TEL AVIV — Hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set off Sunday for Washington, a group of 180 retired Israeli generals and former top security officials warned that his upcoming address to a joint meeting of Congress on Iran’s nuclear program will cause more harm than good.
It will not only damage Israel’s special relationship with the United States but also undermine military and intelligence ties, they said.
Rather than slowing down Iran’s nuclear project, the former security officials said, Netanyahu’s speech Tuesday will bring the Islamic republic closer to developing a nuclear bomb.
“When the Israeli prime minister argues that his speech will stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, he is not only misleading Israel, he is strengthening Iran,” Amnon Reshef, former head of the army’s armored corps, said at a news conference Sunday.
Reshef is a founder of Commanders for Israel’s Security, an organization of 200 retired and reserve senior officers from the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad secret service, the Shin Bet domestic security agency and the national police force.
The organization, which claims to be apolitical, was created last year to push Netanyahu forward on a regional peace agreement aimed at ending the conflict with the Palestinians.
It is not certain how many members of Israel’s defense and intelligence establishment oppose the speech. Members of the group who spoke out Sunday said they shared Netanyahu’s fears about Tehran’s nuclear project and the pending deal to freeze and monitor the Iranian program. But they said Netanyahu was making a mistake by confronting the U.S. president before Congress.
Amiram Levin, another ex-commander and a former deputy chief of the Mossad, said that Netanyahu was playing into the hands of Iran’s hard-line clerics.
“The American people see the rift between Israel and the U.S. administration. The Israeli public sees it, and, more importantly, the mullahs in Iran see it. Iran wants Netanyahu’s speech. They understand that it will weaken Israel’s bipartisan bond with the United States,” Levin said.
Netanyahu’s party, Likud, responded to the criticism in a statement: “This is a recycled version of the same generals — leftists who promised peace in Oslo, supported the disengagement [from Gaza], supported the Arab Peace Initiative based on dividing Jerusalem, and promoted withdrawal from Judea and Samaria and the Golan Heights.”
The Olso peace agreement was signed in 1993; Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and the militant group Hamas took full control of the territory two years later; and Judea and Samaria are the biblical names for today’s occupied West Bank.
The Israeli prime minister has warned that the accord being formulated is a “bad deal” that will allow the Iranian regime to become a nuclear state, posing an existential threat to Israel.
On Sunday, Netanyahu called his trip to Washington “a fateful, even historic mission” that he is undertaking as “the emissary of all Israelis, even those who disagree with me, of the entire Jewish people.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) knocked Netanyahu for suggesting that he represents all Jewish people on the topic of Iran.
“He doesn’t speak for me on this,” Feinstein 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.”
Isaac Herzog, leader of the Israeli opposition, told Israel Radio that the speech had clear political motives. A general election is scheduled for March 17.
“To go up against the U.S. president, there needs to be something out of the ordinary at stake,” said Giora Rom, a retired major general in Israel’s reserve forces, who spoke at the news conference. He referred to Israel’s war last summer in Gaza and the decision by U.S. commercial airlines to ground flights into Tel Aviv after Israel’s main airport came under rocket fire from Hamas.
“Washington found a way to get the flights back on track,” Rom said. “I don’t believe we should be fighting with the president. There are more suitable ways to deal with the Iranian agreement being worked on rather than going to Congress like this.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry sought to play down the tensions around the speech Sunday. Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” he said, “The prime minister is welcome in the United States at any time. We have an unparalleled close security relationship with Israel, and we will continue to.”
Kerry conceded that the invitation by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), and Netanyahu’s acceptance, had caught the administration by surprise. “We don’t want to see this turned into some great political football,” he said.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon defended the speech.
“There is a huge gap between how we see things and how the Americans see them,” Yaalon said, according to Israeli media reports. “We could capitulate and grovel, but this is a historic moment — and if we don’t act correctly, history will judge us badly."
Jose A. DelReal in Washington contributed to this report.