Ahead of Netanyahu speech, Menendez hails U.S.-Israeli ties

US Senate New Jersey
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez boasted of his unflinching support for Israel in a speech Monday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, drawing around a dozen standing ovations in his 19-minute address. (AP Photo/Mel Evans,file)

WASHINGTON - The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey's Robert Menendez, said he will "be proud" to escort Benjamin Netanyahu into the House Chamber for the Israeli prime minister's speech to Congress on Tuesday, even as some Democrats recoil at an event they see as a political jab at President Obama.

Menendez boasted of his unflinching support for Israel in a speech Monday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, drawing around a dozen standing ovations in his 19-minute address.

"It is in the national-security interest of the United States to have a strong, unwavering relationship with the State of Israel," said Menendez, who holds a key position on foreign affairs and who has pressed for additional sanctions on Iran despite objections from Obama, who fears they might disrupt negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.

"I may agree with some Democrats that the political timing of Prime Minister Netanyahu's invitation . . . may have been unfortunate, and that we must work fervently to keep the U.S.-Israel relationship a strong bipartisan endeavor," Menendez said, "but I take issue with those who say the prime minister's visit to the United States is 'destructive to U.S.-Israel relations.' "

Obama and Netanyahu have been sharply at odds over the Iran talks, and the Israeli leader's speech has added a new layer of tension in the U.S.-Israel alliance.

But Menendez, who has also butted heads with Obama over Middle East policy, said he planned to show Netanyahu "the respect he deserves from every American who cares about our relationship with the only true democracy in the Middle East."

Menendez's speech contrasted with the reactions from some other Democrats.

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) will not attend Netanyahu's address.

"I would never participate in any activity to disparage the president of the United States," Fattah said in a statement.

He was the only official from the Philadelphia region to say he would not attend, but more than 50 Democrats have said they would skip the event, according to the Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper.

Netanyahu is coming at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), without consultation with the White House - a breach of protocol when it comes to foreign leaders.

Some Democrats fear the speech will be used as fodder for Republican attacks on Obama's foreign policy. Those critics have been left to decide between backing their president and backing Israel, a country that usually enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support.

Sen. Cory A. Booker (D., N.J.) called the GOP leader's invitation "an affront to our president" and members of Congress.

"I am deeply troubled by the politicization of America's vital relationship with Israel," he said in a statement.

But Booker will attend Tuesday, saying he "will listen to all sides and will not miss an opportunity to hear from the prime minister of one of America's closest and most important allies."

The speeches from Menendez and Netanyahu come as the United States and five international partners negotiate with Iran for a deal aimed at preventing Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu fears that talks will fail to stop a nuclear Iran, which will threaten Israel's survival.

He told the conference Monday that his address to Congress "is not intended to show any disrespect" to Obama.

Obama and his aides have argued that a negotiated agreement is the best, and longest-lasting, way to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons and would avoid another military conflict.

Some local Democrats appeared less concerned about protocols.

Sen. Robert P. Casey (D., Pa.) plans to attend Netanyahu's speech, saying in a release that Israel and America's security "are inextricably linked."

Reps. Brendan Boyle (D., Pa.) and Ryan Costello (R., Pa.) wrote a joint column in The Inquirer that "the media firestorm over the speech will fade. But the consequences of what we do about a nuclear Iran will last far longer."

Republicans cheered Netanyahu's visit. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said in a news release he "eagerly" looked forward to it.

"We should pay close attention to the perspective of the only true democracy in the Middle East," Toomey said.