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Will Netanyahu's Congress Visit Help His Election Prospects?


So the Israeli prime minister will come to Washington to address Congress at Congress's invitation. The White House wasn't involved. It'll be just two weeks before the next Israeli election. We wondered how this invitation is playing over there in Israel. We've called upon Michael Oren, who until about a year ago was Israel's ambassador to Washington. He is now in Israel running for a seat in parliament, not on Benjamin Netanyahu's party's list. Michael Oren, welcome back to the program.

MICHAEL OREN: Always good to be with you, Robert. Thank you.

SIEGEL: An invitation to the Israeli prime minister to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress not involving the White House whatever. Is that standard operating procedure? Or does it break precedent?

OREN: It is, to the best of my knowledge, a groundbreaker, Robert. During the prime minister's previous speech to a joint meeting of Congress - this was in May of 2011 - the invitation indeed came from Speaker Boehner. But the White House was kept apprised of the entire process and approved of it.

SIEGEL: Is it a breach of protocol?

OREN: I think it's probably just more of a breach of practice rather than protocol. The Congress I think has the right to invite any foreign dignitary and/or leader. But it was certainly a sort of conventional practice to keep the White House informed. I think it's a matter, at the end of the day, of courtesy between allies.

SIEGEL: The National Security Council at the White House issued a statement saying as a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country. Would a speech to Congress by Benjamin Netanyahu have the appearance of influencing the election over there?

OREN: Well, certainly there's a very intense electoral cycle going on, as you mentioned before. I'm involved in that. I think that that statement was issued as a way of the White House saying that it would not receive the prime minister because that would be seen as intervening or interceding in an internal Israeli electoral process.

SIEGEL: Well, but is - does that mean that the U.S. Congress is, in fact, giving the appearance of intervening in a foreign election, the Israeli election?

OREN: Well, I don't know if the Congress is acting out of that intent. I think the issue is of Iran and the possibility of increased sanctions on Iran. And this is probably related more to an internal American political process, as the issue of the president's handling of foreign affairs becomes more prominent as we approach 2016.

SIEGEL: But say the leader of the party that you're now aligned with, Mr. Kahlon, will not be seen in news footage addressing the American people and the American Congress. Isaac Herzog, the head of the so-called Zionist Camp group won't be seen that way. Is it - whatever else its virtues may be in terms of advancing Israeli policy on Iran - is it a great campaign trip to come before the U.S. Congress?

OREN: I'm sure it will not hurt the prime minister's chances. Put it that way. However, if a prime minister of Israel from any party is invited by the Congress to address a joint meeting of Congress, then he or she would be hard-pressed not to accept that invitation.

SIEGEL: Should we see what's happened here as a measure of how frosty or bad relations are between Bibi Netanyahu and Barack Obama?

OREN: Well, certainly this would not suggest that the relationship has been warming up. And, in fact, there is a very serious divide, a fundamental divide, on the Iranian issue. President Obama has said that he believes that Iran is a rational regime. It is not North Korea. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said again and again this is a medieval, irrational regime and that it is worse than 50 North Koreas. I don't think you can get more fundamental than that.

SIEGEL: Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, now a candidate for parliament over there in Israel. Thank you very much for talking with us.

OREN: Thank you, Robert, have a good day. Bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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