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Netanyahu doubles down on plans to speak to Congress

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that he is going forward with plans to speak to Congress next month despite widespread criticism in the United States that his speech is overly political and a violation of protocol.

"While some are busy with protocol or politics, a bad deal with Iran is taking shape," Netanyahu said at an election event in Israel, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "This is not a political issue or a party issue, neither here nor there. This is an existential issue, and I approach it with the fullest responsibility."

James Baker: Boehner's invite to Netanyahu a significant breach of protocol

Netanyahu plans to speak out against the ongoing talks between a group of six world powers and Iran to curb Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. Mr. Obama reaffirmed his support for the talks in a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier in the day, although he backed away from another extension of the talks.

He also took on his critics - Netanyahu included - who have publicly tried to undermine the discussions.

"It does not make sense to sour the negotiations a month or two before they are going to be completed," the president said. "What's the rush? Unless your view is that it's not possible to get a deal with Iran, and it shouldn't even be tested. And that I cannot agree with because as president of the United States, I am looking at what the options are if we don't get a diplomatic resolution, and those options are narrow and they're not attractive."

The president will not meet with Netanyahu when he is here in early March, citing a precedent that U.S. officials have a longstanding practice of not meeting with foreign leaders so close to their elections. Israel's elections take place on March 17.

"We have a practice of not meeting with leader's right before their elections, two weeks before their elections. As much as I love Angela, if she was two weeks away from an election, she probably would not have received an invitation to the White House. And I suspect she wouldn't have asked for one," Obama said.

Mr. Obama said that Americans should avoid allowing the U.S.-Israel relationship to be "clouded with what could be perceived as partisan politics," a reference to the increasing conflict over Netanyahu's speech, which Boehner arranged without consulting the president. But Mr. Obama also acknowledged that he and Netanyahu "have a very real difference" around the Iran talks.

But Netanyahu's decision to go ahead with the speech has put Democrats in a bind. Already, three prominent Democratic members have announced they will not attend because they disapprove of Boehner's invitation, and Vice President Biden is expected to be traveling out of Washington when it takes place.

Is Obama snubbing Netanyahu?

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, became the first senator to publicly announce he won't attend the speech.

"I think it is very unfortunate that the Speaker of the House invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to address the Congress without consulting President Obama," he said in a statement. "Further, Netanyahu's speech is slated to take place just two weeks before the Israeli elections. The U.S. should avoid even the implication of influencing a democratic election of a foreign country."

Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the United States, has sought to quell some of the tension by meeting with Jewish House Democrats. But many are still searching for an option - perhaps one that does not exist - that won't be seen as a Democratic boycott of Netanyahu's speech.

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