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.
The Israeli prime minister 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 and the president's fellow Democrats.
Obama has said he will not meet with Netanyahu during the 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.
The high-profile visit has divided Israelis, driven a wedge between Jewish American groups and alienated many Democrats, including Jewish Democratic lawmakers.
Netanyahu's critics have said that scuttling the Iran negotiations could raise the risk of war in the Middle East. But asked about the possible impact of Netanyahu's speech to Congress, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it was not expected to complicate Iran diplomacy.
At the AIPAC conference, Netanyahu declared that the days are over when the Jewish people would remain "passive in the face of threats to annihilate us," saying that today in Israel "we defend ourselves."
He stopped short of threatening to attack nuclear sites operated by Iran.
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.
He said he would warn U.S. lawmakers that a deal with Iran "could threaten the survival of Israel." To underscore the point, he displayed a map that he said depicted Iranian ties to terrorism across the world.
Iran has denied that it is seeking nuclear weapons. Israel is widely assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal.
Speaking at the conference just before Netanyahu, Samantha Power, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, offered assurances that the Obama administration "will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, period."
She touted the more than $20 billion in U.S. "foreign military financing" provided to Israel since Obama took office in 2009, and received a warm reception from the audience.
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 speech 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."
Responding to Netanyahu's assertion over the weekend that he was coming to the United States as an emissary for "the entire Jewish people," Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, a leading congressional supporter of Israel, told CNN on Sunday that this was "a rather arrogant statement" and "he doesn't speak for me on this."
As he prepared for talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Switzerland on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry quietly cautioned Israel not to undercut nuclear negotiations with Iran.
"We are concerned by reports that suggest selective details of the ongoing negotiations will be discussed publicly in the coming days," he said, apparently alluding to Netanyahu's speech to Congress on Tuesday.
A Netanyahu aide said earlier that the prime minister would provide "details" explaining his opposition.
Last month, U.S. officials accused the Israeli government of leaking information to the Israeli media to undermine the Iran negotiations and said this would limit further sharing of sensitive details about the talks.
Netanyahu wants Iran to be barred from enriching uranium, which puts him at odds with Obama's view that a deal should allow Tehran to engage in limited enrichment for peaceful purposes. Netanyahu has said this would allow Iran to become a "threshold" nuclear weapons state.
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 put distance between Netanyahu's government and congressional Democrats upset at how the invitation was issued without consultation with them or the White House. Forty-two Democrats plan to skip Netanyahu's speech on Tuesday, according a count by The Hill.
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