Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the United States on Monday that the nuclear deal it is negotiating with Iran could threaten Israel's survival and insisted he had a "moral obligation" to speak up about deep differences with President Barack Obama on the issue.
Even as he set the stage for a Washington visit that has strained U.S.-Israeli relations, Netanyahu sought to lower the temperature ahead of his controversial address to Congress on Tuesday, saying he meant no disrespect for Obama and appreciated U.S. military and diplomatic support for Israel.
Netanyahu left little doubt, however, about his objections to ongoing talks between Iran and world powers, which he said would allow Tehran to become a nuclear-armed state.
"As prime minister of Israel, I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there’s still time to avert them," Netanyahu told a cheering audience at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest U.S. pro-Israel lobby.
Netanyahu said the relationship between his country and the United States was "stronger than ever" and not in crisis.
The tense personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has sunk to a new low over the Israeli leader’s planned speech to Congress just weeks before an end-of-March deadline for a framework nuclear accord with Iran.
Netanyahu is expected to press U.S. lawmakers to block a deal with Iran that he contends would endanger Israel’s existence but which Obama’s aides believe could be a signature foreign policy achievement for the president.
The invitation to Netanyahu was orchestrated by Republican congressional leaders with the Israeli ambassador without advance word to the White House, a breach of protocol that infuriated the Obama administration.
Obama has said he will not meet with Netanyahu during this visit, on the grounds that doing so only two weeks before Israeli elections could be seen as interference.
The partisan nature of this dispute has turned it into the worst rift in decades between the United States and Israel, which normally navigates carefully between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.
NO DISRESPECT INTENDED
Netanyahu insisted that he had no intention of politicizing the U.S.-Israeli relationship and predicted it would weather the latest disagreement.
"My speech (to Congress) is not intended to show disrespect for President Obama and the office that he holds," Netanyahu said. "I deeply appreciate all that President Obama has done for Israel."
Netanyahu went on to point out differences regarding the talks with Iran. "Israel and the United States agree that Iran should not have nuclear weapons but we disagree on the best way to prevent Iran from developing those nuclear weapons," he said.
Speaking at the AIPAC conference just before Netanyahu, U.S. envoy to the United Nations Samantha Power assured the gathering of the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security. She received a warm reception from the audience.
The speeches to the conference were televised.
President Obama is scheduled to be interviewed by Reuters on Monday afternoon. His national security adviser, Susan Rice, is due to address the AIPAC conference on Monday evening.
Rice's address will be delivered less than a week after she said the partisanship caused by Netanyahu's looming address was "destructive to the fabric of U.S.-Israeli ties."
Netanyahu has cast Iran's nuclear ambitions as an existential threat to Israel. Iran has denied that it is seeking nuclear weapons.
Israel is widely assumed to have the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal.
U.S. officials worry that Netanyahu is seeking to disrupt diplomatic efforts with Iran.
Critics have suggested that Netanyahu's visit is an election stunt that will play well with Israeli voters when they go to the polls on March 17.
Netanyahu faces a stiff challenge from a center-left coalition more amenable to Obama’s approach on Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
His planned address to Congress has also driven a rare wedge between Netanyahu's government and congressional Democrats upset at how the invitation was issued without consultation with them or the White House.
Some two dozen or more of them plan to boycott the speech on Tuesday, according to unofficial estimates.