As White House, Netanyahu spar over speech to Congress, the gloves come off

Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, said Netanyahu's planned speech to Congress on Iran's nuclear program is 'destructive' to the US-Israel relationship.

Nir Elias/Reuters
Benjamin Netanyahu pauses while he speaks to supporters of his Likud party as he campaigns in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem on Wednesday. The Israeli prime minister rebuffed criticism in Washington of his plans to speak in Congress, accusing world powers of forsaking a pledge to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Reporters are scrambling for the thesaurus to find new ways to describe the deteriorating relationship between the Obama White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government over negotiations to curtail Iran's nuclear program. Meltdown? Crisis? Mutual contempt? 

Whatever word you reach for, the animosity has reached rare, almost unprecedented levels a little more than a week before Mr. Netanyahu is scheduled to address Congress. He’s coming – at the invitation of Republican lawmakers and over the objections of the White House – to make his case that the United States and other world-powers should not reach a nuclear agreement with Iran that would give the Islamic Republic some sanctions relief in exchange for curtailing its nuclear research.

Netanyahu and his ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, a former Republican Party operative, appear to have decided that alienating a large swathe of the Democrats – he's declined to meet privately with Democratic senators during his trip – is a price worth paying if it can head off a deal with Iran that, though not yet completed, he has already decided is a bad one for Israel.

Tuesday night Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, told Charlie Rose that Netanyahu has injected partisan politics into the US Israeli relationship and that the prime minister's March 3 speech is “destructive to the fabric of the relationship” between the two countries.

Rarely if ever has a US official been so harsh in public about an Israeli leader. Her comments prompted Tufts University Prof. Daniel Drezner to describe the effect of the planned speech as “toxic.” Of Rice's comments, he said: “I’m pretty sure that if you’re an Israeli foreign policy principal, those are not the words you want to hear coming out of a White House official’s mouth.”

Secretary of State John Kerry followed that up Wednesday with a zinger more suited to the campaign trail than relations between two countries that continually speak of their eternal friendship.

“The prime minister was profoundly forward-leaning and outspoken about the importance of invading Iraq,” Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “His judgment might just not be correct” in the case of Iran.

Campaigning is on a lot of minds. Netanyahu is locked in a tight election race, and his political ads have focused on apocalyptic danger for Israel if he’s replaced by a more dovish leader. At roughly the same time as Mr. Kerry was speaking Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu took among his most strident positions yet at an evening meeting of his Likud Party in Jerusalem.

“From the agreement that is forming it appears that they (world powers) have given up on (commitments made to stop Iran from getting a bomb) and are accepting that Iran will gradually, within a few years, develop capabilities to produce material for many nuclear weapons,” he said, according to The Associated Press. “They might accept this, but I am not willing to accept this.” In the past, Netanyahu has hinted that this might be one of his “red lines” for pursuing a unilateral strike against Iran.

Netanyahu's advice on Iraq

Kerry's own record of judgment on the Iraq war is not exactly spotless, since as a senator in 2002 he voted to authorize it. But he was referring to Netanyahu’s spectacularly bad judgment on that war, encapsulated in a September 2002 speech the Israeli leader delivered to Congress, urging them to support the invasion of that country.

“There is no question whatsoever that Saddam is seeking and is working and is advancing towards the development of nuclear weapons. No question whatsoever,” Netanyahu said then. “Today the United States must destroy the (Iraqi) regime because a nuclear-armed Saddam will place the security of our entire world at risk. And make no mistake about it – if and once Saddam has nuclear weapons, it is only a matter of time before those weapons will be used.”

He went on to say that a US war on Iraq with broad international support at the United Nations would be best, but absent that support the US “must be prepared to act without it.”

The US invaded that March, and found that Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program had ended in 1991.The fallout from that war continues to be felt in the region.

Now, Netanyahu is pursuing the same tack with the US over Iran, albeit with a less receptive White House and Congress. Ambassador Dermer is the dark-haired man who appears in a video just behind Netanyahu during his 2002 testimony, and also wrote Netanyahu's 2012 speech to the UN in which he claimed that Iran was on the verge of obtaining a nuclear bomb by the following year.

Will Netanyahu's saber rattling amount to much? In a widely-read article in The Atlantic in 2010 by Jeffrey Goldberg, after interviewing unnamed members of Netanyahu's administrations, he said there was a 50 percent chance that Israel would unilaterally attack Iran in the summer of 2011. That obviously didn't happen.

Frequent claims of imminent threat

But serious damage is being done to relations with Obama, who has almost two full years left in office, and who is working hard to secure a deal with Iran that will shelve the possibility of the war. Obama administration officials have been reported to be furious over their belief that negotiation details they shared with Netanyahu were leaked by his government to undermine the talks.

The Israeli prime minister's frequent claims of an imminent Iranian bomb also hasn’t helped his standing with Obama. In 1992, Netanyahu predicted Iran was three to five years from a bomb. He repeated the "three-to-five year" prediction in 1995, and in 1996 predicted in an address to Congress that an Iranian bomb would have “catastrophic consequences ... for all mankind” and that Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb is “extremely close.”

More pressure to scuttle the talks came Tuesday from the Marxist-Islamist Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian exile group that has pushed for a US war to topple the Iranian regime and was removed from the State Department's list of terrorist organizations in 2012. Information about Iran's nuclear research that the group released in 2002, and that turned out to be correct, is widely believed to have been fed to them by Israel.

The group said it had uncovered a secret Iranian nuclear site near Tehran and called for talks to end. But there was just one problem. A picture they shared of what they said was a lead-lined door to prevent radiation leaks that they'd somehow obtained from inside the site turned out to be a picture grabbed from an Iranian company that sells commercial safes.

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