WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel is lending his support to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's March 3 speech to Congress on the dangers of Iran's nuclear programme - an address that has antagonized the White House and divided American Jews.
An outspoken New Jersey Orthodox rabbi, Shmuley Boteach, said on Thursday he is placing full-page advertisements in two of the leading U.S. newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, featuring Wiesel's endorsement of Netanyahu's speech.
Blindsided by the invitation that Republicans in Congress extended to Netanyahu, President Barack Obama has declined to meet the Israeli leader, citing what he has said is U.S. protocol not to meet world leaders before national elections, due to take place in Israel on March 17.
The advertisement quotes Wiesel as saying he plans to attend Netanyahu's address "on the catastrophic danger of a nuclear Iran." Awarded the Nobel in 1986, Wiesel asks Obama and others in the ad: "Will you join me in hearing the case for keeping weapons from those who preach death to Israel and America?"
Speaking to Reuters by phone, Boteach said: "There's no personality more respected in the global Jewish community and few in the wider world than Elie Wiesel. He is a living prince of the Jewish people."
"He is the face of the murdered 6 million (Jews killed in the Holocaust). So I think that his view on the prime minister's speech sounding the alarm as to the Iranian nuclear programme carries a unique authority that transcends some of the political circus that has affected the speech," Boteach said.
Boteach, the author of books including "Kosher Sex," was the Republican nominee in 2012 for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives but lost to Democratic incumbent Bill Pascrell.
Wiesel, 86, who has written extensively of his imprisonment in Nazi camps, is the latest to join a fray that has exposed deep divisions among American Jews over the policy and propriety behind a speech in which Netanyahu is expected to criticize Obama's effort to forge an international nuclear deal with Iran.
The United States boasts the largest Jewish population outside Israel. American Jews, who make up roughly 2 percent of the U.S. population, historically have been a strong pro-Israel force in American politics.
John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, invited Netanyahu. Detractors say Netanyahu, who has long warned the West of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran, is working with Republicans to thumb their noses at Obama, a Democrat. Neither Boehner nor Netanyahu consulted the U.S. president.
This week J Street, a Democratic-leaning pro-Israel group, started a petition drive opposed to Netanyahu's speech. Prominent Jewish leader Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League denounced that effort as "inflammatory and repugnant."
The Republican Jewish Coalition lobbying group launched a petition countering J Street's campaign, titled "Stand with Bibi," and has promised to publicize which U.S. lawmakers boycott the speech.
J Street said it had gathered more than 20,000 signatures for a petition asking Jews to say "Bibi does NOT speak for me," using Netanyahu's nickname, in response to Netanyahu calling himself not just Israel's prime minister but also "a representative of the entire Jewish people."
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, said American Jews had long been divided, with Republican Jews backing Netanyahu's right-wing government and liberal Jews more in line with the Israeli opposition.
"Perhaps the biggest mistake the prime minister has made is allowing his speech to be the wedge that has driven that argument more public," Ben-Ami said.
He said about 70 percent of Jewish Americans vote Democratic and roughly a quarter identifies as Republican.
"But today, with a really divided society on both sides of the ocean, both there and here, it isn't possible any longer for there to be a single voice representing the views of all Jewish Americans," Ben-Ami said.
Some of Netanyahu's critics accuse him of placing ties to Republicans above Israel's relations with the United States, its most important ally. U.S.-born Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to Washington, is a former Republican political operative.
Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and the most senior U.S. senator, said this week he would not attend Netanyahu's speech and accused Republicans of orchestrating what he called "a tawdry and high-handed stunt that has embarrassed not only Israel but the Congress itself."
Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition's executive director, countered: "It's important for the Jewish community to know that members of Congress have a choice ... whether they're going to stand with the prime minister of Israel and the Jewish community in opposition to a nuclear Iran, or whether they're going to put partisan politics ahead of that and stand with President Obama."
Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Howard Goller