WASHINGTON -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his most detailed comments yet here on Monday about his spat with the Obama administration, acknowledging tensions in the U.S.-Israel relationship but citing history and philosophy to argue that the countries' bond will become even stronger -- and showing little remorse for what some observers describe as the most notable breakdown in the relationship in decades.
"Our alliance is sound, our friendship is strong," Netanyahu said, after describing disputes between the U.S. and Israel at multiple points since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. "Despite occasional disagreements, the friendship between America and Israel grew stronger and stronger decade after decade, and our friendship will weather the current disagreement as well to grow even stronger in the future. And I'll tell you why: because we share the same dreams, because we pray and hope and aspire for that same world."
The prime minister's historical references notably related to moments at which Israel felt threatened, was advised by Washington to restrain itself and instead took aggressive action. Netanyahu has made clear that he believes the Obama administration is risking Israel's security in its ongoing nuclear diplomacy with Iran, and he plans to talk about the dangers of the administration's approach in a speech to Congress on Tuesday that has sparked controversy in the U.S. and abroad.
"Never has so much been written about a speech that hasn't been given" yet, Netanyahu said. Though he would not comment extensively about the content of that address, he called Iran "the foremost state sponsor of terrorism in the world" and asked the 16,000 attendees at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, the annual confab that was hosting him, to "imagine what Iran would do with nuclear weapons."
The prime minister in January accepted an invitation from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to speak to U.S. lawmakers about the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Obama administration officials have condemned Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer for his role in arranging the event and said it risks turning the U.S.-Israel relationship into a partisan one between Republicans and Netanyahu's conservative Likud party. Netanyahu faces a re-election fight on March 17 and analysts see a link between his congressional appearance and his political ambitions.
A number of Democrats oppose the speech because they believe it implies disrespect for President Barack Obama. Thirty of them, as of Monday morning, have made clear that they will not attend it. Neither will top Obama administration officials, and the White House has said that the president will not be meeting with Netanyahu during his trip to the U.S. because he does not want to appear to be meddling in the election.
The prime minister on Monday downplayed the idea that his congressional appearance is a snub to Obama: "My speech isn't intended to show any disrespect to the president or to the esteemed office he holds. I have great respect for both."
The talks with Iran, which the Obama administration describes as the only way to prevent the country from obtaining a nuclear weapon, resumed Monday in Geneva as Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The U.S. and five other nations -- the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China -- hope to make Iran accept limits on its uranium enrichment in exchange for eventual sanctions relief that would help its economy.
Under a temporary agreement Kerry negotiated in 2013, Iran has suspended its enrichment program and is allowing regular inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency in return for limited sanctions relief. That temporary agreement will expire June 30.
Netanyahu reportedly plans to reveal details of where negotiations currently stand in his speech to Congress on Tuesday, though he did not mention any such details in the AIPAC address. Kerry on Monday indirectly referenced that rumor by saying that any such revelation of details would decrease the U.S.' ability to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. The Obama administration last month said Israel was using selective leaks to mischaracterize its position on the Iran nuclear negotiations.
The negotiations are scheduled to conclude by the end of this month, at which time leaders in Congress have said they would move forward with a bill threatening additional sanctions on Iran that the Obama administration believes would torpedo the talks.
Netanyahu, as he presented himself as a defender not just of Israel but of a Jewish community that he said has struggled for 2,000 years, emphasized what he sees as being at stake in these negotiations -- and hinted at his message against them that is to come Tuesday.
"I plan to speak about an Iranian regime that is threatening to destroy Israel, devouring country after country in the Middle East, that's exporting terror around the world and is developing, as we speak, the capacity to make nuclear weapons -- lots of them," the prime minister said.
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