White House tries to downplay Netanyahu controversy

A senior American official who told an Israeli newspaper that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "spat in our face" when he accepted an invitation to address Congress does not reflect the views of the White House, President Obama's chief of staff said Sunday.

"I do not know who said it but it does not reflect the views of this president or this White House," Denis McDonough said on "Face the Nation" Sunday. "The president has taken pains because of the importance of this relationship to make clear that it is above partisan politics. We will continue to do that.

"The breath of this relationship goes from our important cultural values, shared values, all the way through intelligence cooperation, defense and security cooperation. That will continue. What we will not allow us to do is to let us become an issue in their elections. That is why the president was clear this week; we should not meet with the prime minister just weeks before his election," he continued.

Netanyahu accepted an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress this March. He is expected to express his continued opposition to a deal the U.S. and other world powers are attempting to negotiate with Iran in order to curb its nuclear ambitions in return for some sanctions relief.

Boehner did not consult with the White House before extending the invitation, and President Obama will not meet with Netanyahu in order to avoid the appearance of interfering in Israeli elections, which will take place two weeks later.

An unnamed American official told Israeli newspaper Haaretz, that Netanyahu "spat in our face publicly" by accepting the invitation.

"That's no way to behave," the official reportedly said. "Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price."

McDonough declined to weigh in on whether Mr. Obama was offended by the whole affair, saying, "I am not going to get into the back and forth on that up on The Hill. That is something between the speaker and the prime minister, apparently."

Mr. Obama's critics have accused him of allowing U.S.-Israeli relations to deteriorate over the course of his presidency.

"Relations have never been worse between ourselves and the only genuine democracy in the entire Middle East," said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, in a separate interview. "[The Israelis] are convinced that these negotiations with Iran will lead to Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon which will then nuclearize the entire Middle East and that will be a direct threat to the existence of the state of Israel. I regret that relations have deteriorated to this degree but I do believe that it's important that Prime Minister Netanyahu speak to the American people."

McCain also said that any nuclear deal with Iran should come before the Senate for approval.

"This is too big to be left, to not be treated as a treaty," he said.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.