WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner is heading to Israel as already strained relations between the White House and newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit a new low this week.
On the surface, the Republican leader's announcement Friday that he'll visit Israel looks like a jab at the White House.
But a congressional aide insisted that Boehner's trip — during the two-week congressional recess that begins March 30 — was planned before new rifts developed over Netanyahu's address to Congress and the prime minister's remarks this week about the peace process.
President Barack Obama bristled when Boehner invited Netanyahu to address U.S. lawmakers this month about his fears that an emerging nuclear agreement would pave Iran's path to nuclear weapons.
Relations took another hit Monday when Netanyahu made hard-line statements against the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Speaking on the eve of his re-election, Netanyahu said there could be no Palestinian state while regional violence and chaos persist — conditions that could rule out progress on the issue for many years. That ruffled the Obama administration, which views a two-state solution as a top foreign policy priority and had dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry for months of shuttle diplomacy in an effort to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
On Thursday, Netanyahu seemed to backtrack, saying in a TV interview he remains committed to Palestinian statehood — if conditions in the region improve.
The White House, which hadn't been consulted about the GOP invitation to Netanyahu, offered a terse response to Boehner's travels, with spokesman Josh Earnest saying it was common for Republicans and Democrats to travel to Israel. "It doesn't come as a surprise to anybody here," he said.
Republicans have seized on the administration's strained ties with Netanyahu.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who wrote a letter signed by 46 other GOP senators that warned Iran that any deal could be scrapped by Obama's successor, scolded administration officials for their handling of U.S.-Israel relations.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a potential presidential candidate, said in a floor speech Thursday that the rift between Obama and Netanyahu needs to be worked out privately to avoid empowering U.S. and Israeli enemies.
"This president is making a historic mistake," Rubio said. "Allies have differences, but allies like Israel, when you have a difference with them and it is public, it emboldens their enemies to launch more rockets."