Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday defended his decision to speak before a joint Congressional session on March 3 against US President Barack Obama’s push for a negotiated deal with Tehran to halt its nuclear program.
“As prime minister of Israel, I am obligated to make every effort in order to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons that would be aimed at the State of Israel,” he told the weekly cabinet meeting. He made similar statements later in the day at a Likud event.
“This effort is worldwide and I will go anywhere I am invited in order to enunciate the State of Israel’s position and in order to defend its future and its existence,” Netanyahu said.
The prime minister plans to urge Congress to pass legislation to stiffen sanctions against Iran to force it to halt its nuclear program.
Obama has threatened to veto any sanction legislation on Iran, as long as the possibility of a negotiated deal is on the table.
The White House on Sunday continued to dispute media reports that Netanyahu’s March 3 address had created a diplomatic spat.
Chief of Staff Denis McDonough conducted a number of interviews with major television stations, including Fox News and NBC’s Meet the Press to explain that supporting Israel is in America’s national interest.
“Here is the way the president has always seen the US-Israel relationship as above partisan politics, something that is fundamentally in our interests. That is how we will continue to treat this, irrespective of how this thing goes back and forth,” McDonough told Fox News.
“The strength of the relationship is based on our shared values, the shared threats we confront, and the shared opportunities we create,” he continued. “The president’s view is that this relationship is in the national interest. It should be treated as nonpartisan. That is the way it has always been treated and that is exactly how we will treat it,” McDonough said, adding, “We’ll continue to support our ally.”
Last week Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, who supports increased sanctions against Iran, invited Netanyahu to address Congress on the matter, without informing the White House.
In a breach of protocol, Netanyahu agreed.
Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry have both said they will not meet with Netanyahu while he is in Washington. The White House said it would be against administration policy to meet Netanyahu so close to Israel’s March 17 elections.
But it’s widely believed that Netanyahu’s acceptance of the congressional invitation and the breach of protocol set off a diplomatic row with the White House that caused Obama and Kerry to snub him diplomatically.
Former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, who also served as Kerry’s envoy in the region as he attempted to rekindle negotiations lastyear, attacked the prime minister.
“Netanyahu is using the Republican Congress for a photo- op for his election campaign and the Republicans are using Bibi for their campaign against Obama. Unfortunately, the US relationship will take the hit. It would be far wiser for us to stay out of their politics and for them to stay out of ours,” Indyk told The New York Times.
On Saturday Fox veteran diplomatic correspondent Chris Wallace said he agreed with Indyk and was shocked by Netanyahu’s actions, particularly the choice to “sneak” into the country to address Congress.
“For Netanyahu to do something that is going to be seen as such a deliberate and really pretty egregious snub of President Obama, when Obama is going to be in power for a year and three quarters would seem to me to be a pretty risky strategy for Prime Minister Netanyahu.
For Netanyahu to come here and side with Boehner against Obama on Iran seems to me to be very dicey politics,” Wallace said.
Fox News is viewed as a more conservative network that is more supportive of Israel than others. But in speaking with Wallace on air, Fox News host Shepard Smith attacked Israeli leaders in general.
“It seems like they think we do not pay any attention and we are just a bunch of complete morons – the United States citizens – as if we wouldn’t pick up on what’s happening here,” Smith said.
Netanyahu has twice addressed a joint session of Congress, once in 1996 and another time in 2011. Former British prime minister Winston Churchill is the only international leader to have spoken three times before a joint Congressional session.
On Sunday, Netanyahu alluded publicly to the issue for the first time when he spoke to his cabinet about Iran.
The deal under discussion between Iran and the six world powers – the US, Russia, China, France, Great Britain, and Germany – is a mistake and would endanger Israel, Netanyahu said.
“In the coming weeks, the major powers are liable to reach a framework agreement with Iran, an agreement that is liable to leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state, which would endanger – first and foremost – the existence of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
“This is the same Iran that has taken over Lebanon and Syria and is now taking over Yemen and Iraq. This is the same Iran that is preparing an active front against us, both on the Golan Heights and in southern Lebanon.
This same Iran cannot advance toward nuclear weapons,” he said.
Army Radio reported Sunday that the Likud party issued a list of talking points to its MKs and ministers. They were asked to emphasize in interviews that the US Senate can, by a majority of 67, overturn a presidential veto.
As part of his ongoing work toward a deal with Iran, Kerry on Thursday met with Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif in Davos, a senior State Department official said.
There was no immediate word on whether the two men had made progress in the hour-long session on a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear work in return for an unraveling of Western economic sanctions on Tehran.
Amos Yadlin, a former IDF Intelligence chief and Labor’s candidate for defense minister, said he does not believe Netanyahu’s words to Congress would halt Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran will be stopped by actions, not speeches, he said.
“Relations with the US are a strategic asset for Israel. Whoever harms them and the American president harms the effort to stop Iran’s nuclear arms race. As defense minister, I will talk less and do more on every level, while understanding that relations with the US are a significant aspect of Israel’s power and strength,” he stated.
Yadlin added that, with the security situation in the North, Israel needs its most important ally on its side, and should keep in mind that any unilateral actions by the Palestinians vis-avis the UN could require an American veto.Lahav Harkov and Reuters contributed to this report.