More than 30 Democrats threaten to boycott Israeli prime minister’s planned speech in Congress
Israel and the US are bracing this week for the most strained moment in relations since Barack Obama came to power, after the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, arrived in Washington on Sunday night to urge Congress to oppose a nuclear deal with Iran.
As he flew out of Ben Gurion airport, Netanyahu described his 48-hour trip to Washington as “a fateful, even historic mission”, which is to culminate in a controversial speech to Congress in which he will speak out against an emerging pact with Iran over its nuclear programme.
“I feel deep and sincere concern for the security of Israel’s citizens and for the fate of the state and of all our people,” he said. “I will do everything in my power to ensure our future.” Netanyahu will address the American Israel public affairs committee (Aipac) on Monday, before delivering his speech to Congress on Tuesday.
Dozens of Democrats are threatening to boycott the address and the White House will get its retaliation in first at Aipac on Monday when national security adviser Susan Rice urges Israel to give the benefit of the doubt to the international talks, which are aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, rather than pursue what she has a called a destructive intervention.
“There is no question that the way the [Netanyahu] speech has come about has created a great deal of upset among Democrats in Congress … it’s created some upset outside Capitol Hill and frankly it may have upset some people in this room,” Howard Kohr, Aipac chief executive, told the commitee’s opening session. All of us should be concerned that care so deeply about the bipartisan support for the US-Israel relationship, but … when the leader of our greatest ally in the region comes to Washington to talk about the greatest challenge of our time, we urge members of Congress to hear what he has to say.”
Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday tried to calm tensions ahead of the speech but insisted the Obama administration’s diplomatic record with Iran entitles the US to “the benefit of the doubt” as negotiators work toward a long-term nuclear deal.
Kerry said in an interview broadcast before he arrived in Switzerland for talks with Iran’s foreign minister on Monday that Netanyahu was welcome to speak in the US and that the administration did not want the event “turned into some great political football”.
More than 30 Democrats have threatened to skip the speech but even those planning to attend are angry that Netanyahu claims to be a “representative of the entire Jewish people” on the issue.
“He doesn’t at all speak for me on this,” Senator Dianne Feinstein told CNN on Sunday. “I think it’s a rather arrogant statement. I think the Jewish community is like any other community; there are different points of view.
“I happen to believe Israel is a lot safer with an agreement that’s agreed to by all of the big powers including ourselves, than it is if there is no agreement and if Iran decides to breakout. Then Israel attacks Iran, Iran attacks back, then what happens?”
The warning was echoed by the US administration, which has refused to send any representative to the speech or meet Netanyahu at the White House. The secretary of state, John Kerry, said in an interview on ABC: “I can’t promise you we can [reach a nuclear deal with Iran] … but we are going to test whether or not diplomacy can prevent this weapon from being created so you don’t have to turn to additional measures including the possibility of a military confrontation.”
But the evident tensions with the White House are relished by many Republicans, who see the clash as an opportunity to underline their support for Israel.
John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives who extended the invitation to the Israeli prime minister, dismissed criticism that the controversy surrounding the visit had undermined Netanyahu’s ability to make his argument.
“The demand for seats in the house, the demand for tickets, I’ve never seen anything like it. Everybody wants to be there,” Boehner told CBS news.
“It’s been frankly remarkable to me the extent to which, over the last five or six weeks, the White House has attacked the prime minister, attacked me for wanting to hear from one of our closest allies.”
Netanyahu is also facing domestic criticism for his Washington demarche, which significantly comes just two weeks before an election in which the prime minister is seeking a third term.
On Sunday, a group representing nearly 200 of Israel’s top retired military and intelligence officials slammed the move as a direct assault on the US-Israel alliance, claiming it would actually bring Iran closer to a nuclear bomb.
“When the Israeli prime minister argues that his speech will stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, he is not only misleading Israel, he is actually strengthening Iran,” Amnon Reshef, the former head of Israel’s armoured corps and the founder of Commanders for Israel’s Security, said at a press conference in Tel Aviv on Sunday morning.
Reshef was joined by five other generals who called on Netanyahu to cancel his speech, warning of its dangers to Israeli security.
“Iran wants Netanyahu’s speech – since it understands that it will weaken Israel’s bipartisan bond with the US,” said Amiram Levin, ex-commander of the northern command and former deputy chief of the Mossad. “For Iran, a strategically weak Israel is an asset which will help Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, since they know that it will prevent a viable military option against them.
“I taught Bibi [Netanyahu] how to navigate and hit the target, but I’m afraid to say that this time, Bibi missed. The target is Tehran, not Washington,” he said.-Guardian
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