Despite rising pressure to cancel or delay his speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday he intended to go forward with a March 3 address to Congress, characterizing fraying ties with the White House over Iran as unexceptional in the two countries’ histories.
Acknowledging “a profound disagreement with the United States administration and the rest of the P5+1 over the offer that has been made to Iran,” Netanyahu added, “I intend to speak about this issue before the March 24th deadline and I intend to speak in the US Congress because Congress might have an important role on a nuclear deal with Iran.”
The March 24 deadline refers to a Congressional vote on the Iran sanctions deal, which comes a week ahead of the March 31 deadline of international negotiations with Iran.
Netanyahu was invited to speak before American lawmakers by Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner, but the invitation was criticized by the White House as a “violation of protocol.”
The prime minister has since faced widespread criticism for accepting the invitation.
Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni have charged that the speech was motivated by the Knesset elections, set to take place just two weeks later. Many Democrats and Jewish leaders have suggested that Netanyahu is turning Israel into a partisan issue in an increasingly polarized Washington.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a 42-year veteran, joined a half dozen Democrats who have decided to boycott Netanyahu’s speech Tuesday.
“The unfortunate way that House leaders have unilaterally arranged this, and then heavily politicized it, has demolished the potential constructive value of this joint meeting,” Leahy said in a statement. “They have orchestrated a tawdry and high-handed stunt that has embarrassed not only Israel but the Congress itself.”
Democrats have complained that the speech is an affront to President Barack Obama, who has said he will not meet with Netanyahu when he visits the United States.
Vice President Joe Biden also will miss the speech, citing unspecified travel plans.
Boehner has defended the invitation.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democratic leader, said he would attend Netanyahu’s speech, though he said Boehner should have consulted with the White House and Democrats before inviting the Israeli prime minister to address lawmakers. Hoyer said he spoke to Netanyahu two weeks ago after he was invited to speak.
“I told him of the political consternation that this had caused within our caucus, and that it was unfortunate,” Hoyer said.
One left-wing Jewish group, J Street, launched a petition Tuesday against Netanyahu’s speech with the slogan, “No, Mr. Netanyahu, you do not speak for me.”
But Netanyahu has held firm, and there are no signs that Boehner or other Republican leaders intend to rescind the invitation.
The looming danger from Iran justified the move, Netanyahu argued Tuesday.
“This is a regime, Iran, that is openly committed to Israel’s destruction,” Netanyahu said Tuesday. “It would be able, under this deal, to break out to a nuclear weapon in a short time, and within a few years, to have the industrial capability to produce many nuclear bombs for the goal of our destruction.”
He added: “This offer would enable Iran to threaten Israel’s survival.”
His argument with Obama wasn’t the first time an Israeli prime minister and an American president had clashed on security issues, Netanyahu noted.
“Israel’s survival is not a partisan issue, not in Israel nor in the United States. This doesn’t mean that from time to time Israeli governments have not had serious disagreements with American administrations over the best way to achieve the security of Israel,” he said.
“Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared Israel’s independence in the face of strong opposition from US Secretary of State George Marshall,” he said, ticking off a lineup of disputes from levi Eshkol to Ariel Sharon. “Disagreements over Israel’s security have occurred between prime ministers in Israel from the left and from the right and American presidents from both parties.”
“This is not a personal disagreement between President Obama and me. I deeply appreciate all that he has done for Israel in many fields. Equally, I know that the President appreciates my responsibility, my foremost responsibility, to protect and defend the security of Israel. I am going to the United States not because I seek a confrontation with the President, but because I must fulfil my obligation to speak up on a matter that affects the very survival of my country.”
The White House has also sought to downplay the tensions between Washington and Jerusalem, despite Netanyahu and Obama butting heads over Iran.
On Monday, Obama said he and Netanyahu had “a very real difference around Iran, around sanctions,” but suggested that not wanting him to speak, and not inviting him to the White House was meant to safeguard the strong bond between Israel and the US by not appearing partisan so close to the Israeli elections.
“This is the US-Israeli relationship that extends beyond parties. It has to do with that unbreakable bond that we feel and our commitment to Israel’s security and the shared values that we have. The way to preserve that is to ensure that it doesn’t get clouded by what could be perceived as partisan politics…. That’s something we have to guard against.””
AP contributed to this report.