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Netanyahu: Speech not intended as a show of disrespect to Obama

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that his planned speech to Congress is not meant to signal any disrespect for President Obama, nor to insert political partisanship into the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“Never has so much been written about a speech that hasn’t been given,” Netanyahu said about the address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday. “My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both.”

Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday, Netanyahu said he intends to focus his remarks to Congress on the potential of an international nuclear deal with Iran that he believes could "threaten the survival of Israel."

Netanyahu said those who see a partisan motive in his address have misconstrued his purpose. He has frequently addressed AIPAC, but he has never before addressed Congress without the expressed blessing of the White House. Netanyahu was invited to speak by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who did not inform the White House of the invitation in advance.

“Israel has always been a bipartisan issue,” he said. “Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue.” Netanyahu said his purpose Tuesday is not to "inject Israel into the American partisan debate."

Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he did not intend upcoming address to Congress to be divisive or disrespectful to President Obama. (Video: AP)

Deploying one of the visual aids for which his international speeches have become known, Netanyahu said Iran is such a large threat to Israel’s future that he cannot stay silent.

He displayed a map showing Iran’s alleged support of terrorism on five continents, and accused Iran of "developing, as we speak, the capacity to make nuclear weapons, lots of them.”

[Samantha Power on Iranian  bomb: "We will not let it happen."]

Netanyahu said he wants to make his case before Congress, where there is bipartisan legislation that would impose additional sanctions on Iran. President Obama has said he would veto the bill. Netanyahu's stance on Iran puts him at odds with the Obama administration, which has been working to hammer out a nuclear deal with Iran. Secretary of State John F. Kerry is scheduled to meet Tuesday morning with his Iranian counterpart in Geneva to work out the framework of the deal before a March 24 deadline.

“The purpose of my speech to Congress tomorrow is to speak up about a potential deal with Iran that could threaten Israel’s future,” Netanyahu said. He said he had a moral obligation to speak up ahead of the deadline.

Israel is strong but vulnerable, and it must not only defend itself militarily but stand up for itself on the world stage, Netanyahu said.

“We have a voice," he said. "Tomorrow, as prime minister of the one and only Jewish state, I plan to use that voice,” he added to applause.

President Obama said in an interview with Reuters on Monday that the speech is a disruption that will not permanently damage U.S.-Israel relations.

President Obama dismisses speculation that relations between Washington and Israel are strained, saying “we actually share a goal, which is making sure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon.” (Video: Reuters)

Obama said that while there is "substantial disagreement" between the two countries on whether to broker an international deal to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the fissure will not be "permanently destructive" to the relationship.

Netanyahu's trip to Washington is extraordinary, both in the content of the speech he is scheduled to give Tuesday and the fissures that it has created between the Israeli government and the White House, leading Jewish American groups and Jewish Democrats.

“Disagreements between allies are only natural” and nothing new, Netanyahu said, and understandable given the different role and geography of the United States and Israel. He ticked off several past periods of tension, each of which passed without permanent damage to the U.S.-Israeli bond, and said that Israel and the United States are more like a family than friends.

“Disagreements in the family are always uncomfortable, but we must always remember that we are family,” he said.

The White House said Obama would not meet with Netanyahu because the speech is so close to Israel's elections. Obama told Retuers he would be more than happy to meet with Netanyahu after election day.

"This is not a personal issue. I think that it is important for every country in its relationship with the United States to recognize that the U.S. has a process of making policy," Obama said.

When asked if Obama watched the AIPAC speech, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, "I don't believe that he did."

Netanyahu spoke shortly after the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, defended the Obama administration’s approach to negotiations with Iran over that country's nuclear program and pledged anew that the United States will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. She said U.S. support for Israel is bipartisan, and that U.S. promises to the partnership with Israel are "bedrock commitments."

Tensions between the two sides have been coming to a boiling point since Netanyahu's speech was announced in January. They rapidly escalated last week, after national security adviser Susan E. Rice, who is also scheduled to speak at the conference Monday evening, denounced Netanyahu's speech to Congress, calling it "destructive" to the relationship between the United States and Israel. Rice said it "injected a degree of partisanship" to the bond between the two countries.

"It's always been bipartisan. We need to keep it that way. We want it that way. I think Israel wants it that way. The American people want it that way. And when it becomes injected or infused with politics, that's a problem," Rice said.

Netanyahu is facing a tougher-than-expected contest for reelection to an unprecedented fourth term on March 17.

Kerry tried to tamp down tensions over the past few days, and Monday he said that anti-Israel bias by the U.N. Human Rights Panel is undercutting its mission.

"The United States will oppose any effort by any group or any participant to abuse the U.N. system in order to delegitimize or isolate Israel," Kerry said from Geneva, where he is negotiating ahead of the March 24 deadline for the Iran nuclear deal.

"Israel's security is absolutely at the forefront of all of our minds, but frankly, so is the security of all the other countries in the region, so is our security in the United States," Kerry said.

President Obama laid out the parameters of a potential plan to Reuters, asserting that Iran must commit to freezing its nuclear program for at least 10 years for an agreement to be reached. Obama said the likelihood of an agreement is not certain; Earnest said odds were "only at best 50-50" Monday afternoon.

“If, in fact, Iran is willing to agree to double-digit years of keeping their program where it is right now and, in fact, rolling back elements of it that currently exist ... if we’ve got that, and we’ve got a way of verifying that, there’s no other steps we can take that would give us such assurance that they don’t have a nuclear weapon," Obama said in the interview.

Obama said a major hurdle would be Iran agreeing to exacting demands for inspection and keeping enriched uranium levels very low.

"But if they do agree to it, it would be far more effective in controlling their nuclear program than any military action we could take, any military action Israel could take and far more effective than sanctions will be," Obama said.

While Netanyahu is adamantly against a deal, Earnest said the prime minister has not "laid out that strategy" to prevent Iran from creating a nuclear weapon, while Obama has. 

Obama, as Secretary of State John Kerry said last week, asserted that Netanyahu has been wrong on Iran before, when he opposed a 2013 interim deal with the country.

"Netanyahu made all sorts of claims. This was going to be a terrible deal. This was going to result in Iran getting $50 billion worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement. None of that has come true," Obama said. "It has turned out that in fact, during this period we’ve seen Iran not advance its program. In many ways, it’s rolled back elements of its program."

The invitation has also rankled congressional Democrats, many of whom will not attend the speech. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said that Netanyahu's point of view is not emblematic of the entire Jewish community, which he claimed he would be representing in his speech to Congress.

"He doesn't speak for me on this,” the California Democrat said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union." "I think it's a rather arrogant statement. I think the Jewish community is like any other community. There are different points of view. I think that arrogance does not befit Israel, candidly."

High-ranking Democrats have said they will boycott the speech. Netanyahu has declined a meeting with Democratic lawmakers, writing in a letter that it "could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit."

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