Israel spied on Iran nuclear talks with U.S.

When Israel is described as one of America’s closest allies, maybe more emphasis should be placed on the term close than ally — as in too close, which would be to call Israel, America’s most intrusive, troublesome ally.

And this would explain why, as U.S. officials say: “The U.S. expends more counterintelligence resources fending off Israeli spy operations than any other close ally.”

What the following report speaks to is a conviction among Israeli leaders and their supporters — many of whom are American citizens — that Israel has a right to use any means available not merely to influence but rather to control and if needs be, to sabotage U.S. foreign policy.

The Wall Street Journal reports: Soon after the U.S. and other major powers entered negotiations last year to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, senior White House officials learned Israel was spying on the closed-door talks.

The spying operation was part of a broader campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to penetrate the negotiations and then help build a case against the emerging terms of the deal, current and former U.S. officials said. In addition to eavesdropping, Israel acquired information from confidential U.S. briefings, informants and diplomatic contacts in Europe, the officials said.

The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.

“It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on the matter.

The U.S. and Israel, longtime allies who routinely swap information on security threats, sometimes operate behind the scenes like spy-versus-spy rivals. The White House has largely tolerated Israeli snooping on U.S. policy makers—a posture Israel takes when the tables are turned.

The White House discovered the operation, in fact, when U.S. intelligence agencies spying on Israel intercepted communications among Israeli officials that carried details the U.S. believed could have come only from access to the confidential talks, officials briefed on the matter said.

Israeli officials denied spying directly on U.S. negotiators and said they received their information through other means, including close surveillance of Iranian leaders receiving the latest U.S. and European offers. European officials, particularly the French, also have been more transparent with Israel about the closed-door discussions than the Americans, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer early this year saw a rapidly closing window to increase pressure on Mr. Obama before a key deadline at the end of March, Israeli officials said.

Using levers of political influence unique to Israel, Messrs. Netanyahu and Dermer calculated that a lobbying campaign in Congress before an announcement was made would improve the chances of killing or reshaping any deal. [Continue reading…]

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CISA security bill: An F for security but an A+ for spying

Andy Greenberg writes: When the Senate Intelligence Committee passed the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act by a vote of 14 to 1, committee chairman Senator Richard Burr argued that it successfully balanced security and privacy. Fifteen new amendments to the bill, he said, were designed to protect internet users’ personal information while enabling new ways for companies and federal agencies to coordinate responses to cyberattacks. But critics within the security and privacy communities still have two fundamental problems with the legislation: First, they say, the proposed cybersecurity act won’t actually boost security. And second, the “information sharing” it describes sounds more than ever like a backchannel for surveillance. On Tuesday the bill’s authors released the full, updated text of the CISA legislation passed last week, and critics say the changes have done little to assuage their fears about wanton sharing of Americans’ private data. In fact, legal analysts say the changes actually widen the backdoor leading from private firms to intelligence agencies. “It’s a complete failure to strengthen the privacy protections of the bill,” says Robyn Greene, a policy lawyer for the Open Technology Institute, which joined a coalition of dozens of non-profits and cybersecurity experts criticizing the bill in an open letter earlier this month. “None of the [privacy-related] points we raised in our coalition letter to the committee was effectively addressed.” The central concern of that letter was how the same data sharing meant to bolster cybersecurity for companies and the government opens massive surveillance loopholes. The bill, as worded, lets a private company share with the Department of Homeland Security any information construed as a cybersecurity threat “notwithstanding any other provision of law.” That means CISA trumps privacy laws like the Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986 and the Privacy Act of 1974, which restrict eavesdropping and sharing of users’ communications. And once the DHS obtains the information, it would automatically be shared with the NSA, the Department of Defense (including Cyber Command), and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. [Continue reading…]

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The CIA just declassified the document that supposedly justified the Iraq invasion

Jason Leopold reports: Thirteen years ago, the intelligence community concluded in a 93-page classified document used to justify the invasion of Iraq that it lacked “specific information” on “many key aspects” of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.

But that’s not what top Bush administration officials said during their campaign to sell the war to the American public. Those officials, citing the same classified document, asserted with no uncertainty that Iraq was actively pursuing nuclear weapons, concealing a vast chemical and biological weapons arsenal, and posing an immediate and grave threat to US national security.

