Obama to Netanyahu: Stop pushing Congress toward new sanctions on Iran

Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters

Obama, Biden and Kerry would shun Israeli prime minister during his visit to Washington on March; ‘Netanyahu spat in our face. There will be a price,’ U.S. official says.

U.S. President Barack Obama has demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stop encouraging U.S. senators and congressmen to advance new sanctions legislation against Iran.

A senior American official, who asked to remain anonymous due to the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, said Obama gave Netanyahu this message during a telephone call on Monday, January 12.

Obama stressed to Netanyahu that he is seeking to reach an agreement with Iran that will prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons and assure the international community in a verifiable fashion that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, the official added. But new sanctions legislation is liable to sabotage the negotiations that Obama and five other countries are conducting with Iran, the president said. He told the Israeli leader that should such legislation pass Congress, he intends to veto it.

Obama also warned Netanyahu not to meddle in the battle he is waging against Congress over the sanctions legislation, the official said. This warning was issued more than a week before Speaker of the House John Boehner publicly invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. Netanyahu’s address, which will take place at the height of the battle between Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress, is expected to focus on the Iranian nuclear issue and what he sees as the need to ratchet up the pressure on the Iran.

At Netanyahu’s behest, both Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer and members of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have been urging members of Congress in recent weeks to advance legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran. Netanyahu has also urged new sanctions on Iran in all his meetings with American legislators, including his meeting earlier this week with a delegation headed by Republican Senator John McCain.

The White House is well aware of the efforts Netanyahu and Dermer have been making to advance sanctions legislation, as senior Republican legislators have made no effort to hide them. One senior Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, who has visited Israel twice in recent weeks, has been particularly outspoken. In a joint statement issued at the start of a meeting between Graham and Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 29, Netanyahu declared on camera that new sanctions on Iran are needed. Graham then responded, also on camera, that Congress “will follow your lead” on the Iranian issue, and that new sanctions legislation would be brought to a vote soon.

Tensions between Obama and Netanyahu over the latter’s maneuvers in Congress intensified further and became an all-out crisis following aninvitation extended to Netanyahu to address Congress – an invitation brewed jointly by Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, and top members of the Republican party.

Netanyahu was invited to speak before Congress on February 11, but on Thursday, the PM asked U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner to push back the address to March 3 – merely two weeks before the Israeli elections. Boehner confirmed that Netanyahu wanted to coordinate his speech with the pro-Israel AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C. on March 1.

The Obama administration voiced its anger at the snub, and acted in response on Thursday. The White House announced that President Barack Obama will not meet with Netanyahu during his visit. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will also forgo meeting with Netanyahu, a spokeswoman for the State Department told Reuters. Vice President Joe Biden is also expected to do the same.

The White House cited the proximity of the Israeli election to Netanyahu’s visit, and the desire to refrain from interfering in the election.

“As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections,” said National Security Council Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan.

In what seemed to be a message to Netanyahu ahead of his address, Meehan added that “the President has been clear about his opposition to Congress passing new legislation on Iran that could undermine our negotiations and divide the international community. The President has had many conversations with the Prime Minister on this matter, and I am sure they will continue to be in contact on this and other important matters.”

Nevertheless, hiding behind this diplomatic language was enormous anger on the part of the White House over the fact that Netanyahu has been working behind the U.S. administration’s back regarding the Congress address, which led to the decision to completely ostracize the PM during his visit.

“We thought we’ve seen everything,” a senior American official said. “But Bibi managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.”

Netanyahu’s office tried to soften the severity of the clash with the White House. The PM’s office stressed that the invitation was made “in the name of the bipartisan leadership within the House of Representatives and the Senate,” and added that “speaking before both houses of Congress will allow for the prime minster to thank President Obama, Congress, and the American people for supporting Israel.”

Netanyahu himself said that his invitation to Congress “reflects the special friendship between Israel and the U.S., as well as the strong bipartisan support for Israel throughout the U.S.”

By Haaretz

 

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