Netanyahu: I am not looking for fight with Obama over Congress speech

Netanyahu says he will carry out speech as planned.

February 10, 2015 20:28
White House

US President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, October 1, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said for the second consecutive day on Tuesday that he would deliver his speech to Congress, acknowledging profound disagreements with Washington over Iran but stressing that policy differences with US presidents were not uncommon.

“Disagreements over Israel’s security have occurred between prime ministers in Israel from the Left and from the Right and American presidents from both parties,” he said in a videoed statement. “None of these disagreements led to a rupture in the relationship between Israel and the United States. In fact, over time, our relationship grew stronger.”

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As examples, Netanyahu cited David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of statehood in 1948 despite adamant opposition from the State Department; Levi Eshkol’s decision to launch a preemptive attack in 1967, against the counsel of the White House; Menachem Begin’s decision to strike the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 despite Ronald Reagan’s opposition; and Ariel Sharon’s decision to press ahead with Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 even though George W. Bush told him to stop.

“We do have today a profound disagreement with the United States administration and the rest of the P5+1 over the offer that has been made to Iran,” the prime minister said. “This offer would enable Iran to threaten Israel’s survival.”

The deal being discussed would allow Iran to “break out to a nuclear weapon in a short time,” and within a few years have the “industrial capability to produce many nuclear bombs for the goal of our destruction,” Netanyahu said.

Although the controversy over the congressional speech has been framed in some circles as an outgrowth of deep personal dislike between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama, the prime minister said this was not a personal disagreement.

“I deeply appreciate all that [Obama] has done for Israel in many fields,” Netanyahu said. “Equally, I know that the president appreciates my responsibility, my foremost responsibility, to protect and defend the security of Israel.”

The prime minister declared that he was “going to the United States not because I seek a confrontation with the president, but because I must fulfill my obligation to speak up on a matter that affects the very survival of my country.”

He added that he intended to speak in Congress because the legislature “might have an important role regarding a nuclear deal with Iran.”

Netanyahu further asserted the importance of speaking to the American people by March 24. That was the date that 10 Democratic senators, upon agreeing to delay a vote on new “trigger” sanctions legislation on Iran, gave the president as a deadline, after which they would cooperate with Republicans.

Obama, however, has said such action would risk derailing the talks during a crucial phase in negotiations. Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee favor such legislation, and have been accused of crafting language that would sabotage the president’s diplomatic effort. World powers and Iran aim to reach a political framework agreement on the nuclear issue by March 31.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded to the prime minister’s remarks, reinforcing Obama’s statement that partisan politics should not sour US-Israel ties.

The relationship has not been political for generations, Earnest said, and the president wants to keep it that way.

Meanwhile, the controversy over the speech refused to die, and on Tuesday the left-wing J Street lobby sent a letter to every member of Congress encouraging them to oppose Netanyahu’s address next month.

The letter, shared online, links to a Likud campaign video from the 2013 election cycle, which incorporates a clip from Netanyahu’s previous address to a joint session of Congress.

“As the attached video clip clearly shows, this is exactly what happened in the last Israeli election two years ago,” wrote J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami, calling the possibility of such political use one of his “chief objections” to the event.

“Our Congress should not be used as a prop in another nation’s election,” Ben-Ami said. “We urge you to convey to Speaker [of the House of Representatives John] Boehner that the speech should be postponed until after the election, when Congress could welcome Israel’s next leader speaking on behalf of all of Israel’s people.”

J Street also launched a public petition aimed at raising opposition to Netanyahu’s speech. The petition, which has garnered some 20,000 signatures, according to The New York Times, states that while the prime minister may represent Israelis, “he certainly cannot claim any mandate to speak for Jews in the United States.”

With the petition, titled “I’m a Jew.

Bibi does NOT speak for me!” J Street hopes to show that not all Jews agree with the prime minister regarding Iran and the relationship with the White House.

On the other side of the American Jewish political spectrum, the rightwing Zionist Organization of America slammed Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman and the Union for Reform Judaism’s president Rick Jacobs for calling on Netanyahu not to speak before Congress. The ZOA likened their decision to efforts by the mainstream US Jewish leadership in the 1930s and ’40s to keep Peter Bergson and Ben Hecht from speaking in Washington about the Nazi threat to European Jewry.

Also on Tuesday, Netanyahu’s lawyers told the Central Elections Committee it was in the public interest that the premier’s planned speech to Congress be aired on television.

Lawyers David and Shaul Shimron were responding to petitions from Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal- On and Zionist Union campaigner Eldad Yaniv that called for the panel to block the speech’s broadcast on grounds that it was illegal election campaigning.

It is illegal to broadcast campaign speeches for 60 days before an election.

Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is planned for March 3, and the election is on March 17. The ban came into effect on January 16.

However, the rebuttal called Gal- On’s and Yaniv’s claims “puzzling, ridiculous and even cynical, because of the fact that it is clear to all that the initiative to make the speech came from the US Speaker of the House John Boehner and not the prime minister.”

The attorneys wrote that “naturally, Netanyahu’s speech to the American Congress on such an important matter has great news value and the public has a right to watch it. This public interest is especially acute in light of repeated reports of an agreement in principle that is being formed at this time and could be signed soon.”

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