Israeli election — a move that caught President Barack Obama’s administration by surprise.
Netanyahu is expected to lobby Congress to approve tough new sanctions on Iran. Obama has opposed those sanctions, saying he needs more time to hash out a deal to end Iran’s nuclear program and that new sanctions would put those talks at risk.
McDonough said Obama and Netanyahu won’t meet during that trip.
“We ought not get involved in their politics. That’s why the President thinks it doesn’t make any sense for us to meet with the prime minister two weeks before his election,” McDonough said during an appearance Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Still, McDonough sought to downplay the notion of a rift between the two countries, noting that Israel is the United States’ most important ally in the Middle East.
“This is something that ought to be, and will continue to be, as far as we’re concerned, above partisan politics,” he said.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, said on “State of the Union” that the Netanyahu invitation is “a terrible mistake by the speaker,” and said he agreed with McDonough’s stance.
“For us to extend an invitation two weeks before the Israeli election gives the Israelis the impression we’re meddling in their election,” he said.
Criticism came from Republicans, as well.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who was Obama’s first U.S. Ambassador to China and sought the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2012, said the Netanyahu invitation shows “partisanship kind of slipping into foreign policy.”
He called the Israeli leader’s speech to Congress “a really bad precedent.”
“It’s bad statecraft, it’s bad politics, and I think it’s going to put a real damper on what traditionally is the head-of-state to head-of-state relationship that governs foreign policy — and it will for some time,” Huntsman said.
But Obama’s push for extra time to negotiate a deal with Iran has drawn criticism, as well — including from Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said Obama’s talking points sound like they come “straight out of Tehran.”