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US lawmakers call for Netanyahu speech to be postponed

Lawmakers accuse Speaker of the House John Boehner of using Israeli prime minister's speech as 'political tool' against US president
US lawmakers say Boehner's invitation for the Israeli prime minister to address Congress is intended to hurt Obama (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Twenty-three lawmakers on Thursday urged Speaker of the House John Boehner to postpone Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to a joint session of Congress.

In a letter written by representatives Steve Cohen, Keith Ellison and Maxine Waters, and co-signed by 20 others, House lawmakers argued that Boehner was using the Israeli leader as a “political tool” against President Barack Obama.

“The timing of this invitation and lack of coordination with the White House indicate that this is not an ordinary diplomatic visit,” they wrote.

Netanyahu is widely expected to use the 3 March congressional address to marshal opposition against US and international efforts to broker a nuclear deal with Iran ahead of an end-of-March deadline for a political framework agreement with Tehran.

“Aside from being improper, this places Israel, a close and valued ally, in the middle of a policy debate between Congress and the White House. We should not turn our diplomatic friendship into a partisan issue,” the lawmakers wrote.

In a rare move, neither Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Netanyahu during his trip to Washington, citing the proximity to Israel’s 17 March elections. 

“We strongly urge you to postpone this invitation until Israelis have cast their ballots and the deadline for diplomatic negotiations with Iran has passed,” the lawmakers wrote.  

Meanwhile, Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel knew the details of the nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran, saying the deal threatened Israel.

"We know that Tehran knows the details of the talks. Now I tell you that Israel also knows the details of the proposed agreement," the Associated Press quoted Netanyahu as saying.

“I think this is a bad agreement that is dangerous for the state of Israel,” he said. “If anyone thinks otherwise what is there to hide here?”

But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stressed that the nuclear deal had not yet been agreed upon, and that there were details not even the negotiators knew.

"Obviously, if there's a deal we'll be explaining the deal and explaining why and how it prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And if that's the case and we come to a deal, it's hard to see how anyone wouldn't see that's to the benefit of the international community," Psaki said.

Her comments came a day after she said that the US had not revealed “everything” to Israel regarding the nuclear talks, with White House officials saying Netanyahu had manipulated and “politicised” certain pieces of information in attempt to sabotage the talks in the past.

Twenty-nine members of Congress will reportedly not attend Netanyahu's address, according to Jewish Voice For Peace, an advocacy group. 

A poll released earlier this week found 63 percent of Americans oppose Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu. Only 33 percent said it was the right thing to do, according to the CNN/ORC survey.

Netanyahu has twice before addressed Congress - once in 1996 and again in 2011.