The former Israeli ambassador to the US, Dr. Michael Oren, said Saturday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should cancel his upcoming speech to the US Congress set for March 3, just two weeks before Israeli national elections.
In his address, Netanyahu is expected to urge US lawmakers to slap a new round of sanctions on Iran in order to force it to comply with international demands to curb its nuclear program, a move US President Barack Obama strongly opposes and has vowed to veto.
Oren, who is running for Knesset on the Kulanu list led by popular former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, told Channel 2 Saturday that it was “advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government. Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior are needed to guard interests in the White House,”
“The behavior [of the PM] over the last few days created the impression of a cynical political move, and it could hurt our attempts to act against Iran,” said Oren.
The announcement Wednesday that Netanyahu would address US lawmakers — without coordinating the visit with the White House —
set off an ugly, public spat between the Israeli government and the Obama administration.
Oren tweeted Saturday that Israel must not sacrifice one of its two existential needs — “preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and strengthening our relationship with the US” — for the other, in reference to the deep disagreements between Netanyahu and Obama on the Iranian nuclear talks. Oren, an author and academic, was handpicked by Netanyahu to serve as Israel’s ambassador to the US from 2009 to 2013.
Hatnua party leader Tzipi Livni and Yesh Atid party chief Yair Lapid warned in separate interviews earlier that Netanyahu was ruining Israel’s relationship with the US for political gains, sentiments echoed in a New York Times editorial published Saturday.
The spat between the Netanyahu government and the Obama White House escalated Friday night after US officials said Netanyahu would be “hard to trust” following the affair.
“It will be difficult to trust Netanyahu in the future,” unnamed senior US officials told Channel 2. “At a critical juncture that requires close cooperation on strategic matters, he preferred to advance his political interests while disrupting the correct working relationship” between the two governments. The reference to “strategic matters” was understood to refer to the effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear weapons program, an issue on which the Israeli and American governments are deeply divided.
Senior Israeli sources told Channel 2 in response that given “the deep disagreements between Israel and the US” on the Iranian nuclear talks, Netanyahu felt that “he must present his stance even if that doesn’t suit Obama. This is a matter of substance.” The sources charged that the US was proving “worryingly” willing to over-compromise in the nuclear talks and was ready to allow Iran to keep more than 6,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium.
The Israeli sources further said that the US administration was taking advantage of the Israeli election season to seal a deal with Iran, and that this move must be opposed, Channel 2 reported. The fear in Jerusalem is that a US-led deal with Iran “is weeks away,” the TV report said.
Also Friday, American officials reportedly told Haaretz that Netanyahu had “spat” in Obama’s face in agreeing to speak to Congress without alerting the White House.
“We thought we’ve seen everything,” the newspaper quoted an unnamed senior US official as saying. “But Bibi managed to surprise even us.
“There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price,” he said.
Obama and Kerry have indicated that they will not meet with Netanyahu during his US visit.