Netanyahu Rejects Criticism of Congress Speech: My Duty Is to Warn About Iran

Premier's remarks follow Haaretz report revealing that Israeli consuls in the U.S. have told the Foreign Ministry that friends of Israel fear the speech will harm ties between the two countries.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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File photo: Netanyahu addressing journalists during a press conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. September 15, 2013.
File photo: Netanyahu addressing journalists during a press conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. September 15, 2013.Credit: AFP
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday rejected the harsh criticism sounded by Democrats and friends of Israel in the United States over his plan to address Congress next March.

As reported on Thursday, Israeli consuls across the U.S. told the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem that these pro-Israel elements in the U.S. were concerned that the speech – an invitation extended by House Speaker John Boehner – would harm Israel's ties with the U.S.

"It’s my duty as the prime minister of Israel to warn about the danger of a nuclear agreement with Iran and to do everything I can to prevent it from coming to fruition before it’s too late,” Netanyahu said in response to the Haaretz report, over the course of a visit to the site of a highway construction project in the Sharon region.

Netanyahu said he was concerned about comments Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's remarks a day earlier, in which the Iranian leader spoke of the talks with the six major powers - the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany - as progressing along the path laid out by Iran.

“This path is leading to Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state with international consent, with all the desired economic concessions,” Netanyahu said. “This means that Iran will be freed of all of the pressures and will attain a situation in which it can arm itself with many nuclear bombs. This is very dangerous for Israel, for the region and for the peace of the entire world.”

The Israeli prime minister was speaking against the backdrop of increasing opposition in the U.S., particularly among senior Democrats, over the prospect of his speaking to the Congress. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of Netanyahu’s Likud party met overnight with Democratic House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who has recently made very negative comments about the planned speech. Edelstein attempted to convey a message of reassurance at his meeting in an effort to moderate the criticism, but failed.

Following the meeting, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill issued a statement confirming Pelosi’s strong reservations about Netanyahu's address. Pelosi, he said, also told the Knesset speaker that all of the members of Congress place ties with Israel above any political differences of opinion, based on the two countries’ mutual respect for democratic values and the national security interests of the two.

“The leader [Pelosi] expressed her concern that casting a political apple of discord into the relationship is not the best way forward given the formidable challenges our two countries are facing together,” Hammill added.

Shortly after her meeting with Edelstein, Pelosi went to the White House for a meeting with President Barack Obama during which the issue of Netanyahu’s speech apparently arouse.

Also on Wednesday, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer met with seven Jewish members of Congress. The Jewish legislators expressed their own reservations about Netanyahu’s plan to speak to Congress. The American political website Politico reported that the atmosphere at the meeting was tense and that tempers flared in the course of the discussion.

The Jewish legislators told Dermer that they were unhappy about Netanyahu’s decision to arrange an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress. They suggested that instead of a public appearance before Congress, the Israeli prime minister should make do with private conversations with members of Congress on the Iranian nuclear issue.

The seven Congressmen told Dermer that the current approach could turn Israel into matter of controversy between the Democratic and Republican parties and require them to choose between support for President Obama and support for Netanyahu. Democratic Congressman Steve Israel of New York, in whose office the hour-long meeting took place, said all of the participants at the meeting agreed that Israel should not become a political pawn in the United States over the speech.

The Zionist Camp, the joint Knesset list of Labor and Hatnuah, also leveled criticism on Netanyahu's plan, saying Thursday: "Netanyahu has turned the Congress into a Likud committee convention. For the sake of an election speech, he is destroying the strategic relations between Israel the United States."

"The prime minister only thinks about himself and not about the good of the citizens of Israel," a spokesman for the list. "He doesn't deserve to stay in office."

As mentioned above, Haaretz reported earlier Thursday that the Israeli consuls general serving around the U.S. had warned the Foreign Ministry over the past two weeks of strong opposition and highly negative reaction over the premier's speech from within the American Jewish community and among friends of Israel.

A senior Foreign Ministry official said the consuls general in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia had sent the ministry cables of concern and also orally conveyed the general dissatisfaction that they had discerned over the speech and messages that they had received from their contacts over concern about the implications of the deepening crisis between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government.

“The recurring message in all of the consuls’ reports is that friends of Israel in the United States believe that Netanyahu’s speech is a major mistake that could damage relations between Israel and the United States,” the senior Foreign Ministry official said.

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