Congress eventually concluded that the Bush administration had “overstated” its dire warnings about the Iraqi threat, and that the administration’s claims about Iraq’s WMD program were “not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting.” But that underlying intelligence reporting — contained in the so-called National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was used to justify the invasion — has remained shrouded in mystery until now. [Continue reading…]

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Why Iran won’t capitulate

Reza Marashi and Trita Parsi write: Part of the reason why opponents to a nuclear deal with Iran are so bewildered by President Barack Obama’s diplomacy is because their belief that Iran can be forced to capitulate. They adhere to a George W. Bush administration-era argument: If the U.S. only were to ramp up pressure, it can dictate the terms of the deal instead of having to agree to a compromise.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

This argument is as reckless as it is disproven. In fact, the reason the Obama administration abandoned this path was because it realized that insisting on Iranian capitulation was more likely to lead to war than to victory. And that is precisely why it is defying any pressure — be it from the US Senate or the Israeli Prime Minister — to return to this policy.

What the hawks miscalculate is Iran’s ability to resist — and hit back. When Washington imposed on Iran the most comprehensive sanctions regime in history, Tehran did not capitulate. Rather, it responded to pressure with pressure. It took steps to adapt its economy to bend but not break — from weaning its budget off oil revenues, to utilizing unofficial financial networks and processes. Prior to President Rouhani’s election, it increased efforts to target Western and Israeli interests around the world — from suspected bombings to cyber attacks.

But most telling has been Iran creating new nuclear facts on the ground. As sanctions, cyber-warfare, and secret assassinations increased, so too did Iran’s stockpiles of low and medium enriched uranium, as well as its installation of first and second-generation centrifuges. [Continue reading…]

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Fighting ISIS: Impasse with Congress stalls the authorization the Obama administration says it doesn’t need

The New York Times reports: President Obama’s formal request for congressional authorization to fight the Islamic State — once framed by lawmakers as a matter of great constitutional import — is now seriously imperiled because Republicans think it does too little and Democrats think it does too much.

And neither the White House nor many members of Congress seemed in any rush to bridge the divide.

Secretary of State John Kerry and other top administration officials urged members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday to approve Mr. Obama’s request, but it was clear during the contentious three-hour session that lawmakers were far from reaching any agreement.

When Mr. Obama, in his news conference after the midterm elections in November, announced he would seek specific authorization from Congress, he said, “The world needs to know we are united behind this effort.” But after the proposal went to Congress, there is little evidence that the administration has lobbied members to win support for its request, and few suggestions that Democratic and Republican lawmakers are successfully working toward an alternative.

Despite urging Congress to pass the authorization for military action, Mr. Kerry, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all made clear that they believed the administration already had the legal authority to pursue its military campaign against the Islamic State under two previous authorizations: one in 2001 allowing the president to fight a global war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and one in 2002 that enabled President George W. Bush to wage war in Iraq.

“The president already has statutory authority to act against ISIL,” Mr. Kerry said, referring to the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS. “But a clear and formal expression of this Congress’s backing at this moment in time would dispel doubts that might exist anywhere that Americans are united in this effort.”

Mr. Kerry also called on Congress to speak “with a single powerful voice at this pivotal hour.”

But given that military operations have been underway for months, the White House views the resolution as symbolically important but not required. [Continue reading…]

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Why a ‘bad’ deal with Iran is better than no deal at all

Jeffrey Lewis writes: I am old enough to remember when, back in 2006, I argued that the United States should let Iran keep 164 centrifuges in standby mode during talks. Do you know what people said? “164 centrifuges? Are you mad? You are giving away the store to the Iranians!” Well, now Iran has more than 15,000 centrifuges (that we know about) in at least two sites.

One of the most frustrating things about following the past decade of negotiations is watching the West make one concession after another — but only after the Iranians had moved so far forward that the concession had no value. The people arguing now for a “better” deal at some later date are the same people who in 2006 said 164 centrifuges was way too many and, that if we just held out long enough, we’d haggle the Iranians down to zero. Look what that got us.

This is a fantasy, a unicorn, the futile pursuit of which ends with a half-assed airstrike against Iran, a region in flames, and eventually an Iranian nuclear weapon. And let’s be clear: If negotiations collapse, the United States will take the blame from Europe and the sanctions regime will unravel. And here’s the best-case scenario:

Any military action against Iran will set its nuclear program back, at best, a couple of years. But the anger will last generations. [Continue reading…]

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Drama turns to farce in U.S.-Israel ties

Rami G. Khouri writes: The contentious diplomatic drama of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before the U.S. Congress last week has now expanded into political farce, after 47 Republican senators sent a letter to the Iranian supreme leader this week.

The letter basically insulted the Iranians by suggesting that they did not know how the American political system operates, because, they argued, the next administration could reverse any agreement President Barack Obama reaches with Tehran.

