Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched thinly veiled criticism at the Obama administration Monday for reportedly withholding information from Israel regarding the ongoing US-led nuclear talks with Iran. He also left no doubt whatsoever that he will go ahead with his controversial speech to congress on March 3, saying that no responsible Israeli prime minister could “refuse an invitation to speak on a matter that could affect our very existence” before the world’s most important parliament.
“Just as Iran knows what deal is being outlined in the negotiations, it’s only natural that Israel also know the agreement being drafted,” Netanyahu said in Hebrew at the start of an address to a visiting group from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “But if there is anyone who thinks that this is a good agreement, why should it be hidden?”
On Sunday, Israeli media outlets reported that the Obama administration has decided to keep Israel in the dark regarding the details and progress of the talks, over fears that the Israeli leader is undermining the talks and using the controversy for political gain. Both the White House and State Department categorically denied the reports. But further media reports in the Hebrew press Monday quoted unnamed sources on both sides saying the US is indeed changing the flow of information to Israel over the negotiations.
Netanyahu, who continued his address in English, went on to reiterate the importance of his addressing US lawmakers concerning the threat of a nuclear armed Iran, leaving no doubt whatsoever that he would proceed with the speech despite criticism from the White House; President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will not meet him during the trip because of its proximity to Israel’s March 17 elections, and Vice President Joe Biden will not attend the Congressional speech citing a prior unspecified overseas commitment.
He called his upcoming March 3 speech before Congress an “obligation,” and said he would “do everything in my power to prevent the conclusion of a bad deal that could threaten the survival of the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu warned: “The current proposal to Iran would endanger Israel. It would enable Iran to break out to its first nuclear device within an unacceptably short time. And it would allow Iran to build an industrial capability to enrich uranium that could provide the fuel for many bombs in the coming years. A regime that openly calls for Israel’s destruction would thus have finally the means to realize its genocidal aims.”
He stressed he was “not opposed to any deal with Iran. I’m opposed to a bad deal with Iran. And I believe this is a very bad deal. I’m certainly not opposed to negotiations. On the contrary – no country has a greater interest, a greater stake, in the peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear question than does Israel. But the current proposal will not solve the problem,” he said. “It will perpetuate and aggravate the problem. It would provide a path for Iran to become a nuclear power. And therefore it’s very important that I speak about this in Washington.”
He said he had to speak in Congress “because Israel has been offered the opportunity to make its case on this crucial issue before the world’s most important parliament; because a speech before Congress allows Israel to present its position to the elected representatives of the American people and to a worldwide audience; because Congress has played a critical role in applying pressure to the Iranian regime – the very pressure that has brought the ayatollahs to the negotiating table in the first place; and because Congress may very well have a say on the parameters of any final deal with Iran. That’s why I’m going to Congress.”
He said “the real question,” in fact, was “how could any responsible Israeli prime minister refuse to speak to Congress on a matter so important to Israel’s survival? How could anyone refuse an invitation to speak on a matter that could affect our very existence when such an invitation is offered?”
And the speech had to come right away “because the deadline for reaching an agreement with Iran is March 24th. That’s the date that drives the speech. Now is the time for Israel to make its case – now before it’s too late.”
He asked: “Would it be better to complain about a deal that threatens the security of Israel after it’s signed? I believe it’s more responsible to speak out now to try to influence the negotiations while they’re still ongoing. I think the whole point of Zionism is that the Jewish people would no longer be spectators to the decision-making that determines our fate. Remember, we were once powerless. We were once voiceless. We couldn’t even speak on our own behalf. Well, we can and we do now.”
Responding to criticisms that his invitation and acceptance were a slight to the US president and Democratic lawmakers, Netanyahu insisted: “I don’t see this issue in partisan terms. The survival of Israel is not a partisan issue. It concerns everyone, all the supporters of Israel from every political stripe. The fight against militant Islamic terrorism is not a partisan issue. The battle against the Islamic State, which just beheaded 21 Christians, is not a partisan issue. And the effort to prevent the Islamic Republic from building nuclear weapons, that’s not a partisan issue either.”
He went on: “I think the pursuit of nuclear weapons by Iran is the most urgent security challenge facing the world. I think the greatest danger facing humanity is the possibility that any movement or any regime of militant Islam will arm itself with the weapons of mass destruction. Everything that we see in our region now will pale by comparison. Everything that we see in Europe will pale by comparison. When a militant Islamic regime that is rampaging through the region right now – that’s what Iran is doing, it’s conducting a rampage through the region – when such a regime has nuclear weapons, the whole world will be in peril.
“Look at what Iran is doing now without nuclear weapons,” he urged. “States are collapsing. And Iran is plunging forward. It’s already controlling four capitals. It’s controlling now through its Houthi proxies the Bab-el-Mandeb Straits. It’s trying to envelope Israel with three terrorist tentacles – Lebanon, Hezbollah, Hamas in Gaza and now it’s trying to build with its Hezbollah proxies a third front in the Golan. Such a regime with nuclear weapons would be infinitely more dangerous to everyone, not only to Israel.”
He said he could not “guarantee” that his speech in Congress will prevent a dangerous deal with Iran from being signed. “Honestly, I don’t know. No one knows. But I do know this – it’s my sacred duty as prime minister of Israel to make Israel’s case. On March 3rd, I’ll fulfill that duty, representing all the citizens of Israel before the two houses of Congress. And I will make the best case for Israel that I can, knowing that our case is just, that our case is sound, and that our case offers the best hope to resolve this issue peacefully.”
Congress will vote on March 24 on the Iran sanctions deal, a week ahead of a March 31 deadline for an agreement in principle in the P5+1 talks with Tehran.
Diplomatic relations between the two allies have reached new lows in past weeks over the invitation to address Congress, which bypassed the White House. Netanyahu accepted an invitation last month from Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker of the US House of Representatives, to speak to Congress, but the White House complained that Boehner had not cleared the invitation in advance with Obama or Democrats in Congress. Boehner later acknowledged this was the case, saying he hadn’t wanted the White House to intervene.
Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany — known as the P5+1 — have been seeking a comprehensive accord with Iran that would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb, in return for an easing of economic sanctions.
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.