Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to defuse tensions Monday ahead of his highly-anticipated address Tuesday before the U.S. Congress, where he's expected to sharply argue against President Obama's plan for a potential nuclear deal with Iran.
"My speech is not intended to show any disrespect for President Obama," he said. "The last thing I would want is for Israel to become a partisan issue. I regret that some people have misperceived my trip here as that."
Netanyahu began his visit with a home-field advantage, speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, where he received constant cheers from the audience of roughly 16,000 people. He affirmed the U.S.-Israel relationship all the while reiterating his opposition to Iran and the nuclear talks the U.S. is engaging in.
"Today we are no longer silent. Today we have a voice. Tomorrow as the Prime Minister of the one and only Jewish state, I plan to use that voice," Netanyahu said. He added: "Israel and the US will continue to stand together because America and Israel are more than friends. We are practically a family ... disagreements in the family are always uncomfortable, but we must always remember that we are family."
The Israeli leader's address comes ahead of Obama's public remarks slated for later today on the potential deal with Iran. On Tuesday, Netanyahu will address Congress a mere 15 days before Israelis go to the polls to decide whether to give him another term. It's a move that White House and Democratic officials have lambasted as “destructive,” “inappropriate,” and at the very least unnecessary by policy experts from both parties.
McCain: Netanyahu controversy over Iran-US dealMarch 2, 201517:31
Republicans, who invited Netanyahu to speak, have made it clear they’re eager to capitalize on the politics of the event.
"What I do wonder is why the White House feels threatened because the Congress wants to support Israel and wants to hear what a trusted ally has to say. It has been, frankly, remarkable to me, the extent to which, over the last five or six weeks, the White House has attacked the Prime Minister, attacked me, for wanting to hear from one of our closest allies,” Boehner said Sunday.
The White House has protested the Israeli leader's decision to speak as an effort to undermine diplomatic efforts, even as the administration continues to reiterate its longstanding support of Israel. Ahead of Netanyahu's address at AIPAC, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Powers emphasized the United States's unwavering commitment to Israel.
"Throughout this shared history, the United States has stood shoulder to shoulder with our ally, through thick and thin," she said.
Still, the White House has been working to rebut Netanyahu's expected criticism of the nuclear negotiations. Secretary of State John Kerry said no deal has been struck with Iran, so Netanyahu’s protests are premature and uninformed. Nearly three dozen Democrats – including Vice President Joe Biden—won’t attend the address in response.
As Netanyahu departed Tel Aviv on Sunday, he said his visit was a “crucial and even historic mission,” designed to secure Israel’s future. He has continued to portray his address to Congress as essential in the face of a potential nuclear deal that the Obama administration could strike with Iran in coming months. Negotiations for a deal are aimed at preventing the Islamic Republic from building nuclear weapons.
But Netanyahu insists any deal would fail to stop Tehran from becoming a nuclear power that could threaten Israel’s existence. He has suggested that President Obama is naïve and the speech appears designed to lobby Congress against the president.
Related: Will Netanyahu speech sabotage Iran talks?
Aboard the plane to Washington, a Haaretz reporter tweeted “Senior Israeli official on Netanyahu’s plane: We have a lot of information about the deal with Iran & it shows P5+1 made big concessions,”adding on Twitter: ”Israeli official: We feel that members of congress aren’t fully aware of the details of the emerging deal with Iran & we want to warn them.”
Netanyahu’s visit comes just weeks before Israelis go to the polls to decide whether to give him another term, sparking questions about the Israeli leader’s motives. His opponents have suggested the real audience for his speech are Israeli voters, and that Netanyahu is hoping his speech will demonstrate that he is more able than others to defend Israel.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who is Jewish, said on Sunday during a CNN interview that Netanyahu “doesn’t speak for me on this.” Host Dana Bash asked Feinstein if Netanyahu’s statement that “he speaks for all Jews” bothered her, to which Feinstein replied: “I think it’s a rather arrogant statement. I think the Jewish community is like any other community. There are different points of view … I think the arrogance does not befit Israel.” Still, the senator said she will attend the address.
The trip has been marred from the start when Republican House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to Washington without notifying the Obama administration – a move nearly half of American voters – 48% – disagree with, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. The White House later declared Boehner’s private invitation a breach of protocol. Democratic voters were overwhelmingly in opposition to the invitation – 66% compared to 28% of Republicans who said the invitation was fine. The same poll found that Israel isn’t as popular with young Americans between the ages of 18-24, with a positive rating of just 31%.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday said he doesn’t want Netanyahu’s visit to turn into “some great political football.” But, he said, “it was odd, if not unique, that we learned of it from the speaker of the House and that an administration was not included in this process.” Kerry added during the interview on ABC’s “This Week” that he has regular communication with Netanyahu, as recent as Saturday, and that “the prime minister of Israel is welcome to speak in the United States, obviously.”