The US has an unshakable alliance with Israel, the White House said, amid one of the worst diplomatic rows that has occurred between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama.
“The United States and this president recognizes that we have a clear national security interest within our alliance with Israel,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Friday. He dismissed accusations that Netanyahu had set off a diplomatic crisis between the two countries by accepting House Speaker Republican John Boehner’s invitation to address a joint Congressional session on the need to increase sanctions against Iran on March 3.
Obama has warned Congress he would veto any sanction legislation while the possibly of a negotiated agreement with Iran on its nuclear program exists.
In a breach of protocol, Netanyahu accepted Boehner’s invitation without first informing the White House. Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer met for two hours with US Secretary of State John Kerry last week in the State Department, but did not inform him of Netanyahu’s trip.
The prime minister’s visit to Washington in early March will mark the first time since Netanyahu took office in 2009 that he will not meet with Obama during a visit to the country’s capital. Kerry won’t meet with Netanyahu either.
The White House and State Department blame the absence of the meetings on Israel’s March 17 elections, and explained that it was against the administration’s policy to hold such top level meetings so close to the time that voters head to the polls.
Still, political pundits have viewed the absence of a Netanyahu meeting with Obama and Kerry as a diplomatic snub and a warning of cooling ties with Washington.
US House Minority Leader Democrat Nancy Pelosi said the invitation was inappropriate, and accused Boehner of using Netanyahu to attack Obama’s policy on Iran.
“What is the purpose of it? To talk about a policy in opposition to the policy our president has just put forth in his State of the Union Address and that has been in operation for many months?” she said.
In a Saturday editorial, The New York Times warned that this event “is bound to further harm a bilateral relationship that has endured a lot of battering over the past six years.”
It stated further, “The White House has said that, understandably, Mr. Obama will not meet with Mr. Netanyahu when he is in town. Even Mr. Kerry, who recently called almost 50 world leaders in an effort to block the Palestinians’ attempt to join the International Criminal Court, is losing patience with Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to ‘play politics,’ according to his aides. Can Mr. Netanyahu really afford to dismiss such allies?” The Washington Post cited a source close to Kerry who said, “The bilateral relationship is unshakable. But playing politics with that relationship could blunt Secretary Kerry’s enthusiasm for being Israel’s primary defender.”
Still, the invitation to address a joint congressional session is a mark of high honor for Netanyahu.
The speech would mark the third time that Netanyahu has addressed a joint session of Congress.
He delivered speeches there in 1996, during his first premiership, and during his second term, in 2011.
Former British prime minister Winston Churchill is the only other international leader to have delivered three addresses to a joint Congressional session.
While in the US, Netanyahu is to address the annual AIPAC meeting.
An Israeli official on Saturday defended Netanyahu’s decision to speak to Congress, by explaining that the prime minister viewed Iran as an existential threat to Israel.
“The prime minister is convinced it’s the right thing to do to go to Washington,” he said.
Negotiations between the US, other world powers and Iran continue, and an agreement could possibly be signed in March with Iran, the official said.
“Iran is the number one national security challenge facing the State of Israel” and “it’s crucial that we act now to make sure that Israel’s voice is heard.”
Netanyahu has spoken of his fear that the agreement under negotiation would allow Iran to be a nuclear threshold state.
Earnest told reporters that the difference of opinion between Israel and the US on how best to halt Iran’s nuclear program was well known.
But in spite of those differences the US continues to support Israel, he said.
He reiterated that Netanyahu’s acceptance of the invitation to speak to Congress was a departure from protocol, but that ultimately the Speaker of the House was in charge of the floor’s schedule.
The absence of an Obama meeting with Netanyahu was due solely to the proximity of the trip to the March 17 elections.
“As all of you have noted on a number of occasions, the president has spent more time talking to Prime Minister Netanyahu than any other world leader,” he said.
The US’s commitment to Israel and its “national security is unshakable. It certainly transcends partisan politics. And it’s something that, despite some of the differences of opinion that we have with the current Israeli prime minister, it doesn’t undermine our commitment to Israel’s security.”
There is a longstanding difference of opinion on Iran, he said.
But the US has provided Israel with more than $1 billion for its Iron Dome system.
“This president has certainly not allowed the disagreement over our Iran approach to in any way shake the commitment of the United States to the national security of Israel,” he said.