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Kerry tries to patch rift before Netanyahu speech

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sarah, left for Washington, where he is to speak Tuesday. Amos Ben Gershom /European pressphoto agency

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday tried to calm tensions with Israel before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s congressional address but insisted the Obama administration’s diplomatic record with Iran entitles the United States to ‘‘the benefit of the doubt’’ as negotiators work toward a long-term nuclear deal.

Kerry said in an interview broadcast before he left for more talks in Switzerland with Iran’s foreign minister that Netanyahu was welcome to speak in the United States and that the administration did not want the event ‘‘turned into some great political football.’’

That sentiment was a step back from some of the sharp rhetoric between the allies in recent weeks, and Kerry mentioned that he talked to Netanyahu as recently as Saturday.


But Kerry stressed that Israel was safer as a result of the short-term nuclear pact that world powers and Iran reached in late 2013, and he described that improvement as the ‘‘standard we will apply to any agreement’’ with the Islamic Republic.

Officials have described the United States, Europe, Russia, and China as considering a compromise that would see Iran’s nuclear activities severely curtailed for at least a decade, with the restrictions and United States and Western economic penalties eased in the final years of a deal.

‘‘We are going to test whether or not diplomacy can prevent this weapon from being created, so you don’t have to turn to additional measures including the possibility of a military confrontation,’’ Kerry said on ABC’s ‘‘This Week.’’

‘‘Our hope is that diplomacy can work. And I believe, given our success of the interim agreement, we deserve the benefit of the doubt to find out whether or not we can get a similarly good agreement with respect to the future,’’ he said.

Netanyahu, who arrived in Washington later Sunday, will press his opposition to a diplomatic accommodation of Iran’s program in a speech Tuesday to Congress. The prime minister says he is making the address out of concern of Israel’s security.


The invitation by House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Netanyahu’s acceptance have caused an uproar that has exposed tensions between Israel and the United States, its most important ally.

By consenting to speak, Netanyahu angered the White House, which was not consulted in advance, and Democrats, who were forced to choose between showing support for Israel and backing the president.

‘‘I will do everything in my ability to secure our future,’’ Netanyahu said before flying to Washington. He described himself as ‘‘an emissary’’ of the Jewish people.

Boehner said Iran’s nuclear ambitions were a threat well beyond the region.

‘‘We’re not going to resolve this issue by sticking our heads in the sand,’’ Boehner said on CBS’s ‘‘Face the Nation.’’

He said Netanyahu ‘‘can talk about this threat, I believe, better than anyone. And the United States Congress wants to hear from him, and so do the American people.’’

The congressional speech also has sparked criticism in Israel, where Netanyahu seeks reelection March 17. His main challenger, Isaac Herzog, had demanded he cancel the speech.

Netanyahu also plans to speak Monday at the annual conference of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.

On Sunday, a group representing 200 former Israeli security officials came out against Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. The group said the rift with Washington can embolden Iran to acquire an atomic bomb faster, if it thinks Israel is isolated and less likely to attack its nuclear facilities.


‘‘When the Israeli prime minister argues that his speech will stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, he is not only misleading Israel — he is strengthening Iran,’’ Amnon Reshef, ex-head of the army’s armored corps, said Sunday.

Reshef is a founder of Commanders for Israel’s Security, an organization of 200 retired and reserve senior officers from the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad secret service, the Shin Bet domestic security agency, and the national police force.