WASHINGTON – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that his planned address to Congress scheduled for Tuesday is not meant to signal any disrespect for President Barack Obama, nor to insert political partisanship into the U.S.-Israel relationship.
“Never has so much been written about a speech that hasn’t been given,” Netanyahu said. “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.”
Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday, Netanyahu said he intends to focus his remarks to Congress on the potential of an international nuclear deal with Iran that he believes could “threaten the survival of Israel.”
Netanyahu said those who see a partisan motive in his address have misconstrued his purpose. He has frequently addressed AIPAC, but he has never before addressed Congress without the expressed blessing of the White House. Netanyahu was invited to speak by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who did not inform the White House of the invitation in advance.
“Israel has always been a bipartisan issue,” he said. “Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue.” Netanyahu said his purpose Tuesday is not to “inject Israel into the American partisan debate.”
Deploying one of the visual aids for which his international speeches have become known, Netanyahu said Iran is such a large threat to Israel’s future that he cannot stay silent.
He displayed a map showing Iran’s alleged support of terrorism on five continents, and accused Iran of “developing as we speak the capacity to make nuclear weapons. Lot of them.”
Netanyahu said he wants to make his case before Congress, where there is bipartisan legislation that would impose additional sanctions on Iran. Obama has said he would veto the bill. Netanyahu’s stance on Iran puts him at odds with the Obama administration, which has been working to hammer out a nuclear deal with Iran. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet Tuesday morning with his Iranian counterpart in Geneva to work out the framework of the deal before a March 24 deadline.
“The purpose of my speech to Congress tomorrow is to speak up about a potential deal with Iran that could threaten Israel’s future,” Netanyahu said. He said he had a moral obligation to speak up ahead of the deadline.
Israel is strong but vulnerable, and it must not only defend itself militarily but stand up for itself on the world stage, Netanyahu said.
“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.
Netanyahu’s trip to Washington is extraordinary, both in the content of the speech he is scheduled to give Tuesday and the fissures that it has created between the Israeli government and the White House, leading Jewish American groups and Jewish Democrats.
“Disagreements between allies are only natural” and nothing new, Netanyahu said, and understandable given the different role and geography of the United States and Israel. He ticked off several past periods of tension, each of which passed without permanent damage to the U.S.-Israeli bond, and said that Israel and the United States are more like a family than friends.
“Disagreements in the family are always uncomfortable, but we must always remember that we are family,” he said.
Netanyahu spoke shortly after the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, defended the Obama administration’s approach to negotiations with Iran over that country’s nuclear program and pledged anew that the United States will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. She said U.S. support for Israel is bipartisan, and that U.S. promises to the partnership with Israel are “bedrock commitments.”
Tensions between the two sides have been coming to a boiling point since Netanyahu’s speech was announced in January. They rapidly escalated last week, after national security adviser Susan Rice, who is also scheduled to speak at the conference Monday evening, denounced Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, calling it “destructive” to the relationship between the United States and Israel. Rice said it “injected a degree of partisanship” to the bond between the two countries.
“It’s always been bipartisan. We need to keep it that way. We want it that way. I think Israel wants it that way. The American people want it that way. And when it becomes injected or infused with politics, that’s a problem,” Rice said.
Netanyahu is facing a tougher-than-expected contest for reelection to an unprecedented fourth term on March 17. Kerry also took a swipe at Netanyahu last week, saying that Israel is safer because of a an agreement that eased sanctions while negotiations were taking place – a deal that Netanyahu opposed.
Kerry sought to tamp down tensions Sunday, saying on ABC’s “This Week” that Israel and the United States are committed to working together on security.
“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 said. “I talk to the prime minister regularly, including yesterday. We don’t want to see this turned into some great political football.”
But he did admit that news of Netanyahu’s visit caught the administration off guard.
“Obviously, it was odd, if not unique, that we learned of it from the speaker of the House and that an administration was not included in this process. But the administration is not seeking to politicize this,” Kerry said.
The invitation has also rankled congressional Democrats, many of whom will not attend the speech. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said that Netanyahu’s point of view is not emblematic of the entire Jewish community, which he claimed he would be representing in his speech to Congress.
“He doesn’t speak for me on this,” the California Democrat 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.”
Obama has said that he will not meet with Netanyahu while he is in Washington, and Vice President Joe Biden will be traveling to Guatemala. Kerry is in Switzerland, negotiating ahead of the March 24 deadline for the Iran nuclear deal.
High-ranking Democrats have said they will boycott the speech. Netanyahu has declined a meeting with Democratic lawmakers, writing in a letter that it “could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit.”