WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Monday that his plans to address Congress are not aimed at disrespecting President Barack Obama, even as he assailed the U.S. leader’s bid for a nuclear deal with Iran as a threat to his country’s survival.
“I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there is still time to avert them,” Netanyahu said during an address to a pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington.
As Netanyahu spoke, Secretary of State John Kerry was opening a new round of talks with Iran in Geneva aimed at reaching a framework nuclear deal ahead of a late March deadline. Obama views the prospect of a nuclear accord with the Islamic republic as a central component of his foreign policy legacy.
While Obama and Netanyahu have never had a warm personal relationship, the prime minister’s visit to Washington this week has exposed the depth of their tensions.
At the heart of this latest flare-up is Netanyahu’s decision to address a joint meeting of Congress, a Tuesday event during which he is sure to criticize the nuclear talks. The speech was arranged by Republican leaders without the Obama administration’s knowledge, a move the White House blasted as a breach of diplomatic protocol.
Netanyahu’s visit to Washington comes two weeks before Israeli elections, heightening the political overtones. Obama won’t meet the prime minister while he is in town, citing longstanding policy to avoid appearing to play favorites in foreign elections.
In a preview of his speech to lawmakers, Netanyahu suggested that Obama did not — and could not— understand the extent of Israeli concerns about Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear bomb.
“U.S. leaders worry about the security of their country,” he said. “Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country.”
Despite his sharp rhetoric, Netanyahu declared that the relationship between the U.S. and Israel remains strong.
“Reports of the demise of the Israeli-U.S. relationship is not only premature, they’re just wrong,” Netanyahu said. “Our alliance is stronger than ever.”
Netanyahu’s remarks at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee were being bracketed by speeches from a pair of senior U.S. officials: U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Power spoke warmly of the ties between the U.S. and Israel, saying the relationship was rooted in “shared, fundamental values.” She highlighted the billions of dollars in military assistance Washington provides Israel and the constant defense the U.S. provides Israel at the United Nations.
Power said the deep ties between the longtime allies meant their relationship “should never be politicized.”
The ambassador also defended Obama’s pursuit of an accord with Iran and said the president shared Israel’s commitment to preventing Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“If diplomacy should fail, we know the stakes of a nuclear-armed Iran,” she said. “We will not let it happen.”
Rice was expected to deliver a more specific rebuttal to Netanyahu’s criticism of the U.S.-led nuclear negotiations. She also has been among the most outspoken critics of the prime minister’s plan to address Congress, calling the move “destructive” to the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Netanyahu has long been suspicious of Obama’s negotiations with Iran, fearing the U.S. and its negotiating partners are prepared to leave Tehran on the cusp of developing a nuclear weapon. He has stepped up his public criticism as the parties inch closer to the March deadline.
U.S. and Israeli officials have reported progress on a deal that would freeze Iran’s nuclear program for 10 years but allow it to slowly ramp up in the later years of an agreement. Netanyahu has vigorously criticized the contours of such an agreement, saying it suggests the U.S. and its partners have “given up” on stopping Iran from being able to get a bomb.
A Netanyahu adviser told reporters traveling with the prime minister to Washington Sunday that Israel was well aware of the details of the emerging nuclear deal and that they included Western compromises that were dangerous for Israel. Still, he tried to lower tensions by saying that Israel “does not oppose every deal” and was merely doing its best to warn the U.S. of the risks.
Kerry, who is in Switzerland for the next round of nuclear negotiations, warned Israel against releasing “selective details” of the negotiations.
“Doing so would make it more difficult to reach the goal that Israel and others say they share,” said Kerry, who is negotiating alongside diplomats from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
Associated Press White House Correspondent Julie Pace and Jerusalem correspondent Aaron Heller wrote this story.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Geneva and writer Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.