The Obama administration toed a hard line Monday against Benjamin Netanyahu for his comments about Israeli Arabs and Palestinian statehood leading up to Israel’s election last week, but downplayed concerns over “death to America” remarks Iran’s supreme leader made over the weekend.
The White House also seemed to warmly welcome input from 367 House members reiterating Congress’ role in reaching a final nuclear agreement with Tehran, despite its vigorous attacks on an earlier letter to the Iranian leadership from 47 GOP senators explaining that any deal Iran may strike with the U.S. needs to be submitted to Congress to be binding.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Mr. Netanyahu was right to apologize for rallying his supporters by saying too many Arabs were voting — but that Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s remarks merely “underscore why it is so critically important” that the U.S. and other world powers “succeed in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
While he suggested anti-American language from Iran is something Washington can wait to deal with after the achievement of a potential nuclear agreement with Tehran, Mr. Earnest said Mr. Netanyahu needed to move quickly toward assuring Israeli Arabs that no harm was meant by his election-eve pronouncements against them.
Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly made clear his disgust with the parameters of the administration’s ongoing talks with Tehran on its nuclear program, and this has led to several testy exchanges, a controversial speech by the Israeli leader to Congress and Democratic political operatives traveling to Israel to work against Mr. Netanyahu in his re-election campaign.
In a letter to President Obama signed by House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Rep. Edward R. Royce, ranking Democrat Rep. Eliot L. Engel and 365 others, the lawmakers stressed that Congress will review any agreement with Iran to determine whether it adequately curtails the country’s nuclear program before agreeing to lift economic sanctions.
The letter comes at a crucial moment in negotiations with Iran, with the deadline for a preliminary deal to slow Tehran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief looming on March 31.
Administration officials continue to say the chances for success are 50-50 at best. They worry that too much interference from Congress — including new legislation requiring the House and Senate to sign off on the deal — could reduce those odds.
But lawmakers are making clear their voices will be heard.
“The United States has had a long-standing interest in preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability,” the bipartisan group of lawmakers said. “Over the last 20 years, Congress has passed numerous pieces of legislation imposing sanctions on Iran to prevent that outcome, ultimately forcing Iran into negotiations. Should an agreement with Iran be reached, permanent sanctions relief from congressionally mandated sanctions would require new legislation. In reviewing such an agreement, Congress must be convinced that its terms foreclose any pathway to a bomb, and only then will Congress be able to consider permanent sanctions relief.”
The White House reacted much differently to the House letter than it did two weeks ago, when 47 Senate Republicans, led by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, wrote directly to Iran’s leaders and said any deal reached with this president would not last into the next administration.
That letter, administration officials said, was designed to torpedo an agreement.
But Mr. Earnest indicated Monday that the House letter was appropriate and different in several key areas from the Senate version.
“There are a variety of differences. The first is this is a bipartisan letter. The Cotton letter was a letter that was signed by 47 Republicans,” Mr. Earnest told reporters. “The second is, the letter from Sen. Cotton was one that was directed to our adversaries in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is a letter that members of Congress signed and sent to the president. The other thing is the goal of the [Cotton] letter was actually to undermine the talks.”
Mr. Earnest went on to say that the president expects Congress to play “its rightful role” in lifting Iranian sanctions.
But Iran’s supreme leader had different rhetoric, calling for “death to America” on Saturday, a day after Mr. Obama appealed to Iran to seize a “historic opportunity” for a nuclear deal and a better future, and as U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry claimed substantial progress toward an accord.
Ayatollah Khamenei told a crowd in Tehran that Iran would not capitulate to Western demands. When the crowd started shouting “Death to America,” the ayatollah responded: “Of course, yes, death to America, because America is the original source of this pressure.
“They insist on putting pressure on our dear people’s economy,” he said, referring to economic sanctions aimed at halting Iran’s nuclear program.
“What is their goal? Their goal is to put the people against the system,” he said. “The politics of America is to create insecurity,” he added, referring both to U.S. pressure on Iran and elsewhere in the region.
The ayatollah’s comments contrasted with those of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who said “achieving a deal is possible” by the March 31 target date for a preliminary accord.