The tension between the Republican-dominated Congress and Obama is nearly a constitutional crisis over the president’s prerogative to conduct foreign policy. It is also quite unusual to see a sitting Congress actively trying to thwart a foreign policy objective that the president is actively pursuing in close coordination with five other world powers.

Those issues will blow over in time, but the more lasting impact of these developments might well be the evolving relationship between the Israeli government, the Republican Party in the United States and the traditional bipartisan position in the U.S. to policy toward Israel and wider Middle Eastern issues. Both the right-wing Netanyahu-led coalition government and the Republican Party in Congress have reasons of their own to challenge President Barack Obama, and they have chosen the nuclear agreement being negotiated with Iran as the issue on which to confront him in a very hard and very public way. [Continue reading…]

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Did 47 U.S. senators just commit treason by attempting to sabotage Iran deal?

Bloomberg: The backlash continued Tuesday after 47 Republican senators sent a signed letter to Iran’s leaders warning them against cutting a nuclear deal with the Obama administration.

The letter, organized by Senator Tom Cotton, a freshman from Arkansas, warned Iran that “we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”

The New York Daily News on Tuesday put photos of Cotton, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on its front page along with the boldfaced headline “TRAITORS.” [Continue reading…]

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Iran responds to the letter from Republican senators

Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Asked about the open letter of 47 US Senators to Iranian leaders, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Dr. Javad Zarif, responded that “in our view, this letter has no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy. It is very interesting that while negotiations are still in progress and while no agreement has been reached, some political pressure groups are so afraid even of the prospect of an agreement that they resort to unconventional methods, unprecedented in diplomatic history. This indicates that like Netanyahu, who considers peace as an existential threat, some are opposed to any agreement, regardless of its content.

Zarif expressed astonishment that some members of US Congress find it appropriate to write to leaders of another country against their own President and administration. He pointed out that from reading the open letter, it seems that the authors not only do not understand international law, but are not fully cognizant of the nuances of their own Constitution when it comes to presidential powers in the conduct of foreign policy.

Foreign Minister Zarif added that “I should bring one important point to the attention of the authors and that is, the world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by US domestic law. The authors may not fully understand that in international law, governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfil the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations.

The Iranian Foreign Minister added that “Change of administration does not in any way relieve the next administration from international obligations undertaken by its predecessor in a possible agreement about Iran`s peaceful nuclear program.” He continued “I wish to enlighten the authors that if the next administration revokes any agreement with the stroke of a pen, as they boast, it will have simply committed a blatant violation of international law.

He emphasized that if the current negotiation with P5+1 result in a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it will not be a bilateral agreement between Iran and the US, but rather one that will be concluded with the participation of five other countries, including all permanent members of the Security Council, and will also be endorsed by a Security Council resolution. [Continue reading…]

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Iran: The Senate strikes back

Elizabeth Drew writes: Ever since Hurricane Bibi blew through Washington last week, advocates and opponents of a possible nuclear agreement with Iran have been assessing the damage. It’s clear that the traditional bipartisan approach toward Israel has been smashed. But the essential question is what effect Netanyahu’s visit will have on the the nuclear deal and above all, whether Congress, by bringing it to a direct vote as it now threatens, will reject it, thus ending a long effort to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions and raising a long-term question as to whether US negotiators’ word amounts to anything.

Because the agreement — being negotiated by the Obama administration and fellow members of the P5+1 group –– isn’t a treaty, it doesn’t have to be approved by the Senate by a two-thirds vote. But since the existing strict economic sanctions on Iran were imposed by Congress, many members insist that they should have a voice in whether they can be lifted, as they would be in the agreement, in exchange for tight controls designed to prohibit Iran from developing nuclear weapons. What this is really about is whether Congress will have veto power over the agreement itself—a power that has become Netanyahu’s and other opponents’ chosen route for sinking a deal.

Hours after Netanyahu’s speech, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, apparently eager to capitalize on its rapturous reception by the mostly Republican audience, announced that he’d shortly move that the Senate immediately take up a resolution requiring a congressional vote on any agreement with Iran. This went against McConnell’s earlier pledge that the Senate would proceed according to the “regular order,” which would have meant that legislation had to be considered by the relevant committee, in this case Foreign Relations, before it could be brought to the floor; and two days later, he backed down after Democrats threatened to block the move. But this is most likely a temporary retreat on McConnell’s part. [Continue reading…]

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Why American public opinion is often not worth measuring

Five years ago, a CNN opinion poll of adult Americans asked:

Do you think Iran currently has nuclear weapons, or not?

