Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that he is planning to address Congress not in order to antagonize U.S. President Barak Obama – but rather to bring to light a threat to Israel's existence.
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Netanyahu's statement came in the wake of reports over an increasingly long list of American lawmakers who are planning to boycott his March 3 address of a joint session of Congress.
The speech has stirred a diplomatic furor, with critics calling it a breach of protocol because the invitation to address in Congress, extended to Netanyahu by House Speaker John Boehner, was not coordinated with Obama.
"I will travel to the U.S. not because I seek a confrontation with the president of the U.S., but rather because I must fulfil my duty to address an issue that threatens our existence," Netanyahu said.
"I intend to discuss the issue before the March 24 deadline for the agreement, and I plan to discuss it in Congress because it will likely have an important and influential role in the nuclear deal with Iran."
Netanyahu added that Israel's existence is not up to partisan debate, neither in Israel nor in the U.S.
He further noted that Israel and the U.S. have gone through a series of disagreements over the years, involving rightist and leftist Israeli leaders, and American presidents both Democratic and Republican. "None of these disagreements have led to a rift in the ties between Israel and the U.S.," he said. "On the contrary, over time, our relations grew stronger."
The prime minister stressed that Israel is in dispute with the U.S. and the world powers over the terms of a proposed nuclear agreement with Iran.
"The proposal will allow Iran to threaten Israel's existence" and develop a nuclear bomb within a short period of time.
U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the crisis over Netanyahu's planned speech on Monday, saying "very real differences" exist between him and the Israeli prime minister over the negotiations with Iran and imposing new sanctions on Tehran.
Obama reiterated that he does not plan to meet Netanyahu during his planned visit in Washington because it is customary not to meet a foreign leader when an election nears in his country. "As much as I love Angela, if her election were two weeks away, she probably would not have received an invitation to the White House,” he said at a press conference alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "And she probably wouldn’t have asked for one."
The U.S. president rejected the demand made by Netanyahu and Republicans to impose new sanctions on Iran. "What the rush?" he asked. "Unless your view is that it's not possible to get a deal with Iran and it shouldn't even be tested. And that I cannot agree with."
Meanwhile, the head of the left-wing Jewish advocacy group J Street sent a letter to the members of Congress, asking them to urge Boehner to postpone Netanyahu's speech.
"Our Congress should not be used as a prop in another nation’s election," J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in the letter.
Ben-Ami urged U.S. legislators to press Boehner to delay the speech "until after the election, when Congress could welcome Israel's next leader speaking on behalf of all of Israel's people."
Also on Tuesday, Senator Patrick Leahy, a key U.S. Senate Democrat and the chamber's most senior member, said he would not attend the speech.
According to The Hill news website, more than a dozen congressional Democrats are planning to skip the address. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, announced on Monday he won't attend.