TEL AVIV, Israel – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's protocol-bending invitation to address Congress took Israel's election campaign deep onto the American political field. Sunday night, it reached the Super Bowl.
Yair Lapid, the finance minister Netanyahu fired for "subversion," threw a Super Bowl party in Tel Aviv, trying to take advantage of a widening rift between Netanyahu and U.S. President Obama to win U.S. votes to help topple the Israeli leader. Israeli candidates are also tapping U.S. donors for cash and hiring U.S. strategists.
"Netanyahu's lost touch with America," the 51-year-old Lapid told fans munching on chicken wings at a downtown nightclub before New England beat Seattle 28-24. "He's like an '80s kind of Republican, and America's become a lot more multicultural and pluralistic."
Lapid turned to American-Israeli voters, estimated at 150,000 by Republicans Abroad Israel, as polls show his Yesh Atid party's popularity slipping. With the U.S. giving Israel $3 billion in annual aid and parrying moves at the United Nations that Israel sees as hostile, rivals accuse Netanyahu of poisoning relations with the country's guardian angel. Months before Lapid was booted from the Cabinet in December, he warned that ties, strained over U.S. policy on Iran and U.S.-led efforts to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians, were in a "crisis."
Netanyahu retorts that he is the politician best able to protect Israel against such enemies as Iran and its proxies, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas, considered terrorist groups by the U.S. and Israel. His Likud party is running even with a Labor-led bloc, with each receiving about 25 of parliament's 120 seats, polls show.
Netanyahu's March 3 address to Congress on the dangers of Iran's nuclear program, at the invitation of GOP House Speaker John Boehner, wasn't coordinated with the administration. The prime minister was told to forget about being received at the White House.
Obama told CNN in an interview that it would be "inappropriate" to meet any foreign leader two weeks before an election. Netanyahu's critics say the speech is designed to undercut the president's efforts to reach a nuclear accord with the Iranians, who deny allegations their atomic program has military objectives.
In Tel Aviv Sunday night, Lapid worked the room with Dov Lipman, a U.S.-born rabbi, and Ofer Shelah, a veteran TV sports reporter, running mates from Yesh Atid, founded three years ago.
"We believe that relations with America are critical and Netanyahu has fumbled that," Lipman said. "We know that 20 percent of voters are still undecided and many of them are young American immigrants who see a lot of opportunity in this country. We're going after them."
There are no official figures on American voting trends in Israel.