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Will Bibi back out?

Will Bibi back out?
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Speculation is mounting over whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE will deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress next month — a high-profile address that could boost him in the polls two weeks before he faces voters back home.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerAre maskless House members scofflaws? Israel, Democrats and the problem of the Middle East Joe Crowley to register as lobbyist for recording artists MORE (R-Ohio) said the March 3 speech is moving ahead as planned and that he has no regrets inviting Netanyahu to address Congress without first running it by the White House.

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But Boehner’s bold move has sparked a political and diplomatic firestorm, and rocked the tense and often-complicated relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv.

Vice President BidenJoe BidenExpanding child tax credit could lift 4 million children out of poverty: analysis Maria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' The Memo: The center strikes back MORE’s office dropped a bombshell on Friday, saying he won’t attend the Netanyahu address due to a previously scheduled trip abroad. And three senior House Democrats — Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield (N.C.) and Reps. John Lewis (Ga.) and Earl Blumenauer (Ore.) — said they also will skip Bibi’s address because it breached diplomatic protocol.

“This is the way you treat your enemies, and it is a snub most Americans will not forgive,” one senior GOP aide fired back.

But foreign policy experts said Biden’s decision underscores the administration’s anger over the Bibi speech, especially given that Netanyahu and the vice president, a former Senate Foreign Relations chairman, have had a close personal and working relationship over the years.

“The paradox is that the more this becomes contentious, the more difficult it is for Netanyahu to back out,” said Robert M. Danin, the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Finding an elegant way to postpone may be their best course and may be the one they find.

“To date, this is has not blown back into the Israeli race, but there is still a month and half before the election,” he said. “Particularly when you start to see friends of Israel turning their back, it becomes a different story."  

Israeli officials are in full-on damage control mode.  Last week, Netanyahu personally called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in a bid to smooth things over. This week,Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and other top officials huddled with top Democrats at the Capitol, seeking to assuage concerns that the speech shouldn’t be taken as a slight to Obama. On Friday, a top Israeli official threw Boehner under the bus, suggesting to a Tel Aviv radio station that the Speaker had misled Netanyahu that his speech to Congress had bipartisan support.

“It appears that the speaker of Congress made a move, in which we trusted, but which it ultimately became clear was a one-sided move and not a move by both sides,” Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told a Tel Aviv radio station, according to Reuters. Israel, he said, is making “a huge effort to make clear to them that this is not a move that flouts the president of the United States.”

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith had no comment about the minister’s remarks but suggested the Speaker would not delay or cancel the speech. “As the Speaker has said, the House had every right to extend this invitation and we’re proud he accepted,” Smith said Friday.

Speaking to reporters a day earlier, Boehner showed no signs of backing down, calling the speech a “very good idea.” Netanyahu is expected to call on Congress to pass tougher sanctions against Iran, but the Obama administration worries that could scuttle delicate nuclear talks with that country.

“There is a message that the American people need to hear and I think [Netanyahu’s] the perfect person to deliver it,” Boehner said Thursday. “The threat of radical Islamic terrorists is a real threat. The threat of Iran to the region and the rest of the world is a real threat, and I believe the American people are interested in hearing the truths about what’s happening in that part of the world.”

News of Bibi’s address to Congress set off a partisan fistfight from the start. Boehner made the announcement the morning after Obama’s State of the Union address in which the president vowed to veto any Iran sanctions legislation. The Speaker’s power play came as newly empowered Hill Republicans sought to push back against a lame-duck president who had unleashed a slew of executive actions on immigration and other matters.

It's a delicate time for Netanyahu's camp with less than two months before the March 17 parliamentary elections.

Though Netanyahu is projecting confidence, polls tell conflicting stories about where exactly the prime minister stands.

One survey released Friday by the Jerusalem Post shows the conservative Likud party with a four-seat advantage over the center-left Zionist Union. And for the first time since December, more Israelis said they wanted Netanyahu to remain prime minister (46 percent) than wanted him replaced (45 percent).

“Israel-U.S. ties have never looked so bad, but at home it doesn’t seem to have damaged Likud’s standing in the polls,” wrote Alona Ferber in Haaretz.

Yet another Friday survey from Tel Aviv daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, shows the center-left Zionist Union one seat up.

The labor party is benefiting from massive public interest in the spending scandals that have dogged Netanyahu's tenure and, per Haaretz, have voters “fuming.”

A criminal probe may be looming over recent allegations that Netanyahu's wife, Sara, kept thousands of dollars from recycling drinking bottles that were technically state property.

“Bottlegate” has dominated Israeli headlines, overtaking coverage of the tensions over Netanyahu's U.S. speech.

The scandal aligns with previous allegations of improper or extravagant spending by the Netanyahus — a narrative the Zionist Union is actively pushing.

Neri Zilber, visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Bibi backing out now would be to admit a mistake and “hand his opponents a very easy victory.” But Netanyahu could face an even bigger political headache if more and more top Democrats decide to boycott his speech.

“Netanyahu has prided himself on very good relations with the U.S. Congress and by extension, with the U.S. public,” Zilber said. “If some Democrats don't come, it would send a message that he's actually losing a particular constituency."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said this week she plans to attend the address and that there’s no organized boycott by Democrats. But she suggested that some members of her caucus might be too busy with other things that day.

One of those members could be Democratic Conference Chairman Xavier Becerra, another California Democrat who sidestepped questions about whether he’ll be on hand at the March 3 address.

“I’m troubled with the way it’s being handled by congressional leaders. It has an impact not just on us in the U.S. but our friends in Israel,” Becerra told The Hill. “And it sends a terrible messages about how we conduct our foreign policy around the world.”

Meanwhile, the diplomatic dustup has forced Jewish Democrats on Capitol Hill in a tough spot, forcing them to side with their president or Israel.

“I have mixed emotions. Obviously, the security of Israel is very important to me and our friendship with Israel is very important to me,” said Rep. Lois Frankel, a south Florida Democrat whose district is home to a big Jewish community. “I feel really terrible this has become political.

“Everyone’s gotta do their own thing, but to me the security of Israel is bigger than the partisanship, so I hope we find a way to heal.”