Top Obama aide: Netanyahu’s speech damaging ‘fabric’ of ties

National security adviser Susan Rice says relationship between the two countries has become ‘infused with politics’

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

In a searing rebuke of the Israeli prime minister, US National Security Adviser Susan Rice warned Tuesday that Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming speech in front of a joint session of Congress has cast a partisan pall over the ties between the two close allies and threatened “the fabric of the relationship.”

In an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, Rice faulted both Netanyahu and the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, who extended the invitation to the prime minister to address Congress on Iran, for creating the current “destructive” situation.

“What has happened over the last several weeks, by virtue of the invitation that was issued by the speaker and the acceptance of it by Prime Minister Netanyahu, two weeks in advance of his election, is that on both sides there has now been injected a degree of partisanship which is not only unfortunate; it’s destructive of the fabric of the relationship,” she said.

“The relationship between Israel as a country and the United States as a country has always been bipartisan,” Rice noted, emphasizing that keeping US-Israel ties free of local politics was in the best interest of both countries.

“It’s always been bipartisan; we need to keep it that way,” she said. “We want it that way. I think Israel wants it that way, the Israeli people want it that way. When it becomes infused with politics that’s a problem.”

Netanyahu’s speech is controversial because it puts Israel on a collision course with the Obama administration as it negotiates with Iran over its nuclear program — talks that in their current form could lead to a deal that potentially poses an existential risk to Israel, Netanyahu has warned. Thus, he intends to argue before Congress on March 3 that the international community should increase its pressure on Iran, rather than ease sanctions against it under the reported terms of the emerging nuclear deal.

The speech is also set just two weeks before the prime minister faces elections back home, a fact that critics in Israel and the US have seized on to accuse Netanyahu of using the address to drum up support for his Likud party. But Rice was careful to avoid characterizing Netanyahu’s motives for pursuing the speech, which is openly opposed by the White House, some Democratic legislators, and many within the US Jewish community, as anything but genuine.

“I’m not going to ascribe motives to the prime minister,” she said. “Let him explain for himself. The point is we want the relationship between the United States and Israel to unquestionably be strong, immutable, regardless of political seasons in either country, regardless of which country maybe in charge in either country. We’ve worked very hard to have that and we will work very hard to maintain that.”

While Israeli officials have lambasted the emerging deal with Iran based on initial leaks — claiming it doesn’t do enough to curb the nuclear ambitions of an implacable enemy of the Jewish state — Rice insisted that the terms of the agreement would prove themselves over time.

“They [the Iranans] are not going to be able to convince anybody on day one that they have stopped enrichment,” she said, fielding a question on whether Washington should ease sanctions immediately upon inking an agreement. “They’re going to have to prove over time through their actions which will be validated that they are, in fact, upholding their commitments.”

Rice insisted that Iran has kept its end of an interim agreement from over a year ago, including disposing of its 20 percent enriched uranium, increasing its transparency on nuclear development and allowing inspections of its facilities.

“They have enabled us to validate that they have, in fact, taken all the steps that they committed to take and that they’re in full compliance,” she said. “That model will need to be sustained in any comprehensive agreement. We’ll need to be able to see and test and verify that the commitments they’ve made are actually being implemented.”

“The policy is Iran will not get a nuclear weapon,” Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier Tuesday, rejecting “uninformed” criticism of the emerging deal. “And anybody running around right now, jumping in to say, well, we don’t like the deal, or this or that, doesn’t know what the deal is. There is no deal yet.”

“I don’t know anybody who looks at the interim agreement and doesn’t say, wow, this has really worked — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who would like to see it extended, having opposed it vehemently in the beginning, calling it the deal of the century for Iran,” he continued.

Still, questions persist regarding some aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. Earlier this month International Atomic Energy Agency Chairman Yukiya Amano said that Iran was still being evasive on various activities. Amano told Israel Radio that the Islamic Republic had so far been unresponsive to a series of questions regarding its nuclear program and had failed to adequately address concerns over its alleged attempts to develop atomic weapons.

Nonetheless, in January the IAEA published a report that Iran is honoring its commitment not to expand atomic activities that could be used to make weapons while it negotiates with six world powers on a lasting nuclear deal.

Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany — known as the P5+1 — have been seeking a comprehensive accord that would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb, in return for an easing of sanctions.

The cut-off point for the technical details of such an accord is June 30.

Rice’s harsh criticism of Netanyahu came as Jewish Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Ten.) joined a growing group of Democratic lawmakers publicly eschewing the prime minister’s speech.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu turned down an invitation to meet privately with Senate Democrats next week during his visit to Washington, saying the session “could compound the misperception of partisanship” surrounding his trip.

Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.

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