- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2015

President Obama’s strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took another hit Sunday amid reports from Israel that a former Obama political strategist is working to unseat Mr. Netanyahu in the March election.

At a Sunday press conference in Tel Aviv, Likud party leaders accused Victory 2015, run by Obama 2012 national field director Jeremy Bird, of accepting millions of dollars in foreign contributions, in violation of campaign finance law, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“Millions of dollars whose source is left wingers overseas are now being poured into funding the campaign to bring down Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud,” said a statement by Likud, which has filed a complaint with state campaign authorities aimed at forcing the group to cease its election activity.

In a Thursday report in Haaretz, Mr. Bird was described as the organization’s “secret weapon,” a veteran of Mr. Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns who “has come with a team of four consultants that will try to channel the energies of V15 into an organized methodology.”

Organizers of Victory 2015, known as V15, released a statement denying the accusations and accusing Likud of “trying to stop the energy and buzz around Victory 2015.” It said Mr. Netanyahu has “lost the field and lost the street.”

“We are bringing in innovative work plans learned from successful campaigns overseas,” said the statement by V15, which does not work directly on behalf of any political party. “Obama’s ‘recruitment’ to the campaign exists only in the fevered brains of right-wingers and Likud.”

Mr. Netanyahu also faces pressure from Washington Democrats incensed by his plans to speak before a joint session of Congress at the behest of the House and Senate leadership. Republicans invited the prime minister without consulting with the White House, a move Democrats viewed as a slap in the face.

The speech is slated for March 3. The election for the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, falls two weeks later on March 17.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, warned Mr. Netanyahu that his speech could hurt efforts to impose additional sanctions on Iran, a move Israel supports. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the address sends “the wrong message in terms of giving diplomacy a chance,” according to a report Thursday in The New York Times.

Republicans, meanwhile, stood firm Sunday in their support of having Mr. Netanyahu speak directly to Congress and the American people.

“Do I think it’s wholly appropriate that the speaker of the House of a separate but equal branch of government is free to invite a foreign leader to address us? Absolutely,” Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Mr. Netanyahu has noted that he waited to accept the speaking invitation until after the White House was informed, but it may be too late to repair his relationship with Mr. Obama, which Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, described as “poor.”

“Relations with Israel have not always been excellent, but I think any observer would argue they’ve never been worse,” Mr. McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It’s the worst that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, and that in itself is a tragedy because it’s the only functioning democracy in the entire Middle East.”

The head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. McCain chalked up the rift in large part to Mr. Obama, saying he “had very unrealistic expectations about the degree of cooperation that he would get from Israel, particularly on the Palestinian issue as well as on the nuclear issue with Iran.”

“I’m not putting the entire blame on the president of the United States, but I will say this: No other president has had such a difficult relationship with the state of Israel since it became a country,” said Mr. McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential race to Mr. Obama.

Mr. McCain said he would have talked to the White House before inviting Mr. Netanyahu, “but I certainly agree that you don’t need their permission, given the state of relations.”

“I think that given the way relations are between the president and [House] Speaker [John A. Boehner] and the Majority Leader [Mitch] McConnell, it’s not surprising,” Mr. McCain said.

“Obviously, we would want everybody to work together, but there’s a real crisis going on,” Mr. McCain said. “And that is that these negotiations with Iran, which many of us believe are already fatally flawed — that the speaker felt the overriding concern was to have him appear before the American people and tell them about the dangers of a very bad agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons.”

Mr. Ryan said he disagreed with those who describe the invitation as unnecessarily antagonistic.

“I don’t know if I would say it’s antagonizing. I think we would like to hear from the leader of Israel about his thoughts on Iran,” Mr. Ryan said. “Look, by the way, the president’s policies with Iran have bipartisan concern. A huge bipartisan majority in both the House and the Senate are very worried about the handling of these negotiations, Iran playing us, and the delay of these negotiations.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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