Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer defended once again Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to address the US Congress on Iran on March 3, insisting the move was not a slight against US President Barack Obama despite the two leaders’ differing views on the P5+1 nuclear talks with Tehran.
In an interview published Friday in The Atlantic, Dermer said the prime minister never meant to disrespect the White House by agreeing to speak to Congress, asserting that Netanyahu felt he had a duty to convince US lawmakers about the dangers of a bad deal with Iran.
“The prime minister and the president have disagreed on issues, but the prime minister has never intentionally treated the president disrespectfully — and if that is what some people felt, it certainly was not the prime minister’s intention…In fact, I can tell you, as someone very close to the prime minister, that he has a great deal of respect for the president,” Dermer contended.
But, he went on, Netanyahu “has a moral obligation, as the leader of Israel and in living memory of an attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, to speak up about a deal that could endanger the survival of the one and only Jewish state.”
Amid accusations that the visit was not coordinated with the White House — and which White House officials called a troubling breach of diplomatic protocol — the Israeli envoy said that it was the responsibility of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who extended the invitation to the PM, to inform the Obama administration.
Dermer claimed Netanyahu was informally invited by Boehner, a vocal Republican opponent of the president, two weeks before an official invitation was sent to Jerusalem. According to protocol, Dermer alleged, the speaker’s office should have informed the administration and, therefore, the ambassador felt he was out of place to notify administration officials of the prime minister’s visit until Boehner had done so.
“The speaker’s office apparently informed the administration about it the morning of the announcement, around two hours before it was publicized. After it was publicized, we were in contact with administration officials, both here and in Jerusalem,” Dermer declared.
Dermer said it was “made clear” to him that it was “the speaker’s responsibility and normal protocol for the Speaker’s office to notify the administration of the invitation.
“That is why I felt it would be inappropriate for me to raise the issue with the administration, including in my meeting with the secretary of state, until the speaker notified them,” he said in reference to a two-hour meeting with John Kerry the same day the announcement was made and which administration officials said caught them off guard.
On the P5+1 talks between Iran and six global powers, including the United States, Dermer said that Israel expressed concern over the direction of the negotiations and was apprehensive about any deal that may enable Tehran to eventually build a nuclear weapon.
The US and Israel’s respective policies toward Iran are not “fully aligned,” said the US envoy, adding that that was the “basic problem.”
Charging that the Iranian regime is “working towards Israel’s destruction,” Dermer said the deal being discussed with Iran did not seek to dismantle Tehran’s nuclear weapons capabilities, but would “leave Iran as a nuclear-threshold state.”
“Israel appreciates that relations with Iran are an important foreign policy priority for the Obama administration. But equally, I would hope that everyone would appreciate what it means to us to see that the deal that is emerging would pose a threat to the survival of Israel,” he asserted.
“Let me be clear that the prime minister’s visit to Washington is intended for one purpose — to speak about Iran, that openly threatens the survival of the Jewish state,” Dermer said. “The survival of Israel is not a partisan issue. It is an issue for all Americans because those who seek Israel’s destruction also threaten America.”
“The prime minister is looking forward to the opportunity to speak to the American Congress and through them to the American people about what he believes is the greatest challenge of our time — preventing a nuclear-armed Iran,” added the ambassador.
When probed whether Jerusalem was seeking an armed conflict with the Islamic Republic, the ambassador answered in the negative, asserting that a peaceful resolution to the issue would by far be the best outcome for the Jewish state.
“We hope that the P5+1 will only sign a deal that truly resolves the problem and dismantles Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability. If that were the deal, Israel would be the first country to support it,” Dermer concluded.
The incident over the planned Congress speech set off an ugly, public spat between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administrations, with senior US officials charging that the Israeli leader had “spat” in Obama’s face and could not be trusted.
The prime minister on Friday downplayed the diplomatic spat, terming it a “procedural issue” that can be resolved — unlike a “bad” deal with Tehran, which cannot be so easily mended. “We can resolve procedural issues with regard to my appearance in the US, but if Iran arms itself with nuclear weapons, it will be a lot harder to fix,” Netanyahu said.
Obama and Kerry have said they will not meet with the prime minister during his visit, citing a White House policy not to meet with world leaders ahead of national elections in their countries. Israelis will go to the polls on March 17, two weeks after Netanyahu’s planned speech.