Jewish Democrats warn Netanyahu to stay out of US presidential election

Top Jewish Democrats are standing squarely behind President Obama's decision not to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and warning Israel to butt out of the U.S. presidential race.

The White House has been on the defensive ever since Israeli officials publicly complained last week after Obama refused to adjust his schedule to meet with Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this week. Republicans quickly pounced, urging Obama to reconsider and inviting Netanyahu to meet with them at his convenience.

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''I don't think it's necessary for the president to rearrange his schedule,'' Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), the top Democrat on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, told The Hill. ''I didn't think it was appropriate for the prime minister to publicly get into a dispute with the president of the United States, since we're both very closely working together to impose sanctions and to force Iran to stop its development of a nuclear weapon.''

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the ranking member on the House Financial Services Committee, blamed ''internal Israeli politics'' for the spat.

''Maybe Netanyahu's for [Republican candidate Mitt] Romney. And he's making a mistake if he is,'' Frank told The Hill when asked why he thought Israel had leaked the news of a perceived ''snub'' to the Reuters wire service.

''I think it was unwise for him to do as much,'' he said. ''I think they've pulled back a little bit.'

''I think Obama played it right,'' Frank added. ''The Israelis have to consider American public opinion; America's not ready to go to war until it's absolutely necessary.

''I think it's a mistake from Israel's standpoint if they give the impression they're trying to push us into going to war. I don't think any pressure's going to work.''

And Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), a top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said both sides need to mend fences.

''There are always things that are done on both sides – with us, with the Israelis – for domestic political consumption, for party-building,'' Engel told The Hill. ''I think there are a lot of things going on behind the scenes that we are not privy to, and I would hope that in any kind of public rift – or the appearance of any kind of public rift – between the president and the prime minister would be healed and taken care of behind the scenes. I have confidence that both countries would like to see that.''

The snub accusation comes as Netanyahu has been increasingly vocal about the threat posed by Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program. He told CNN and NBC last weekend that the United States should identify ''red lines'' Iran won't be allowed to cross, something the administration has declined to do publicly.

Netanyahu also argued vehemently that he's not trying to inject himself into the election, thereby acknowledging that that perception is widespread.

"What's guiding me, contrary to what I have read in the United States, is not the American political calendar," Netanyahu told CNN. "It's the Iranian nuclear calendar."

Republicans have sought to exploit the public rift to undermine Jewish support for Democrats and paint Obama as weak on national security.

Romney called Obama's decision not to meet with Netanyahu ''confusing and troubling'' during a fundraiser in New York. And 128 House Republicans wrote to the president to urge him to reconsider.

''We are astounded by your refusal to grant this request to one of our closest allies at such a critical time for that region,'' they wrote in a Sept. 13 letter. ''The rejection of this request represents disturbing treatment of a vital partner and illustrates a lack of regard for the indispensable relationship between the United States and Israel and the current dynamics in the region which are essential to our national security.''

Jewish Democrats said that won't work.

''I think the American Jewish community and the AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs] committee will be very reluctant to appear to be ... trying to undercut Obama,'' Frank said.

And Waxman said the only voters likely to be swayed by the Republican attacks already support Romney.

''I think there are some Jewish voters that are voting Republican,'' Waxman told The Hill. ''They've been moving in that direction. And those that would be most influenced to vote for Romney because of this are probably already voting for Romney.''