White House works to rebut Netanyahu

Updated 10:56 AM EST, Mon March 2, 2015
05:11 - Source: CNN
Barack and Bibi's 'special' relationship
(CNN) —  

The White House is extending a decidedly icy welcome to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of his controversial speech to Congress this week. And it has nothing to do with the weather in Washington.

Expecting Netanyahu to issue withering criticism of President Barack Obama’s moves toward a nuclear deal with Iran, the White House is going on the offense, dispatching two high-profile officials – U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and National Security Adviser Susan Rice – to rebut the prime minister in speeches Monday to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby holding its annual conference in Washington.

The full court press will also include Obama himself, who sits down for an on-camera interview Monday afternoon with the Reuters newswire.

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However, the debate over negotiating with Iran will play out on television and in the media: Obama is refusing to meet with Netanyahu when he’s in Washington, the White House said, because Israeli elections are just around the corner. The two leaders won’t even exchange a phone call, one senior administration official added.

Rice last week warned that Netanyhu’s speech would be “destructive” to U.S. Israeli relations. But in a sign the administration may be lowering its rhetoric, Secretary of State John Kerry declined to use such harsh language Sunday, saying in an interview with ABC’s “This Week” only that the logistics behind the prime minister’s speech were “odd.”

Publicly, administration officials are seeking to highlight what they say is the long history of U.S. support for Israel’s interests. For his part, Netanyahu may seek to be less confrontational and more “conciliatory” in his own remarks, a source at the AIPAC conference said. The prime minister gave a separate speech at AIPAC Monday morning.

“From meeting frequently with Israeli leaders to ensuring that Israel remains the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, the President is deeply committed to helping Israel maintain its strength and security,” National Security Spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a White House blog.

In Switzerland, Secretary of State John Kerry defended Israel at a meeting of the Human Rights Council, a session officials say was meant to showcase a long record of U.S. support of Israel at international bodies like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court.

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Ahead of his remarks, a senior administration official said Kerry would highlight “the extraordinary lengths” that Obama’s administration – and Secretary Kerry in particular – “have gone to to stand up for and defend Israel’s interests in international institutions,” The official noted the speech came “in light of the heavy focus” on Israel-U.S. ties.

While his speech to the Human Rights Council was meant as a sign of support, Kerry’s trip to Switzerland for another round of Iran nuclear negotiations only highlighted the underlying tension between the U.S. and Israel.

Regardless of the controversy in Washington, the nuclear talks in Switzerland are accelerating. Kerry will meet with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif multiple times beginning Monday night through Wednesday.

There’s been a significant narrowing of differences over two key issues standing in the way of a deal: the duration of the agreement and the enrichment capacity Iran will be permitted to retain.

The two sides are discussing a 10-year timeline with Iran maintaining several thousand centrifuges. Iran would ship a significant portion of its enriched uranium to Russia for reprocessing into fuel for nuclear power. At issue remains how quickly the West lifts economic sanctions on Iran, with Iran wanting immediate lifting of all sanctions, a price the Obama administration opposes.

“We are moving in the right direction but nothing is certain. I’m not pessimistic. However, there are a number of issues that need to be nailed down soon, hopefully in Switzerland,” a senior Iranian diplomat tells CNN.

The disagreement between Obama and Netanyahu over the administration’s push for a nuclear containment agreement with Iran, negotiated by the U.S. and other major world powers, has gotten personal. Simply put, the two men, and their respective teams, don’t seem to care for each other.

In Washington this week, Netanyahu is just making himself the center of attention, said one senior administration official who asked not be quoted or named. The goal of the nuclear negotiations, the official added, is not to placate the Israeli prime minister, but to make the U.S. safer.

Netanyahu, however, has repeatedly warned that the deal would leave too much of Iran’s nuclear capabilities intact, allowing them the possibility of quickly breaking out to build a bomb, which would gravely threaten Israel.

The decision by Netanyahu and Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio to arrange this Tuesday’s address to Congress, without tipping off the White House first, has set a bad precedent, injecting partisanship into a critical relationship, the administration and its defenders charge.

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“It’s the Republicans and Bibi (Netanyahu) who are putting their partisan political interests ahead of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, and potentially creating long-term problems for short-term personal political benefit,” said a senior Democratic official.

“The Administration will not play defense or allow the Republicans to shape this as somehow Obama’s snub,” the official added.

The Israeli government, however, denies that there was any partisan motive in the trip. Since an Iran deal seems to be nearing, Netanyahu’s backers say, it was incumbent that he come to Washington at this time to make his case.

Still, the hyper-partisan tone to the prime minister’s visit will be palpable. Netanyahu’s speech will undoubtedly garner an enthusiastic response from a mostly Republican audience in the House of Representatives Tuesday.

Boehner said in an interview Sunday that he’s “never seen” the demand for tickets that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is receiving. “Everyone wants to be there,” the speaker said in an interview on CBS’ “Face The Nation.”

That does not include the dozens of Democrats who are threatening to boycott the prime minister’s speech Tuesday. Netanyahu is expected to reiterate his message that the current negotiations with Iran will backfire, clearing a path for Tehran to develop nuclear weapons.

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“We’re not going to resolve this issue by sticking our heads in the sand. The prime minister can talk about this threat, I believe, better than anyone,” Boehner added.

The hard feelings expressed by both camps threaten to unleash what may become a new, more adversarial chapter in U.S. Israeli relations.

“We can never allow Israel to be political wedge issue, it’s too important to the United States, it’s gotta be off limits,” Democratic Maryland Senator Ben Cardin told the AIPAC conference Sunday.

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