71% of the respondents answered “Yes.” Only 3% expressed no opinion, which is to say, acknowledged that they didn’t know.

In the intervening period, as news of ongoing negotiations between Iran and the U.S. (and the rest of the P5+1) has occasionally captured the headlines, I guess a number of those who believed that Iran already has nuclear weapons have since deduced that there would be no negotiations taking place if indeed Iran was already nuclear armed.

The results of a poll released earlier this month indicated that a majority of Americans (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents) now “support an agreement that would limit Iran’s enrichment capacity and impose additional intrusive inspections in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions.”

And yet, another recent poll shows that an even larger majority of Americans believe a nuclear deal with Iran would make little difference in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Perhaps that’s because there are still a lot of Americans who believe Iran already possesses nuclear weapons.

As much as anything, the information opinion polls gather says as much about the questions as the answers.

If I was a pollster, I’d be tempted to ask questions like this:

Have you tried the new energy drink, P5+1?

Do you think it tastes better than P5?

I’d also present a questionnaire to all members of Congress, asking:

What does the “P” in P5+1 refer to?
a) Peerless
b) Protestant
c) Permanent
d) Piquant
e) Don’t know

And who is the 1?
a) Israel
b) North Korea
c) Germany
d) United States
e) Don’t know

But seriously, the professional pollsters could provide a valuable public service if they simply prefaced every attempt to gather public opinion by underlining the value of answering, “don’t know,” when that’s really the truth.

With some gentle coaxing, we might find that Americans are not as delusional as they often appear. They’re simply afraid of revealing how little they know.

If people were less embarrassed about intentionally exposing their ignorance, then polls might more than anything else highlight the degree to the United States is a dysfunctional democracy in which the media, political, and educational systems are failing to sustain an informed citizenry.

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Capitol Hill — still Israeli-occupied territory

Philip Weiss writes: In the Emperor’s New Clothes, only the little boy can say that the emperor is naked. The good news about yesterday’s speech by Netanyahu to a joint meeting of Congress is that lots of media are taking on that boy’s role, and pointing out the nudity: exclaiming over the fact that a foreign leader came into our house of government to try and overrule our president on foreign policy. Chris Matthews was especially forceful, describing it as a takeover. While a New York Times article said that Democrats have to choose between “loyalty to the Jewish state” and the president.

But journalists have a bigger job than merely exclaiming. They must explain to readers why this outrage took place. Why did Netanyahu get this platform? The answer is the power of the Israel lobby inside our politics. And while there was some talk about the Christian Zionist component of the lobby compelling Republicans to show up, no one could explain why so many Democrats– about 175 of them– sat still for this insult to the president. They did so because of the importance of the Jewish part of the lobby inside the Democratic Party, epitomized by Alan Dershowitz in the gallery. This was surely obvious to viewers. But the media were silent on that score. [Continue reading…]

Netanyahu addressing Congress in 2002 and 2015 — same script, but then it was Iraq, now Iran.

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Rouhani: people are too clever to listen to ‘war-mongering’ Netanyahu

The Guardian: The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has reacted to Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress by saying that the world and the American people are too intelligent to take advice from “an aggressive and occupier regime” that has itself developed an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

“The world is happy with the progress in the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1,” Rouhani said in a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, speaking about the nuclear talks between Iran and the US, France, Germany, China, Russia and Britain. “Only one aggressive and occupier regime [Israel] is angry with the talks because it sees its existence tied with war and occupation.”

Rouhani said: “People of the world and America are too smart to take advice from such a war-mongering regime … which has pursued, produced and stockpiled a large number of atomic bombs in violation of international laws and away from the eyes of international inspectors.” Rouhani was referring to the fact that Israel, unlike Iran, has not signed the treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

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Netanyahu agitating for war against Iran

Fred Kaplan writes: Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress on Tuesday was a disturbing spectacle: shallow, evasive, short on logic, and long on cynicism.

The Israeli prime minister pretended to criticize the specific deal that the United States and five other nations are currently negotiating with Iran, but it’s clear from his words that he opposes any deal that falls short of Iran’s total disarmament and regime change. He pretended merely to push for a “better deal,” but he actually was agitating for war.

At the start of his speech, he played nice, thanking President Obama for the generous bounty of security assistance, the rescues from embassy sieges, the shipment of Iron Dome missile-defense batteries (which probably saved hundreds of Israeli lives from Hamas rocket attacks), and for his help in other programs so highly classified that they cannot be mentioned.

