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Ahead Of Netanyahu's Speech To Congress, Hints Of A Thaw

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will reportedly meet with Sens. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and Harry Reid, D-Nev., the chamber's top Democrat, after his March 3 speech to Congress.

The announcement, which was reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which cited a senior Israeli official, came after the American Israel Public Affairs Committee announced that Susan Rice, President Obama's national security adviser, and Samantha Power, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, will address the organization's annual conference in Washington. Netanyahu will also address the AIPAC conference.

The news could mark the first de-escalation of rising tensions between the U.S. and Israel.

As we have been reporting, Netanyahu's speech to Congress has been controversial from almost the moment it was announced by House Speaker John Boehner. Netanyahu says he wants to highlight the dangers posed by Iran, which Israel views as an existential threat. He is opposed to the talks involving the U.S. and its allies and Iran over the Islamic republic's nuclear program.

The Obama administration called the invitation to the Israeli leader, made without consulting the White House or the State Department, a departure from protocol. Obama, citing the proximity of the Israeli elections, said he won't meet Netanyahu during his visit to Washington; neither will Vice President Joe Biden or Secretary of State John Kerry, who will both be traveling at that time.

As criticism of the announced speech mounted, Netanyahu said he was determined to speak to Congress over what he sees as the threat posed by Iran.

On Wednesday, Kerry intensified the criticism of the Israeli leader, saying his judgment on the issue "may not be correct here." That followed Rice, the national security adviser, telling PBS' Charlie Rose that Boehner's invitation to Israel's prime minister — and Netanyahu's acceptance of it — have "injected a degree of partisanship" that is "destructive to the fabric of the relationship" between Israel and the U.S.

Boehner rejected that assertion Thursday.

"The American people, and both parties in Congress, have always stood with Israel. Nothing and no one should get in the way of that," he said. "And that's why it's so important for the American people to hear what Prime Minister Netanyahu has to say about the grave threats that they're facing."

Netanyahu's speech to Congress would coincide with the final stretch of negotiations the U.S. and its allies are engaged in with Iran. Many members of Congress want to impose further sanctions on the Islamic republic, a move that would likely doom the talks.

But Netanyahu's speech has also created a divide in Congress, where Democrats, including some of Israel's strongest allies, have expressed displeasure. Some Democrats have said they will boycott the speech.

The Associated Press reports that sending Rice and Power to AIPAC may ease — or worsen — tensions with Israel. The news agency adds:

"U.S. officials had floated the idea of sending a non-Cabinet level official to the event to show the administration's deep displeasure with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress next week, in which he will argue against an Iran deal.

"In their as-yet unscheduled appearances at the AIPAC conference that runs from Sunday to Tuesday, Rice and Power will stress the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and the administration's commitment to Israel's security, according to American officials.

"But, they will also make the administration's case for the ongoing negotiations with Iran before an audience of more than 16,000 pro-Israel activists that is likely to be hostile to the talks and deeply concerned by growing animosity between Obama and Netanyahu and their top aides over the prime minister's speech and his opposition to one of the president's signature foreign policy goals."

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Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.