Secretary of State John Kerry escalated the war of words between the U.S. and Israel on Wednesday, questioning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judgment on Iran and using the Iraq war to slam the Israeli leader’s record.
Kerry’s comments come amidst increasing discord between the Obama administration and the Israeli government as the U.S. tries to forge a nuclear deal with Tehran. Netanyahu, in a move that has greatly displeased the White House, is expected to sound the alarm over Iran and negotiations underway in Geneva in an address to Congress next week.
Kerry told a House committee the prime minister “may have a judgment that just may not be correct here.”
The Secretary of State also dredged up the ghosts of Iraq. Netanyau, he said, “was profoundly forward-leaning and outspoken about the importance of invading Iraq under George W. Bush. And we all know what happened with that decision.”
It should not be forgotten that Kerry himself voted to authorize military action in Iraq, before voting a year later against $87 billion in funding for the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A fact many people claim cost him the 2004 presidential race to George W. Bush. At the time, Kerry said he voted against that measure because it would have financed the war with borrowed money however; he voted for a defeated alternative that would have rolled back some of Bush’s tax cuts to pay for the conflict. Voters seemed less than convinced at the time handing the election to Bush, so perhaps invoking Iraq to attack Netanyahu was perhaps a mist-step at the very least.
The six major powers negotiating with Iran have set the end of March as a deadline to reach a framework accord on the nuclear issue. The United States and Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia hope to secure an accord to restrain Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Washington suspects Iran may be trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran, however, has said its program is for peaceful purposes.
Kerry said he expected to leave Saturday to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about Syria, attend a U.N. Human Rights Council gathering and also hold nuclear negotiations with Iran. He did not say where those meetings would take place.
The chief U.S. diplomat also raised the possibility that members of the Syrian opposition or the Islamic State group might have used chlorine, which is not defined as a chemical weapon but can be toxic depending on how it is treated.
“The bulk of their use has been by the (Syrian) regime but it is not exclusive. It appears as if there has been some by the opposition or by ISIS,” Kerry said, using another acronym for the Islamic State group.
Netanyahu deployed his own harsh rhetoric on Wednesday to rebuff the White House’s position. He said that though world powers had undertaken an effort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, “it appears they have given up on this commitment” and are accepting that Iran will develop such capabilities in the coming year.
“Maybe they accept it. I am not ready to accept it,” he said. “I must do everything to prevent such a great danger for Israel.”
The charged statements from the two statesmen came the day after National Security Adviser Susan Rice called Netanyahu’s trip to Congress “destructive.”
Rice said Tuesday that Netanyahu’s decision to accept a unilateral invitation from House Speaker John Boehner behind the back of President Barack Obama and his administration injected politics and “a degree of partisanship” into the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
“What has happened over the last several weeks, by virtue of the invitation that was issued by the Speaker, the acceptance of it by Prime Minister Netanyahu on two weeks in advance of his election, is that on both sides there has now been injected a degree of partisanship which is not only unfortunate but it’s destructive of the fabric of the relationship,” Rice said in an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS.
Rice added that the relationship between Israel and the U.S. “has always been bipartisan.”
Administration officials and American diplomats were fuming after Boehner announced that Netanyahu would address Congress about Iran. Obama asked Netanyahu over the phone just about a week before to give him some space on negotiations with Iran and not lobby against his position, and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer met with Secretary of State John Kerry just a day before without mentioning plans for the address.
Some Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, plan to skip Netanyahu’s address because of the snub and because Netanyahu will be directly opposing Obama’s diplomatic efforts on Iran. Israeli leaders, including former President Shimon Peres, have criticized Netanyahu’s visit as damaging to the relationship with the United States.
Netanyahu is looking to capitalize on his visit as the Israelis head to the polls just two weeks later. Netanyahu has already made a point of emphasizing his decision to keep the visit on his schedule in the face of opposition from Obama and Democrats in statements and in postings on social media.
In a televised address earlier this month, Netanyhau cited a “profound disagreement” with the U.S. administration and the five powers negotiating with Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.
“I am going to the United States not because I seek a confrontation with the President, but because I must fulfill my obligation to speak up on a matter that affects the very survival of my country,” Netanyahu said.