- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2015

In an effort to preempt Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s highly anticipated speech to Congress, President Obama said Monday that Israel should accept his administration’s position on nuclear talks with Iran to achieve a verifiable, 10-year freeze on nuclear activity.

Mr. Obama said the rift over Mr. Netanyahu’s scheduled speech Tuesday morning was a distraction but would not be “permanently destructive” to U.S.-Israeli relations. The president acknowledged that there was “substantial disagreement” between his administration and the Israeli government over how to achieve their shared goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

“If, in fact, Iran is willing to agree to double-digit years of keeping their program where it is right now and, in fact, rolling back elements of it that currently exist … if we’ve got that, and we’ve got a way of verifying that, there’s no other steps we can take that would give us such assurance that they don’t have a nuclear weapon,” the president said in an interview with Reuters at the White House.

Earlier Monday, Mr. Netanyahu downplayed his increasingly strained relationship with Mr. Obama but said he has a “moral obligation” to speak out against a possible deal with Iran that could threaten Israel’s very existence. He said his address to Congress, which White House officials said left them blindsided, involves something bigger than Mr. Obama.

“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,” Mr. Netanyahu said to a standing ovation from more than 15,000 Israel supporters at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington. “American leaders worry about the security of their country,” he said. “Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country.”

Mr. Netanyahu underscored Israel’s right to defend itself.

“The days when the Jewish people are passive in the face of those who want to annihilate us — those days are over,” he said.

The Israeli leader said tensions between allies are “only natural.”

“Disagreements in the family are always uncomfortable, but we must always remember that we are family,” he said.

His invitation to speak came from congressional Republicans and was not coordinated with the White House. Mr. Obama’s aides have said they do not approve of Mr. Netanyahu’s appearance because he is facing re-election March 17 and the U.S. should not appear to be meddling in foreign elections.

White House National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice has said Mr. Netanyahu’s address will be “destructive” to relations.

In Geneva, Secretary of State John F. Kerry opened another round of talks with Iran aimed at reaching a framework nuclear deal ahead of a late-March deadline. Mr. Obama views the prospect of a nuclear accord with the Islamic republic as a central component of his foreign policy legacy.

But Ms. Rice told the AIPAC gathering Monday night that stopping Iran from nuclear enrichment for energy purposes is “totally unachievable.”

“As desirable as that would be, it is neither realistic nor achievable,” Ms. Rice said. “If that is our goal, our partners will abandon us and undermine the very sanctions we have imposed so effectively together. The plain fact is, no one can make Iran unlearn the scientific and nuclear expertise it already possesses.”

A comprehensive nuclear deal also is seen as crucial to reducing the risk of a wider Middle East war, at a time when Iran is deeply involved in conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief said Monday that Tehran was being slow to cooperate with his agency’s investigation into the Iranian atomic program and that the inquiry could not continue indefinitely.

Diplomats have voiced doubt over whether outstanding issues in the U.N. investigation would be resolved before a broader diplomatic agreement is reached between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany.

The seven countries are negotiating toward a final settlement that would curb Iran’s nuclear activity in return for lifting international sanctions that have hammered the oil-based Iranian economy.

Mr. Netanyahu will address Congress amid concern from lawmakers and others that the administration’s relationship with Israel is in a downward spiral.

There is also a heightened partisan atmosphere. Dozens of Democratic lawmakers said they would boycott the speech, but Republican leaders said demand for tickets outstripped supply by a factor of 10.

Mr. Obama said of Mr. Netanyahu’s appearance, “This is not a personal issue,” but he believes the Israeli leader has been wrong before, in 2013, with his opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran.

Netanyahu made all sorts of claims. This was going to be a terrible deal. This was going to result in Iran getting $50 billion worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement. None of that has come true,” Mr. Obama said. “It has turned out that, in fact, during this period we’ve seen Iran not advance its program. In many ways, it’s rolled back elements of its program.”

The U.S. goal is to make sure “there’s at least a year between us seeing them try to get a nuclear weapon and them actually being able to obtain one,” Mr. Obama said.

Asked about the prospects for a final deal with Iran, which has a June 30 deadline, Mr. Obama said a key doubt was whether Iran would agree to rigorous inspection demands and the low levels of uranium enrichment capability they would have to maintain.

“But if they do agree to it, it would be far more effective in controlling their nuclear program than any military action we could take, any military action Israel could take and far more effective than sanctions will be,” Mr. Obama said.

At the AIPAC conference, Mr. Netanyahu said his country’s predicament was more dire than that of the United States.

Displaying a graphic of Iran’s activities supporting terrorists on five continents, Mr. Netanyahu said the “tentacles of terror” reached around the world.

“This is what Iran is doing now — without nuclear weapons. Imagine what Iran would do with nuclear weapons,” he said. “And this same Iran vows to annihilate Israel. If it develops nuclear weapons, it would have the means to achieve that goal. And as prime minister of Israel, I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there is still time to avert them.”

Top Obama aides tried to lay the blame on the administration’s rising tensions with Israel on the doorstep of congressional Republicans.

“If we reduce the relationship between our two countries to just a relationship between two political parties, that’s going to have a negative impact on the relationship between our two countries,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

Mr. Earnest said the president won’t meet with Mr. Netanyahu in Washington and probably won’t watch his address to Congress.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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