Hatnua party leader Tzipi Livni and Yesh Atid party chief Yair Lapid warned in separate interviews Saturday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was wrecking Israel’s relationship with the White House for political gains.
Livni and Lapid, who were both high-ranking members of Netanyahu’s coalition until he called new elections and fired them in December, had nothing but scorn for the Likud leader in their comments Saturday. These pertained to the latest incident to deal a blow to Jerusalem’s ties with Washington: Netanyahu’s announcement that he will address Congress on March 3, a speech he did not coordinate with the White House and which is largely expected to attack the policies of President Barack Obama vis-à-vis Iran.
Senior Israeli sources told Channel 2 Friday that the prime minister was forced to defy the Obama administration because “he must present his stance” before a bad deal is signed with Tehran. But commentators and opponents have noted the proximity to the upcoming elections, to be held March 17, and have accused Netanyahu of electioneering.
“Netanyahu is destroying our strategic relationship with the US for a single election speech,” Lapid told an audience at a Saturday cultural event in Modiin.
“I spoke to senior US officials over the weekend and they are aghast at this conduct. It’s rude, it goes against all protocol,” and all in order to win him some favor in Likud circles, he said.
At a separate event in Bat Yam, Livni accused Netanyahu of self-defeating conduct that offended Israel’s strongest supporters in the international arena.
“Netanyahu’s step may serve him personally, politically, but hurts Israel’s security,” she said. “A responsible prime minister who has the state’s best interests in mind would not do this. A responsible prime minister would find a way to work with the US president – any president — to safeguard our most vital interests.”
Meretz chair Zahava Gal-On said she would ask the attorney-general to investigate whether Netanyahu, in coordinating his March visit to the US, had made improper use of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. She said the visit appeared designed to promote his political interests rather than national interests, and thus should not have been arranged with assistance from the embassy.
The Israeli sources told Channel 2 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.
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.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said Thursday that “the speech in front of both houses of Congress will give the prime minister the opportunity to thank President Barack Obama, Congress, and the American people for their support of Israel.
“I look forward to the opportunity to express before the joint session Israel’s vision for a joint effort to deal with [Islamist terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program], and to emphasize Israel’s commitment to the special bond between our two democracies,” Netanyahu said, according to the statement.
The New York Times on Saturday panned Netanyahu for his decision to bypass Obama, also accusing the Israeli leader of playing politics with the Iranian issue.
In its editorial, the American newspaper called House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation, and Netanyahu’s subsequent acceptance, “a breach of sense and diplomacy.”
The piece speculated that the premier “believes that winning the applause of Congress by rebuking Mr. Obama will bolster his standing as a leader capable of keeping Israel safe.”
On Friday evening US officials reportedly charged that it will be “hard to trust” Netanyahu again, after he failed to coordinate his address to Congress with the White House.
“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 Israeli leader is expected to urge lawmakers to slap Tehran with a new round of tougher sanctions in order to force it to comply with international demands.
Haaretz reported that Obama had personally demanded that Netanyahu tone down his pro-sanctions rhetoric in a phone call between the two last week. The president has said a sanctions bill would cripple negotiations with Iranian leaders at a critical stage, and has threatened to veto such a bill should it come through.
Earlier 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.