U.S. officials, in blunt language, say Israel is distorting reality of Iran talks

Obama and Netanyahu during the U.S. president's visit in Israel, March 20, 2013. Photo by Bloomberg

Obama and Netanyahu during the U.S. president’s visit in Israel, March 20, 2013. Photo by Bloomberg

The Obama administration on Wednesday accused the Israeli government of misleading the public over the Iran nuclear negotiations, using unusually blunt and terse language that once again highlighted the rift between the two sides.

In briefings with reporters, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki and White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested Israeli officials were not being truthful about how the United States is handling the secretive talks.

“I think it is safe to say not everything you are hearing from the Israeli government is an accurate reflection of the details of the talks,” said Psaki, who acknowledged that the State Department is withholding some details from the Israelis out of concern they will share them more broadly.

Earnest said U.S. officials routinely speak with their Israeli counterparts. But, he added, the administration “is not going to be in a position of negotiating this agreement in public, particularly when we see that there is a continued practice of cherry-picking specific pieces of information and using them out of context to distort the negotiating position of the United States.”

A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

The immediate cause of the dual rebukes is the administration’s unhappiness over Israeli leaks of some details on the nuclear talks, shared by U.S. negotiators in private conversations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials.

For days, administration officials have denied reports that they were keeping Israelis in the dark about some aspects of the negotiations. On Wednesday, Psaki acknowledged that “there’s a selective sharing of information.”

Netanyahu considers a deal being worked on with Iran an existential threat to Israel and has made clear his intention to voice his concerns during an address to Congress on March 3.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) invited the prime minister to Washington and notified the White House afterward — a breach of protocol by which a country’s leader generally contacts the White House before planning a visit.

Obama has said he will not meet with Netanyahu while he is in town, citing the coming Israeli elections and precedent whereby a U.S. president does not meet with foreign leaders close to balloting. In recent days, officials have said neither Vice President Biden nor Secretary of State John F. Kerry will be in town to meet with Netanyahu, although they have not specified where the two will be.

The United States, France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany have spent more than a year negotiating with Iran about ways to curtail its nuclear program so it cannot develop nuclear weapons — arms that Iran contends it has no desire to build. In exchange for limits and monitoring, Iran would have sanctions eased and eventually lifted.

The talks have been extended twice, and although the deadline for talks is not until June 30, Kerry has said that Iran must agree on major principles by late March if there is to be hope of reaching a deal.

U.S. lawmakers, many of whom share Netanyahu’s skepticism over the talks with Iran, are poised to introduce more sanctions if the talks collapse.

“Just as Iran knows what is included in the proposed agreement, it is also natural that Israel should know what is in the agreement,” Netanyahu told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Monday in Jerusalem. “After all, we are the ones who are most at risk if Iran arms itself with nuclear weapons.”

By Reuters