But this had all the sincerity of Mark Antony coming to praise Caesar, not to bury him. The burying soon commenced. [Continue reading…]

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180 Israeli security officials tell Netanyahu that speaking to Congress is a mistake

BuzzFeed: An alliance of 180 of Israel’s top former military and intelligence officials are criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to speak to Congress, in a rare public stance against the Israeli leader.

Just hours after Netanyahu boarded a plane bound for Washington, the group of former generals and intelligence heads held a press conference in Tel Aviv where they stated that Netanyahu’s policies and upcoming speech to Congress were doing irreparable harm to U.S.-Israel relations and would do nothing to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

“When the Israeli prime minister argues that his speech will stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, he is not only misleading Israel – he is actually strengthening Iran,” said Gen. (Res). Amnon Reshef, head of the group, Commanders for Israel’s Security, and former head of Israel’s armored corps. “It is time the prime minister listened to us before he wrecks our strategic interests with our closest ally. Nothing good for Israel can come from humiliating the U.S. president.”

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Israel lobbies U.S. Congress for extra cash

Bloomberg reports: For the second consecutive year, Israeli officials have asked the U.S. Congress to add more than $300 million to President Barack Obama’s budget request for their nation’s missile-defense programs.

The $317 million wish list that Israeli’s missile defense chief gave lawmakers this month is in addition to the $158 million the Pentagon proposed for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. The Israeli request would provide first-time production funds for two programs — David’s Sling and Arrow-3.

Israel’s latest lobbying on Capitol Hill, instead of through the White House and Pentagon, comes at a low point in political relations between the U.S. and Israel over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress on March 3 to derail what he calls an emerging “bad deal” by the Obama administration to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Yair Ramati, the director of Israel’s missile defense organization, visited lawmakers and aides to the congressional defense committees on Feb. 2 and 3 to outline the case for more money and thank them for past assistance, according to people familiar with the meetings who asked not to be identified describing the private discussions. Obama’s proposed budget was released on Feb. 2.

The U.S. provides funds for Israel’s missile defenses — including the Iron Dome interceptors that have gained fame for fending off Hamas rockets from Gaza — separately from the $3.1 billion a year given to Israel in “foreign military financing” to buy weapons through the budget for the State Department and foreign operations. [Continue reading…]

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Boehner’s campaign rally for Netanyahu

Jeffrey Goldberg writes: It would be reassuring—sort of—to believe that Benjamin Netanyahu decided to set the U.S.-Israel relationship on fire mainly because he fears that President Obama is selling out Israel. But Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 3—a speech arranged without Obama’s knowledge by Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and by Obama’s chief Republican rival, House Speaker John Boehner—is motivated by another powerful fear: the fear of unemployment. The message Bibi is preparing to deliver on Tuesday (a “statesmanlike message,” according to an official close to him) has as its actual target not Congress but, instead, Israeli voters who need reminding, in Netanyahu’s view, that he is the only leader strong enough to face down both the genocidal regime in Tehran and the Israel-loathing regime in Washington. (Make no mistake: Netanyahu sees Obama as an actual adversary. If only all of Israel’s adversaries would veto U.N. Security Council resolutions hostile to Israel…)

Bibi is facing an existential threat to his career, and Boehner is staging for him the ultimate campaign rally, 6,000 miles away from home. People I’ve spoken with in Israel who have a sophisticated understanding of current campaign dynamics—the Israeli election is set for March 17—say that a well-delivered, well-received speech (standing ovations in Congress seem very impressive unless you know better) could gain Netanyahu two or three extra seats in the Knesset, which might be what he needs to retain his job. [Continue reading…]

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Obama adviser says Netanyahu’s planned visit to Congress is ‘destructive’ to U.S.-Israeli ties

The New York Times reports: Susan E. Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser, sharply criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Tuesday over his plans to address a joint meeting of Congress next week, saying his actions had hurt his nation’s relationship with the United States.

Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to travel to Washington to deliver the speech two weeks before the Israeli elections has “injected a degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate, I think it’s destructive of the fabric of the relationship,” Ms. Rice said in an interview on the PBS television program “Charlie Rose.”

Her comments marked the strongest public rebuke to date by the Obama administration since Mr. Netanyahu accepted an invitation from Speaker John A. Boehner to make his case to Congress against a nuclear deal with Iran, which is a priority of Mr. Obama’s. It is also the frankest acknowledgment yet by a top American official of the degree to which the controversy has damaged United States-Israeli relations. [Continue reading…]

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