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Obama Administration Intensifies Criticism Of Israel's Netanyahu

Secretary of State John Kerry told a House panel Wednesday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judgment on talks with Iran "may not be correct."
Carolyn Kaster
Secretary of State John Kerry told a House panel Wednesday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judgment on talks with Iran "may not be correct."

Updated at 5:45 p.m.

Secretary of State John Kerry sharply criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "judgment" on talks with Iran on its nuclear program — the latest Obama administration official wading into the controversy stirred by the Israeli leader's planned talk to Congress on March 3 on the dangers posed by the Islamic republic.

"He may have a judgment that just may not be correct here," Kerry said at an appearance before a House panel.

He added: "The prime minister was profoundly forward-leaning and outspoken about the importance of invading Iraq under George W. Bush. We all know what happened with that decision."

Kerry, while a U.S. senator, voted for the war in Iraq.

Netanyahu is a staunch opponent of talks with Iran, which Israel views as an existential threat.

In comments Wednesday outside Jerusalem, the Israeli leader criticized the nuclear talks, saying the world powers that are talking to Iran had "committed themselves to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, but from the emerging accord it appears that they have given up on that commitment."

Kerry's comments Wednesday follow strong remarks by Susan Rice, President Obama's national security adviser, who told PBS' Charlie Rose on Tuesday that House Speaker John Boehner's invitation to Israel's prime minister — and Netanyahu's acceptance of it — have "injected a degree of partisanship" that is "destructive to the fabric of the relationship" between Israel and the U.S.

The comments are the harshest remarks by Obama administration officials over Netanyahu's March 3 speech to Congress on what he sees as the threat posed by Iran. Netanyahu's speech is scheduled two weeks before elections in Israel, a reason cited by Obama for why he won't meet with the Israeli leader, who has said he is "determined to speak before Congress."

"I respect the White House and the U.S. president, but on a matter so fateful that it could determine whether we exist or not, my obligation is do everything to prevent such a great danger to the state of Israel," Netanyahu said Wednesday.

The March 3 speech would coincide with the final stretch of negotiations between the U.S. and its allies — Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany — who are negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. Many members of Congress want to impose further sanctions on Iran, a move that would very likely doom the talks that are at a delicate stage.

But Netanyahu's speech has also created a divide in Congress where Democrats, including some of Israel's strongest allies, have expressed displeasure at the proposed address. Some Democrats have said they will boycott the Israeli prime minister's speech to Congress.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu declined an invitation to meet with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., during his visit to Washington.

"Though I greatly appreciate your kind invitation to meet with Democratic Senators, I believe that doing so at this time could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit," Netanyahu said in a letter to the two top Democrats.

Durbin responded, saying, "His refusal to meet is disappointing to those of us who have stood by Israel for decades."

The controversy began last month when Boehner invited Netanyahu to address Congress. The White House, which was not consulted about the invitation, called it a "departure from ... protocol." Boehner defended the decision, saying, "The Congress can make this decision on its own." (You can read more about how this is done at the House of Representatives' website.)

Obama, citing the proximity of the Israeli election, then said he won't meet with Netanyahu during the Israeli prime minister's visit to Washington. Earlier this month, during a joint appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he reiterated those comments.

"We have a practice of not meeting with leaders right before their elections, two weeks before their elections," he said. "As much as I love Angela, if she was two weeks away from an election, she probably would not have received an invitation to the White House — and I suspect she wouldn't have asked for one."

Relations between Obama and Netanyahu are frosty, but both countries have been careful to say that the U.S.-Israeli relationship goes beyond any two individuals or political parties. But as columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in the Atlantic today:

"The Netanyahu camp is worried about the political impact of its preemptive strike on Capitol Hill, I'm told. Netanyahu understands that he will be burning his remaining bridges to the White House by going up to the Hill next week. Israelis close to Netanyahu have been warning him that his decision to openly align with the Republican Party against a Democratic president is both unprecedented and deeply risky."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.