Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer defended on Sunday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech before the US Congress on March 3, just two weeks before Israeli national elections, saying it was the prime minister’s “sacred duty” to present his stance on Iran — a stance sharply at odds with the Obama administration.
Speaking at an Israel Bonds event in Florida, Dermer charged that the nuclear agreement being discussed between the P5+1 and Tehran “could endanger the very existence of the State of Israel,” by leaving Iran as a “nuclear threshold state.”
The six world powers — Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany — are working with Iran to finalize an agreement that would curb Tehran’s nuclear program, which the West believes is intended to build atomic weapons, a charge the Islamic Republic denies. Two earlier deadlines passed without the final deal and a third deadline is looming on July 1.
Dermer said Netanyahu’s visit was “intended for one purpose: To speak up while there is still time to speak up. To speak up when there is still time to make a difference.”
The Israeli envoy said it was Netanyahu’s “most sacred duty to do whatever he can to prevent Iran from ever developing nuclear weapons that can be aimed at Israel.”
“For Israel, a nuclear armed Iran would be a clear and present danger. Iran’s regime is both committed to Israel’s destruction and working toward Israel’s destruction,” he said.
Netanyahu’s upcoming speech, which was not coordinated with the White House, sparked a public row between his government and President Barack Obama’s administration. In his address, the PM is expected to urge US lawmakers to ready new sanctions on Iran in order to force it to comply with international demands to curb its nuclear program, a move Obama strongly opposes and has vowed to veto.
Last Tuesday, in his State of the Union speech, Obama praised the progress of the nuclear talks. The administration has been at odds with Netanyahu for years over international efforts to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, with Israel expressing skepticism over emerging terms that would allow Tehran to retain some uranium enrichment capacity.
Amid growing criticism in the US and in Israel of Netanyahu’s move, including by Israel’s former US envoy Dr. Michael Oren who called on the prime minister to cancel the speech, Dermer said the visit was “not intended to show any disrespect for President Obama,” nor was it intended “to wade into your political debate.”
Earlier Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough appeared to downplay the tensions between the White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, insisting that the US relationship with Israel was “many-faceted, deep and abiding.”
After news broke of Netanyahu’s address last week — he was invited by House Speaker John Boehner — the White House accused Boehner and Netanyahu of failing to notify the White House of the coming visit in breach of “long-standing protocol.”
The White House said Obama would not meet Netanyahu during his visit to the US.
“Our relationship with Israel is many-faceted, deep and abiding,” McDonough told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday morning. “It’s focused on a shared series of threats, but also on a shared series of values that one particular instance is not going to overwhelm.”
McDonough deferred questions about comments attributed to an American official in Friday’s edition of the Haaretz daily, to the effect that Netanyahu “spat in our face publicly, and that’s no way to behave.”
The unnamed official warned that “Netanyahu ought to remember that President [Barack] Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.”
McDonough emphasized that “we think that, as a general matter, we, the United States, has stayed out of internal politics in the countries of our closest allies. That’s true whether it’s Great Britain, where we just recently had a visit from Prime Minister [David] Cameron a full four months before their election; or in Israel,” McDonough added.
McDonough’s language was notably more guarded, however, than the White House’s earlier statement, which described the policy of not meeting before elections as a “long-standing precedent.”