Netanyahu Directly Addresses Controversy Over His Speech To Congress

Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 2015 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference on March 2, 2015. CREDIT: AP
Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 2015 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference on March 2, 2015. CREDIT: AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his upcoming address to Congress on Monday by referencing the historical subjugation of the Jewish people, telling a friendly audience at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, “The days when the Jewish people are passive in the face of threats to annihilate us, those days are over.”

Netanyahu arrived in Washington D.C. on Sunday at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to deliver a speech to Congress on Tuesday that is expected to dissuade the United States from reaching a diplomatic agreement with Iran over its disputed nuclear program. Those talks are currently ongoing.

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The Prime Minister directly addressed the controversy surrounding his speech and concerns among American and Israeli officials that the appearance, which was scheduled without input from the White House, could damage the long-standing alliance between the two countries.

“My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both,” he said. “The purpose of my address to Congress is to speak up about a potential deal with Iran that could threaten the survival of Israel.” Referencing the historical persecution of the Jewish people, Netanyahu added, “Today, we are no longer silent. Today we have a voice. And tomorrow as prime minister of the one and only Jewish state I plan to use that voice.”

The remarks come as tensions between Israel and the United States have reached an all time high, with American officials accusing Israel of deliberately leaking details of the ongoing Iranian nuclear negotiations in order to undermine any final deal.

The United States, along with negotiating partners Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, would permit Iran to retain its nuclear infrastructure but delay the “breakout” period for developing a weapon by more than a year and subject the country to rigorous inspections to ensure that it does not maintain covert nuclear facilities. Israel fears that any deal with Iran would accept Iranian enrichment as a new reality, thus posing a threat to the Jewish state’s very existence.

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“I plan to speak about an Iranian regime that is threatening to destroy Israel,” Netanyahu said at AIPAC, “that’s devouring country after country in the Middle East…that’s developing as we speak the capacity to make nuclear weapons. Lots of them.” Recently released intelligence documents, however, contradict Netanyahu’s claims about Iran’s imminent abilities to produce a nuclear weapon. Israel’s intelligence agency has concluded that while Iran was working to “reduce the time required to produce weapons,” the country is “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons” and “does not appear to be ready” to enrich materials to the level necessary for weaponization.

But both Netayanhu and the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power — one of two Obama administration officials to speak at the AIPAC conference — took great pains to highlight the strong diplomatic relationship that binds the two nations.

Power, who received multiple standing ovations from the AIPAC audience, stressed that America’s alliance with Israel “transcends politics and it always will.” “The United States of America will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. Period,” she declared to raucous applause from the audience. “Talks, no talks, agreement no agreement. The United States will take whatever steps are necessary to protect our national security and that of our closest allies.” Power spent the vast majority of her remarks providing examples of that commitment.

Netanyahu too insisted that disagreements between allies “are natural.” “[O]ur alliance is sound, our friendship is strong, and with your efforts it will only get stronger in the decades to come,” he announced.

But despite those efforts, cracks between Israel, its supporters, and the Obama administration are only widening.

On Sunday, AIPAC publicly broke with the administration over the Iranian negotiations. Speaking for the organization, Executive Director Howard Kohr said that any final deal should completely dismantle Iran’s nuclear program and must be approved by Congress. AIPAC also called for additional sanctions against Iran should it fail to reach a deal, conditions which the White House strongly opposes.

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“Congress has a critical role,” Kohr said. “Congress’s role doesn’t end when there is a deal. Congress must review this deal.”

Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress remain split on whether Netanyahu should address Congress and are uncertain whether they will stand with Obama on the Iranian issue, particularly in the mist of an election year. As the New York Times reports, “So far, 30 Democrats — four senators and 26 representatives — have said they will not attend the speech.”

Netanyahu will face Israeli voters for an unprecedented fourth term on Tuesday, March 17.