WASHINGTON — The latest conflict between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel erupted into public view on Monday, as the two leaders clashed from afar over Mr. Netanyahu’s plans to visit Washington next month and the direction of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
At a White House news conference, Mr. Obama signaled his displeasure with the speech Mr. Netanyahu is scheduled to give in March to a joint meeting of Congress at the invitation of Speaker John A. Boehner, suggesting that his visit two weeks before the Israeli election risked injecting politics into the relationship between the United States and Israel.
“It’s important for us to maintain these protocols, because the U.S.-Israeli relationship is not about a particular party,” Mr. Obama said, defending his decision to refuse to meet with the Israeli prime minister during the trip.
“The way to preserve that is to make sure that it doesn’t get clouded with what could be perceived as partisan politics.
But in Jerusalem, Mr. Netanyahu vowed that he would go forward with the speech, despite increasing pressure in Israel and the United States to cancel or alter his plans to use it to appeal directly to American lawmakers for a harder line against Irak.
The dispute over politics and protocol dramatized a deepening rift between the American president and the Israeli prime minister over a potential nuclear deal with Tehran, with Mr. Obama arguing at his news conference for time to allow the diplomatic talks to bear fruit and Mr. Netanyahu warning of the emergence of a dangerous agreement that would threaten Israel.
“A bad deal with Iran is taking shape in Munich, one that will endanger the existence of Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu said Monday at a Likud Party election event in Jerusalem. “Therefore I am determined to travel to Washington and to present Israel’s position before the members of Congress and the American people.”
Mr. Obama said that while he saw no reason to extend the Iran negotiations past a late-March target for a framework agreement, it was important that the talks be allowed to continue before further sanctions were imposed.
“It does not make sense to sour the negotiations a month or two before they’re about to be completed, and we should play that out,” the president said during a joint news conference at the White House with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
If no deal can be reached, Mr. Obama said, he will work with Congress to apply “even stronger” sanctions.
“But what’s the rush?” he added.
Beyond the substantive questions surrounding the nuclear talks, the politically charged dispute over the timing and scheduling of Mr. Netanyahu’s visit persisted in both the United States and Israel.
A spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu had no comment on Mr. Obama’s remarks, which were broadcast after Mr. Netanyahu’s on the most watched evening news broadcast on Israeli television.
The spokesman, Mark Regev, also refused to comment on a Reuters report published earlier on Monday stating that discussions were underway in Israel about the possibility of changing the format of Mr. Netanyahu’s planned speech because of the furor it had caused. Options included having Mr. Netanyahu speak to a closed-door meeting of Congress or making his speech at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington the same week, Reuters said, citing an unnamed source close to the prime minister’s office.
Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks at the Likud event were broadly viewed as a denial of the report. Rebuffing sweeping criticism that his acceptance of the invitation had turned Israeli-American relations and the struggle to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran into a partisan debate, Mr. Netanyahu stated that this was “an existential issue” for Israel’s security.
In the midst of the heated Israeli election campaign, Mr. Netanyahu is facing growing domestic pressure to cancel his speech. While Israelis tend to admire a prime minister who now and again stands up to Washington, Israeli experts say, there is little appetite among the voters for a full-blown crisis in Israeli-American relations.
“It seems the Israeli public more and more realizes that this was a mistake to begin with,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, an expert on national security and public opinion at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “The whole adventure is not going to help Netanyahu in the elections, and it may harm him.”
A poll cited on Israel’s popular Army Radio on Monday indicated that nearly half of those asked believed that Mr. Netanyahu should cancel his speech. Only about a third said they were in favor of him going ahead as planned.
“Instead of acting responsibly as a prime minister should, Netanyahu insists on deepening the rift he has created with the Americans,” the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper said in an editorial on Monday, calling on the prime minister to scrap the speech. “He is thus endangering Israel’s most important relationship, behaving rashly as far as strategy is concerned and trampling the remnants of Israeli diplomacy.”
In the United States, a handful of congressional Democrats — along with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who as president of the Senate would normally attend in a ceremonial role — have said they plan to skip the speech.
But dozens more have privately implored Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador who helped arrange the speech, to prevail on Mr. Netanyahu to agree to a “face-saving way to still come and speak” without the trappings of a joint meeting, said a senior Democratic congressional aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to detail the talks.
American Jewish leaders, including Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, have warned that the speech could damage the essential relationship between the allies. The Democratic-leaning pro-Israel group J Street collected 20,000 signatures Monday on a petition calling for the cancellation of the speech, a spokeswoman said. (erny)