Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at AIPAC conference in Washington on Monday.

Netanyahu and White House Seek to Lower Flames as Speech to Congress Looms

Last minute attempts by both the Obama administration and the Israeli government accelerated Monday to take the edge off of a vocal and at times ugly weeks-long dispute focused on the speech Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will give to Congress Tuesday morning.

In the run-up to his much anticipated address, Netanyahu offered the administration and the American public assurances that his address, arranged without the administration’s knowledge, was not an attempt to offend the president.

Obama and his top advisers, meanwhile, sought to move away from the harsh rhetoric that has dominated Israeli-American discourse in recent weeks, and to distinguish policy differences from personal disputes.

The attempts to by both sides to lower the flames before Netanyahu took to the podium played out Monday at the annual Washington conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in the White House briefing room and even in Switzerland, where Secretary of State John Kerry will be meeting with Iranian negotiators while Netanyahu speaks to Congress.

Choosing AIPAC as a venue for his dress rehearsal, Netanyahu gave a speech to the conference studded with a mix of hard talk on Iran alongside an almost apologetic tone aimed at Obama.

“Never has so much been written about a speech that hasn’t been given,” Netanyahu told the 16,000 AIPAC members gathered in Washington, trying to make light of the turmoil that has engulfed relations between the two countries since he accepted House Speaker John Boehner’s January 21 invitation to address Congress.

The Israeli leader went to great pains to dispel claims his visit was a political slight to Obama, and detailed the administration’s help to Israel. “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,” Netanyahu said.

In what could be seen as a sneak peek into his Tuesday congressional speech, Netanyahu laid out his concerns about the nuclear deal being discussed between Iran and the group of six nations led by the United States. “As prime minister of Israel, I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these threats while there is time to avert them,” Netanyahu said.

The Obama administration responded with its own carefully orchestrated set of public gestures.

Speaking to members of the U.N. Human Rights Council gathered in Geneva, Kerry used the opportunity to criticize the international body’s “unbalanced focus” on Israel.

Hours later and thousands of miles away, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told AIPAC delegates in a separate address of her own that “the United States of America will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. Period.” Power promised that despite the partisan tension of recent days, the relationship with Israel “transcends politics, and it always will.”

Over at the White House, President Obama sat down for a 15-minute interview with Reuters news agency, most of which was dedicated to relations with Israel and negotiations with Iran. Obama did not avoid a few jabs aimed at Netanyahu, reminding his interviewer that the Israeli leader has “made all sorts of claims” regarding the interim agreement with Iran, all of which proved to be unsubstantiated.

But the president made clear he does not have any personal dispute with the Israeli prime minister and would, in fact, be willing to meet with him after Israel’s elections. “I don’t think it’s permanently destructive,” Obama said of the impact of the latest dispute on relations between the two countries. “I think that it is a distraction from what should be our focus.”

Back at the Washington Convention Center hosting the AIPAC conference, the Obama administration’s final act took place with National Security Adviser Susan Rice delivering a detailed policy speech that aimed to reassure Israel supporters about the possible shortfalls of a nuclear deal with Iran. “We have Israel’s back, come hell or high water,” Rice told the audience.

Speaking at length, Rice laid out the advantages of a negotiated diplomatic deal with Iran and the progress already made thanks to the interim agreement. She highlighted time and again the Obama administration’s commitment to denying Iran the chance to develop nuclear weapons. But at the same time Rice was clear about the grave danger that new sanctions, as proposed by Netanyahu, AIPAC and by some in Congress, would pose to the diplomatic process.

Beyond policy and substance, Rice, in a speech clearly written with Jewish listeners in mind, weaved in Jewish prayers, Hebrew phrases, memories from Israel, and shared stories from the frontlines of protecting Israel when she served as ambassador to the U.N.

Rice’s address, the most detailed presentation to date from a senior Obama administration official on negotiation policy with Iran, served as a pre-emptive response to claims Netanyahu is expected to present to Congress. It was also a warm embrace from the Obama administration to the Jewish and pro-Israel communities after weeks of bickering that had left supporters uneasy.

The eleventh-hour attempt by both sides to ease the tension hit a snag, however, when the administration learned of Netanyahu’s intent to reveal, in his Congressional address, details of the negotiations with Iran that had been kept secret up to now. Officials close to the Israeli leader explained that he wants to make sure members of Congress are aware of all details of the negotiations, but the White House responded angrily, describing the planned move as a “breach of trust.”

Can these last minute efforts to calm tension help make Netanyahu’s speech more palatable for American ears?

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, believes Monday’s efforts just might be enough to get relations back on track. “Netanyahu,” he said, “did a good job by lowering the temperature,” as did the Obama administration.

“This could give the hechsher” to Netanyahu’s speech, he added, using the Yiddish term for making something kosher by Jewish law.

Author

Nathan Guttman

Nathan Guttman

Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at guttman@forward.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman

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