White House downplays impact of Netanyahu speech on ties
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White House downplays impact of Netanyahu speech on ties

Obama chief of staff affirms ‘many-faceted, deep and abiding’ relationship with Israel, says talks on Iran sanctions bill ongoing

US President Barack Obama (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) prepare for a press session in the White House in Washington, DC, September 30, 2013. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
US President Barack Obama (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) prepare for a press session in the White House in Washington, DC, September 30, 2013. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough appeared to downplay the tensions between the White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, insisting that the US relationship with Israel was “many-faceted, deep and abiding.”

Netanyahu roiled the Obama administration when he scheduled an address to a joint session of Congress in March about the Iranian nuclear talks, without coordinating his visit with the White House. 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.

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 on the early-March visit.

“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.”

The White House chief of staff refused to enter the fray over former ambassador to Washington and Kulanu Knesset candidate Michael Oren’s comments over the weekend that called on Netanyahu to cancel the visit.

“I’ll leave that between Michael and Ambassador [Ron Dermer] or Prime Minister Netanyahu,” McDonough said.

He also 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.”

At the heart of the disagreement is the White House’s opposition to efforts in Congress to pass new sanctions against Iran while the talks are ongoing. Last Tuesday, in his State of the Union speech, Obama praised the progress of the nuclear talks and promised to veto such a bill.

The promise to veto new sanctions has raised the bar for passing such a bill from a simple majority to two-thirds. Even in a staunchly Republican-controlled Congress — Republicans hold 57 percent of the House and 54% of the Senate as of this month — a two-thirds vote will still require support from the Democrats, who are less than eager to vote against a Democratic president’s wishes in a debate that has grown increasingly partisan.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough greets a member of Congress before US President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, January 20, 2015 (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough greets a member of Congress before US President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, January 20, 2015 (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

McDonough addressed the row over Iran sanctions on multiple Sunday-morning talk shows. On ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopolous,” he called the main sanctions bill being drafted in the Senate by senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) “premature.”

“We’ve asked Congress for — for forbearance, for some time to allow us to run these negotiations so that it is we who are united with our allies, maintaining Iran isolated, rather than going with some kind of premature action up there on the Hill that would risk really splintering the international community, making it we, not the Iranians, who are isolated,” he explained.

“We’ll obviously talk to Senator Menendez and others along the way, as we have from day one on this matter,” McDonough added.

The fate of the bills remains unclear. The need for two-thirds support has meant that both the Menendez-Kirk bill and an alternative bill being drafted by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) have yet to be brought to a vote. Some unsourced Israeli media reports suggested the bills may be frozen until after the Netanyahu speech, in the hopes that a less-charged partisan atmosphere may make it easier to obtain Democratic votes.

Netanyahu is not the only world leader eager to weigh in on the sanctions fight in Washington. Britain’s Cameron called senators last week to urge them to delay any new sanctions legislation, while Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a Senate committee last week that French and German officials would call on Congress for the same purpose.

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