In Israel, Mr. Netanyahu sought to dial back his pre-election rhetoric, telling an audience in Jerusalem that he is now fully aware that his comments had “hurt some citizens of Israel” and that he was “sorry” for what he’d said. In urging his supporters to get out and vote last week, he said Arabs were voting in “droves” in an effort to oust him from office.
In Washington, Mr. Earnest told reporters that he had not personally seen Mr. Netanyahu’s plea but said it sounded “appropriate.”
But the White House spokesman — along with administration Chief of Staff Denis McDonough — did not hesitate Monday to voice fresh frustration over Mr. Netanyahu’s election-eve pronouncement that there will never be an independent Palestinian state on his watch.
“The Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state,” Mr. McDonough told an annual conference in Washington held by J Street, America’s top left-leaning Jewish lobby organization, which has long stood for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr. McDonough, the keynote speaker, drew loud applause and cheers when he asserted that Israel’s nearly 50-year occupation of Palestinian-dominated West Bank territory “must end.”
While Mr. McDonough stressed that “no matter who leads Israel, America’s commitment to Israel’s security will never waiver,” his comments Monday were seen by many conservatives as the latest expression of White House discontent toward Mr. Netanyahu, who won a resounding victory in Israel’s hotly contested national election last week.
Administration officials have for days said they’ve been forced to re-evaluate their strategy toward the Middle East peace process over Mr. Netanyahu’s eleventh-hour campaign promise to block the creation of a Palestinian state — a reversal of the Israeli prime minister’s own past position on the issue.
Analysts and Republicans have argued that Mr. Netanyahu made the statement as a way to drum up last-minute votes from right-wing supporters in the face of a possible election upset by Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog — a man known for fervently supporting a Palestinian state.
Amid criticism from U.S. and European leaders during recent days, Mr. Netanyahu has sought to dial back his rhetoric. He told MSNBC on Thursday that he hadn’t actually changed his policy on the two-state solution.
“I want a sustainable, peaceful, two-state solution, but for that, circumstances have to change,” he said. “I was talking about what is achievable and what is not achievable. To make it achievable, then you have to have real negotiations with people who are committed to peace.”
Mr. McDonough dismissed that argument Monday.
“After the election, the prime minister said that he had not changed his position, but for many in Israel and in the international community, such contradictory comments call into question his commitment to a two-state solution,” the White House chief of staff said.
The two-state solution, he said, has “been the goal of Republican and Democratic presidents, and it remains our goal today.”
“It is the only way to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said.
The speech marked the administration’s latest expression of discontent toward Mr. Netanyahu. But speculation swirled Monday over the extent to which the White House may also be taking out its frustration through more discrete moves.
At the United Nations, for instance, U.S. officials declined to take the floor to defend Israel on Monday before the international body’s main human rights forum during an annual debate on violations committed in the Palestinian territories.
While the pro-Netanyahu Jerusalem Post newspaper said the move was “unprecedented” — suggesting that the Obama administration is acting out of anger toward the Israeli prime minister — others reported that the U.S. move had nothing to do with Israel’s recent election.
Reuters reported that the last time U.S. officials spoke at the forum about human rights in the Palestinian territories was in March 2013, and that the decision to stay quiet on Monday was actually part of an agreement reached in October 2013 when Israel resumed participation in the U.N. Human Rights Council.
On Sunday, Sen. John McCain accused Mr. Obama of throwing a prolonged “temper tantrum” that risks the deep and long-standing relationship between the U.S. and Israel.
Speaking on CNN, the Arizona Republican said Mr. Netanyahu was clearly making his statements for political purposes, and the White House should recognize that.
“The president should get over it. Get over your temper tantrum,” Mr. McCain said. “The least of your problems is what Bibi Netanyahu said during an election campaign.”
While the White House says it is open to working with Congress on Iran, it also has had to fend off lawmakers of both parties who want to enact new sanctions. Officials say additional sanctions could kill the agreement.
Senate leaders also are considering legislation that would require Congress to sign off on all aspects of the deal, a step that would effectively give Capitol Hill the final word on whether the agreement reaches the finish line.
Should an agreement come to fruition, Mr. Obama would have the authority to remove some sanctions unilaterally — such as those on Iran’s automotive industry, imposed through a presidential executive order — while others would need congressional approval before they could be permanently lifted.