Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that his controversial speech to Congress scheduled for Tuesday is not meant to signal any “disrespect” for President Obama but that he feels “a moral obligation” to warn lawmakers of the dangers of cutting a deal with Iran over its nuclear program.
The White House and Netanyahu, however, appeared far apart on how to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Obama, who dismissed the controversy over Netanyahu’s visit as a distraction, said in an interview with Reuters on Monday that “substantial disagreement” remained between his administration and the Israeli government over how to achieve that shared goal.
Netanyahu’s speech (10:45 a.m. EST) will coincide with a new round of talks in Geneva between Iran and six world powers led by the United States. Obama told Reuters that the talks are aimed at persuading Iran to commit to a verifiable freeze of at least 10 years on its nuclear activity, but he said the odds are against sealing a final agreement.
The president gave a glimpse of what the still-secret terms of an accord might include, saying the United States is prepared to agree “if, in fact, Iran is willing to agree to double-digit years of keeping their [nuclear] 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.”
The U.S. goal is to make sure that “there’s at least a year between us seeing them try to get a nuclear weapon and them actually being able to obtain one,” Obama said.
In his speech Tuesday, Netanyahu is expected to say that’s not enough. “America is the strongest power in the world. Israel is strong, but it’s much more vulnerable,” he said Monday at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “American leaders worry about the security of their country. Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country.”
Netanyahu arrived as feelings smoldered among liberal Democrats, some American Jewish groups and White House officials because of his decision to accept an invitation from House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to address Congress without coordinating with or notifying the administration in advance.
“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,” Netanyahu said.
“Disagreements between allies are only natural,” he added, brushing aside unusually open criticism between administration officials and the Israeli prime minister. Listing historical episodes of tension, Netanyahu said, “Disagreements in the family are always uncomfortable, but we must always remember that we are family.”
“I think he succeeded in lowering the temperature,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who praised Netanyahu’s talk of family and assurances that differences will resolve themselves.
But discomfort remained palpable in Washington, where many lawmakers and administration officials see Netanyahu’s visit as serving partisan purposes, both for Republicans in Congress and for the prime minister’s Likud party on the eve of Israeli elections. Netanyahu is facing a tougher-than-expected contest for reelection to an unprecedented fourth term on March 17.
On Monday, he defended his decision to accept Boehner’s invitation but said he did not seek to inject partisanship into U.S.-
“Israel has always been a bipartisan issue,” he said. “Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue.”
Instead, he said, he wants to warn that an international nuclear deal with Iran could “threaten the survival of Israel.” While critics say he should not have scheduled the address just two weeks before Israeli voters head to the polls, Netanyahu said that he has “a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there’s still time to avert them.”
Deploying one of the visual aids for which his international speeches have become known, Netanyahu displayed a map showing Iran’s alleged support of terrorism on five continents, and he accused Iran of “developing, as we speak, the capacity to make nuclear weapons. Lots of them.”
Both the United States and Israel want to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Foxman said, but “how you get there depends on how serious it is for you. To the United States, it’s an issue of national security. To Israel, it’s an issue of survival.”
Netanyahu said he wants to make his case before Congress, where there is bipartisan legislation that would impose additional sanctions on Iran. Obama, who wants lawmakers to put aside such efforts while negotiations are in progress, has said he would veto the bill.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry is scheduled to meet Tuesday morning with his Iranian counterpart in Geneva to iron out the framework of the deal before a March 24 deadline.
Israel must not only defend itself militarily but also stand up for itself on the world stage, Netanyahu told AIPAC. “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.
Asked if Obama had watched the speech, White House press secretary 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 administration’s approach to negotiations with Iran and pledged anew that the United States would not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. She said that U.S. support for Israel is bipartisan and that U.S. promises regarding the partnership with Israel are “bedrock commitments.”
Later, national security adviser Susan E. Rice — who last week called Netanyahu’s address to Congress “destructive” to the U.S.-Israeli relationship — delivered a speech peppered with Hebrew words. She said that “President Obama’s commitment to Israel is deep and it is personal,” and she ticked off a list of military and financial commitments to Israel, including investments in the Iron Dome missile defense system.
Rice also defended the administration’s strategy on Iran. “There is simply no alternative that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon better or longer than the type of comprehensive deal that we seek,” she said.
But she added: “I want to be very clear: A bad deal is worse than no deal. And if that is the choice, then there will be no deal.”
“Negotiations continue,” she said, “and nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. As of today, significant gaps remain between the international community and Iran.”
She added: “We are not taking anything on trust. What matters are Iran’s actions, not its words.”
In Geneva, Kerry said the United States must have a broad view of the nuclear negotiations.
“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.
Earnest said the likelihood of reaching a successful deal was “only at best 50-50” as of Monday afternoon. 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.
Netanyahu’s address, his third to a joint meeting of Congress, has rankled congressional Democrats, many of whom will not attend. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Netanyahu’s point of view is not emblematic of the entire Jewish community, which he has suggested he will be representing.
“He doesn’t speak for me on this,” Feinstein said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”