Netanyahu lobbies against Iran talks in speech to Congress

Mar 3, 2015 11:46 AM by CBS News

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is appealing to Congress to reject the Obama administration's negotiations with five other world powers and Iran that would allow the regime to have a nuclear program for peaceful reasons.

"Today the Jewish people face yet another attempt by another Persian potentate to destroy us," Netanyahu said, drawing on parallels between the villains in the Jewish holiday of Purim and Iran's leaders.

On the negotiations, he concluded, "This is a bad deal. It's a very bad deal. We're better off without it."

Netanyahu is a staunch opponent of such a deal, fearing that it will allow Iranian leaders to continue secretly building a nuclear bomb that could pose a major threat to Israel's security. But the nature of his speech - two weeks before the Israeli elections, and at the sole invitation of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio - has injected his appearance with a degree of partisanship and caused some friction in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

The Israeli prime minister previewed his message in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Monday, although he said he would leave most of the content for the Tuesday address before the House and Senate.

"Iran envelops the entire world with its tentacles of terror," Netanyahu said at AIPAC. "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."

"There's not a single day - not one day - that I didn't think about the survival of my country and the actions that I take to ensure that survival," he added.

He said those were the reasons he accepted the invitation, not out of any disrespect to President Obama.

Yet tensions are running high. Mr. Obama will not meet with Netanyahu, citing a precedent that U.S. officials have a longstanding practice of not meeting with foreign leaders so close to their elections. Israel's elections take place on March 17. In an interview on "CBS This Morning" co-host Charlie Rose's PBS program last week, President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, called Netanyahu's visit "destructive." Boehner has accused the administration of attacking the Israeli prime minister.

"I deeply regret that some perceived by my being here as political. That was never my intention," Netanyahu said as he began speaking.

He clearly sought to extend an olive branch to the president, noting early in his speech the ways that the president has helped Israel both in public and behind the scenes.

"I know it, and I will always be grateful to president Obama for that support," he said.

Secretary of State John Kerry is in Switzerland working to reach a deal before a March 31 deadline. Iran says it wants to enrich uranium for energy, medical and scientific purposes, but the U.S. and its allies want to ensure it cannot use the program to build a nuclear weapon. In return, the world powers in talks with Iran would gradually lift the economic sanctions that have crippled its economy.

In an interview with Reuters Monday, the president said Iran should agree to freeze its nuclear activity for at least 10 years in order to reach an agreement over the issue with the United States and its allies."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," Mr. Obama said.

He also said the odds are against Iran reaching a deal with United States and the rest of the so-called P5 +1, which also includes Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

Mr. Obama acknowledged to Reuters Monday that there is a "substantial disagreement" between the U.S. and Israel over how to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. He called Netanyahu's speech to Congress a distraction, though he said it would not be "permanently destructive" to the United States' relationship with Israel.

Dozens of Democrats in the House and Senate are skipping the address, giving a range of reasons from objecting to the timing of the speech so close to Israeli elections to the fact that the invitation was issued by only Boehner, and was not bipartisan.

Still, Boehner said on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday that there has been a record demand for tickets. The speaker has invited Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Weisel to be his guest, and his office said former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich will attend.

Several Republicans who hope to be the next president will also be in attendance, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

With the speech, Netanyahu joins former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the club of world leaders who have spoken to a joint meeting of Congress three times. He also addressed Congress in 1996 and 2011.

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