Netanyahu: No Disrespect to President Obama Intended

YERUSHALAYIM -
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu receives a standing ovation from members of the audience during his speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, Monday. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu receives a standing ovation from members of the audience during his speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, Monday. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In the tense run-up to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, Netanyahu and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power reaffirmed the strength of the bilateral relationship on Monday, while Secretary of State John Kerry warned against public disclosure of details that could jeopardize the Iran negotiations.

In his speech to the annual AIPAC conference, backed by huge images of American and Israeli flags, Netanyahu denied that friction between himself and U.S. President Barack Obama was causing serious damage to the alliance.

“Reports of the demise of the Israeli–U.S. relationship are not only premature, they’re just wrong,” he told the 16,000 attendees in Washington.

“Our alliance is stronger than ever,” he declared. “Israel and the U.S. are like family,” not just friends, Netanyahu said.

“My speech is not intended to disrespect President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds,” Netanyahu said. “I have great respect for both,” adding that he “deeply appreciates” everything that Obama has done for Israel.

In her turn at the podium, Power intoned that “Israel’s security and the U.S.–Israel partnership transcend politics and it always will … it should never be politicized,” she said.

“If diplomacy should fail, we know the stakes of a nuclear-armed Iran. We will not let it happen,” she promised.

Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, was scheduled to speak to the gathering on Monday night. Her appearance was more charged with tension, after she called Netanyahu’s plans to address Congress “destructive” to the fabric of the U.S.–Israel relationship.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Kerry told reporters in Geneva of his concern about reports that some sensitive details of the Iran talks might be revealed to the public in coming days. He did not elaborate, but presumably he had Netanyahu in mind. The White House last week accused Israeli officials of leaking information from high-level briefings.

“We are concerned by reports that suggest selected details of the ongoing negotiations will be discussed publicly in the coming days,” Kerry said. “I want to say clearly, doing so would make it more difficult to reach the goal that Israel and others say they share in order to get a good deal. Israel’s security is absolutely at the forefront of all our minds but rightly so is the security of all the other countries in the region, so is our security in the United States.”

Kerry was scheduled to leave immediately after that press conference for Montreux, Switzerland, to begin a new round of negotiations with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.

The secretary of state may have had in mind a report that while en route to Washington from Yerushalayim, an unnamed “senior Israeli official” on the prime minister’s plane told reporters that “Congress does not necessarily know all the details of the agreement that is now being put together, details that in our view do not represent a good agreement.”

Later on Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that “the U.S. has provided classified information on the progress of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Disclosure of that information would be a betrayal of trust,” Earnest said in response to a reporter’s question about the Netanyahu speech.

All of the high-profiled back-and-forth has created intense interest in Tuesday’s speech before a joint session of Congress. House Speaker John Boehner’s office told Politico that demand for tickets has exceeded any joint meeting since he was elected speaker, with 10 times as many requests as there are seats available.

“The demand for seats in the House, the demand for tickets — I’ve never seen anything like it,” Boehner said Sunday. “Everybody wants to be there.”

Everybody, that is, but 30 Democrats, though they may be tuning in as well.

The stay-aways — four senators and 26 representatives — are a mixed group. Nearly half are African-Americans; six are Jewish, and represent 21 percent of Congress’s Jewish members.

Boehner plans to give Netanyahu a bust of Winston Churchill in recognition of the fact that he and the former prime minister of Britain are the only foreign leaders who have addressed Congress three separate times.