- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2015

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears before both houses of Congress next week, Secretary of State John F. Kerry won’t be there — he’ll be in Geneva trying to hammer out the final details of a nuclear deal with Iran that the Israeli leader in coming to Washington to argue against.

Mr. Netanyahu will use the speech to warn U.S. lawmakers of the danger associated with cutting a nuclear deal with Iran that allows the Islamic republic to continue enriching uranium at any level — even for producing electricity.

But when Mr. Netanyahu appears before Congress on March 3, Mr. Kerry will be deep in negotiations with Iran and U.S. allies on a deal that would allow the Islamic Republic to continue some level of enrichment.

“I will not be here, I will be negotiating with Iran for the rest of that week, as a matter of fact,” Mr. Kerry told lawmakers during one of several State Department budget hearings on Capitol Hill this week.

“I will actually be sitting there trying to get an agreement,” he said.

Mr. Kerry’s comments, which came during an appearance before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday afternoon when asked about Mr. Netanyahu’s controversial address.

The speech has been a subject of heated political divisions since late last month when he accepted an invitation from House Republican leaders, who did not consult the Obama administration before reaching out to him.

The move has angered many Democrats, as well as the White House, which has accused Republican leaders of breaching U.S. foreign policy protocol by conducting the invitation in the way they did. Mr. Obama said he would not meet with the Israeli leader, citing what he said was the precedent of not meeting foreign leaders in the final days of an election campaign back home.

A number of congressional Democrats have announced they will boycott the speech and the controversy escalated this week, with The Associated Press reporting that Mr. Netanyahu has turned down an invitation to meet Senate Democrats privately while he is in Washington.

Democratic Sens. Richard Durbin and Dianne Feinstein on Monday invited Mr. Netanyahu to meet in a closed-door session, but he declined the invitation on Tuesday and expressed regret about the politically fraught tone of his trip.

Mr. Netanyahu has reportedly reached out to Sunni Muslim Arab ambassadors in Washington in hopes that they may show their faces in the audience during his speech.

The Atlantic reported on Wednesday that Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, has emailed at least two Arab ambassadors, those of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, making the case that “Sunni-majority Arab states and Israel have a common interest in thwarting a nuclear agreement with Shiite Iran — and that presenting a united and public front on Capitol Hill will help convince Congress to stop the Iran deal before it’s too late.”

Citing unnamed “Israeli sources,” the Atlantic said that the ambassadors have denied the invitation.

Other reports suggest Mr. Netanyahu is expected to speak out against any deal that would allow any uranium enrichment by Iran. The Jerusalem Post reported this week that the prime minister has been urging Germany to help bar Iran from enrichment, as it works along with the U.S. and four other world powers to hammer out an agreement with Tehran on its nuclear program.

“The goal is to prevent Iran from having the capability to manufacture and deliver nuclear weapons,” Mr. Netanyahu told German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a joint press conference the two leaders held in Jerusalem. “I believe that means zero enrichment, zero centrifuges, zero plutonium and, of course, an end to ICBM development.”

Democrats say they’re wary about the timing of Mr. Netanyahu’s visit, which comes as the nuclear talks between Iran, the U.S. and other world powers appear to be reaching a peak ahead of an end-of-March deadline for a deal that could see Western sanctions on Iran eased.

“Do you think this is a wise move on the part of the prime minister to come here when we’re in the middle of these very delicate negotiations?” Mr. Udall asked Mr. Kerry on Tuesday. “Was it a wise move on his part to ignore the administration in terms of appearing in front of a joint session of Congress?”

Mr. Kerry made clear he would not be in Washington for the speech.

“I’ve been focused on obviously Iran negotiations and Ukraine and Afghanistan and a bunch of other things, and actually I will be leaving I think on Saturday for meetings with [Russian] Foreign Minister Lavrov on Syria and other things,” the secretary of state added. “I will not be here. I will be negotiating with Iran for the rest of that week, as a matter of fact.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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