GWEN IFILL: Prime Minister — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought today to ease strains over his plans to speak to Congress tomorrow. But he also said he has a moral obligation to criticize a potential nuclear deal with Iran.
He spoke to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, meeting in Washington.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israeli Prime Minister: Reports of the demise of the Israeli-U.S. relations is not only premature; they are just wrong.
GWEN IFILL: On the eve of what has become a controversial speech to a joint meeting of Congress, the Israeli leader went out of his way to play down any tension with the White House.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I have great respect for both.
GWEN IFILL: But the president will not meet with Netanyahu on this visit. And the prime minister, who was invited to Capitol Hill by House Speaker John Boehner, emphasized that he and the administration are still poles apart when it comes to negotiating with Iran.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I plan to speak about an Iranian regime that is threatening to destroy Israel, that is devouring country after country in the Middle East, that is exporting terror throughout the world, and that is developing, as we speak, the capacity to make nuclear weapons, lots of them. American leaders worry about the security of their country. Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country.
GWEN IFILL: As Netanyahu spoke, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Switzerland, where he and Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, resume talks tomorrow.
Kerry cautioned against publicly discussing what he called selective details of incomplete negotiations.
JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: I want to say clearly that doing so would make it more difficult to reach the goal that Israel and others say they share in order to get a good deal. Israel's security is absolutely at the forefront of all of our minds, but, frankly, so is the security of all the other countries in the region. So is our security in the United States.
GWEN IFILL: President Obama did not attend this year's AIPAC gathering, dispatching National Security Adviser Susan Rice and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power instead.
This afternoon, he told the Reuters news service the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong. Still, he called the address to Congress a distraction.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As a matter of policy, we think it's a mistake for the prime minister of any country to come to speak before Congress a few weeks before they're about to have an election. It makes it look like we are taking sides.
GWEN IFILL: But Netanyahu's appearance also underscored fault lines within the American Jewish community. Today, the American Jewish “Tikkun” magazine released this ad, claiming most American Jews support President Obama's approach to Iran, while, over the weekend, the Emergency Committee for Israel took aim at President Obama in this video ad.
NARRATOR: President Obama is holding secret talks with Iran, even as Iran threatens to wipe Israel off the map.
WOMAN: The prime minister of Israel.
GWEN IFILL: Netanyahu last addressed Congress was in May 2011. By this afternoon, more than 30 Democrats had announced they would not attend tomorrow's speech.
So how do American Jews view the controversy surrounding the speech of Prime Minister Netanyahu?
For that, we get two views. Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and president of J Street, a pro-Israel and liberal political action committee. And David Harris is the executive director of the American Jewish committee, a pro-Jewish advocacy organization.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, we heard the president call this whole discussion about whether Netanyahu should speak to Congress a distraction. What is your view on what is the source of all this friction?
JEREMY BEN-AMI, Founder and President, J Street: Well, the friction is actually over a question of policy, because I think that the president and the United States and most of the American-Jewish community are in line with the prime minister and all of Israel in the end goal, which is to ensure that Iran doesn't develop a nuclear weapon.
But the question is, what is the best way to get there? And the president believes that it's through negotiated compromise that is worked out with the international community, that limits Iran's capacity to enrich, and gradually reduces sanctions, with a very intrusive inspection regime. And he believes that's the way to go.
And the source of the friction is that the prime minister has a different view and has come here two weeks before his own election working with the Republican Party in a way that undermines traditional bipartisan cooperation. And that is not a good thing for the U.S.-Israel relationship.
GWEN IFILL: David Harris, was that a mistake?
DAVID HARRIS, Executive Director, American Jewish Committee: Well, I think the real issue today is not whether it was a mistake or not. It's done. The prime minister is in Washington.
The real question is, what is he going to say tomorrow? What is his view on the deal? He says that he has information about the deal. I met with him two weeks ago in his office in Jerusalem, and he felt that the deal, as he understood it, would be catastrophic, indeed life-threatening, for the state of Israel. And he felt that he had the obligation to come.
The timing wasn't meant to be connected to the elections, he said, but rather the fact that the deadline is March 24 for the framework agreement, so he felt that he had no choice but to come now to make his case to the Congress. He wanted to do it in a bipartisan spirit. More than 90 percent of the members of Congress of both parties plan to be there as of now, and then let's judge what he says.
