US secretary of state John Kerry has attempted to defuse tension with Israel on the eve of Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress, where he will spell out his opposition to any deal with a still-nuclear armed Iran.
Mr Netanyahu, on a mission to warn of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran, arrived in Washington last night for the speech the White House did not want him to give.
Mr Kerry said Israel’s prime minister was welcome to speak in the US and President Barack Obama’s administration did not want the event “turned into some great political football”.
But he also insisted the government’s diplomatic record with Iran entitled America to “the benefit of the doubt” as negotiators worked towards a long-term nuclear deal.
Mr Kerry’s comments came in an interview broadcast before he arrived in Switzerland for talks with Iran’s foreign minister.
That sentiment was a step back from some of the sharp rhetoric between the allies in recent weeks, and Mr Kerry mentioned that he had talked to Mr Netanyahu as recently as Saturday.
But he stressed that Israel was safer as a result of the short-term nuclear pact that world powers and Iran reached in late 2013 and described that improvement as the “standard we will apply to any agreement” with Tehran.
The United States, Europe, Russia and China are said to be considering a compromise that would see Iran’s nuclear activities severely curtailed for at least a decade, with the restrictions and US and Western economic penalties eased in the final years of a deal.
“We are going to test whether or not diplomacy can prevent this weapon from being created, so you don’t have to turn to additional measures including the possibility of a military confrontation,” Mr Kerry told ABC television’s This Week.
“Our hope is that diplomacy can work. And I believe, given our success of the interim agreement, we deserve the benefit of the doubt to find out whether or not we can get a similarly good agreement with respect to the future.”
But Mr Netanyahu will press his opposition to a diplomatic accommodation of Iran’s nuclear programme in his speech to Congress tomorrow.
“We are not here to offend President Obama whom we respect very much,” said a Netanyahu adviser. “The prime minister is here to warn, in front of any stage possible, the dangers” of the agreement that may be taking shape.
The adviser, who spoke shortly before the delegation touched down in Washington, said Israel was well aware of the details of the emerging nuclear deal, which included Western compromises that were dangerous for Israel.
He added, however, that Israel “does not oppose every deal” and was merely doing its best to warn the US of the risks entailed in the current one.
The invitation to speak to Congress, extended by House of Representatives speaker John Boehner, a Republican, and Mr Netanyahu’s acceptance, have caused an uproar that has exposed tensions between Israel and the US, its most important ally.
By consenting to speak, Mr Netanyahu angered the White House, which was not consulted in advance, and Democrats, who were forced to choose between showing support for Israel and backing the president.
“I will do everything in my ability to secure our future,” Mr Netanyahu said before flying to Washington.
Mr Boehner said Iran’s nuclear ambitions were a threat well beyond the region. “We’re not going to resolve this issue by sticking our heads in the sand,” he told CBS’ Face The Nation.
He said Mr Netanyahu “can talk about this threat, I believe, better than anyone. And the United States Congress wants to hear from him, and so do the American people”.
The congressional speech has also sparked criticism in Israel, where Mr Netanyahu is seeking re-election on March 17. He is also due to speak at the annual conference of the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC today.
Mr Netanyahu considers unacceptable any deal that does not entirely end Iran’s nuclear programme. But Mr Obama is willing to leave some nuclear activity intact, backed by safeguards that Iran is not trying to develop a weapon. Iran insists its programme is solely for peaceful energy and medical research.
The dispute has become more personal of late.
Last week, Mr Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice described the timing and partisan manner of Mr Netanyahu’s visit as “destructive” for the US-Israeli relationship.
Yesterday Mr Kerry painted a more positive picture of continued close co-operation. He said the US-Israeli security partnership was closer than at any point before and noted the large investment of American money in the Jewish state’s Iron Dome missile defence system.
He said the US government had “intervened on Israel’s behalf in the last two years a couple of hundred” times in more than 75 forums “in order to protect Israel” and plans to make that point when he addresses the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva today.
US officials have often accused the council of being biased against Israel and inappropriately focused on the state. Officials travelling with Mr Kerry said he would urge the council to take a more balanced approach.