I wouldn't prejudge what he says, though, at this point.
GWEN IFILL: Jeremy Ben-Ami, is this — the tension that we are all chronicling so closely, is it — it's almost soap opera proportions. Is this really about tensions between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, or does it speak to something more fundamental happening between — in the — within the U.S.-Israeli relationship?
JEREMY BEN-AMI: Well, I actually think it's neither one.
I don't think it's just a personal issue and I don't think it's really fundamental to the relationship between the countries. What I do think is that you have a right-of-center world view in the Likud Party that Netanyahu heads and much of the government Israel holds. It's in line with the Republican world view of how to deal with threats, how to deal with Iran and other threats in the region that is different from the world view that President Obama and much of the Democratic Party in this country have and folks on the center-left in Israel have.
So there's actually a very real policy disagreement here that is not just about Iran. It can be translated as well with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the broader Israeli-Arab conflict. It's a legitimate disagreement. It's one that should be discussed. It should be debated.
And we're going to have to find a way to work through that disagreement, while not hurting the fundamental relationship.
GWEN IFILL: David Harris, let me direct the same question to you.
Governor Scott Walker, one of the many Republicans running for president, wrote a story for “National Review” magazine today in which he said that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is in crisis. Do you agree or disagree with that?
DAVID HARRIS: Well, I think, first of all, that the issue is not just the world view. It's the geographical divide.
It's about where Israel is situated and where America is situated. And we have to look at that first, Gwen. Israel is sitting in the tumultuous Middle East that, since the so-called Arab spring, has become even more chaotic and more destructive. Israel is facing a country, Iran, that openly calls for its destruction.
So the fact that the prime minister would come should be seen in that context. He's worried about the neighborhood. He's worried about the fact that Iran or Iranian proxies, he says, are now in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Syria, on the Golan Heights. And he's worried about the crumbling of the Middle East.
In that context, he sees Iran asserting its power, extending its reach and building nuclear weapons capability. In that context, he says the Jewish state faces potential destruction, and we can't outsource the discussions with Iran to other countries that won't take our views necessarily into account as we feel they should be.
GWEN IFILL: But, Mr. Harris, does that mean…
DAVID HARRIS: So I think it's not just about world views.
GWEN IFILL: Right.
DAVID HARRIS: It's about geographical location.
GWEN IFILL: But does that put a strain on the Israeli-U.S. relationship, to the degree that it is in crisis, or are there — is this just a disagreement that we will get past?
DAVID HARRIS: I think it's actually the latter, because, if one takes the longer view — and I think Prime Minister Netanyahu said it earlier today at the AIPAC conference — there have been other disagreements between the United States and Israel, in fact, going all the way back to 1948.
With each president, there has been a moment of not just disagreement, but a moment of crisis, with both Democrats and Republicans, and yet the relationship has not only endured. It's gotten stronger. So I'm confident that, despite the very open difference on this issue, it's about policy, it's not about politics or personalities, and the relationship will endure, because it's in both countries' interest for that relationship to endure.
GWEN IFILL: Jeremy Ben-Ami, this is something similar to what the president had to say in response to that when he was speaking to Reuters today.
Are both sides beginning to step back from the brink here, whether there is a personal animus or not, that maybe this — and we heard Samantha Power also make the same kind of statement today. Do you think that they're stepping back from what could have been an explosive situation?
JEREMY BEN-AMI: Well, I don't think either side has an interest in a personal or political dispute.
I think that if there is a deal reached in the coming two to three weeks — and we don't know — you know, the administration says it's perhaps a 50/50 shot that they can actually get to an agreement. But if there is an agreement, the dispute that we're in the middle of here is going to be elevated to historic proportion.
I don't know that there's been a fight in the Congress and in the Senate over an issue like this deal on which the government of Israel and the government of the United States would be on different sides. And I think that that — I do believe it is a policy disagreement. I think it is something that reflects the world view of the two leaders and the two camps.
And I think that it is going to be a very, very heated and difficult debate and discussion, but one that we need to have in a civil manner.
GWEN IFILL: And we will talk about it again some more tomorrow evening, once we know what Benjamin Netanyahu actually has to say.
Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street and David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, thank you both very much.
JEREMY BEN-AMI: Thank you.
DAVID HARRIS: Thank you.