WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a supportive crowd Monday his visit to the United States was not to disrespect President Obama, who refuses to meet with him, but a mission of "a moral obligation" to protect Israel from real dangers "while there is time to avert them," referring to a proposed U.S. nuclear deal with Iran.
"Iran envelopes the entire world with its tentacles of terror," the prime minister told 16,000 delegates to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy conference. "This is what Iran is doing now without nuclear weapons. Imagine what Iran would do with nuclear weapons.
"And this same Iran vows to annihilate Israel," he warned. "If it develops nuclear weapons, it would have the means to achieve that goal. We must not let that happen."
Netanyahu is set to address Congress today absent at least 50 Democrats who are boycotting his speech and with President Obama promising not to listen to this "distraction" to U.S. negotiations with the radical Muslim government of Iran.
The Israeli leader's speech to American lawmakers is unprecedented because he is in the United States at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner and not the White House or State Department.
Still, Netanyahu tried to downplay tensions with the president, telling the AIPAC crowd differences about his giving remarks to Congress today are a "disagreement among family" and nothing more.
He also said the intent of his visit was not to "inject Israel into the American partisan debate."
"An important reason why our alliance has grown stronger decade after decade is that it has been championed by both parties and so it must remain," Netanyahu said.
"Both Democratic and Republican presidents have worked together with friends from both sides of the aisle in Congress to strengthen Israel and our alliance between our two countries, and working together, they have provided Israel with generous military assistance and missile defense spending."
The prime minister said the goal of his talks with U.S. lawmakers would be to make the United States aware of the dangers of rushing into any agreement with Iran that would give this enemy of Israel the building blocks for a nuclear weapon.
This description of the proposed remarks caused the president to issue a stern caution through his representatives, warning the prime minister not to reveal any shared intelligence details about U.S. negotiations with Iran.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said such a breach of trust would have serious consequences.
"The release of that information would betray the trust between our allies, and it certainly is inconsistent with the behavior of trusted allies," he said Monday.
Netanyahu pushed the idea, however, that the U.S. deal with the world's foremost state sponsor of terror is a threat to the security of Israel, and he pointed to other instances where Israel has had to go against the urgings of its allies to protect its survival.
He cited a series of incidents where the United States had expressed public disagreement with Israel's military strikes against its enemies – from the Six Day War in 1967 to the destruction of Iraq's Osarik nuclear reactor – to make the point his nation would not wait for threats to materialize before action is taken are over.
"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 said.
"For 2000 years, my people, the Jewish people, were stateless, defenseless – voiceless. We were utterly powerless against our enemies who swore to destroy us. We suffered relentless persecution and horrific attacks. We could never speak on our own behalf, and we could not defend ourselves. Well, no more. No more."
While Netanyahu said Israel was ready to defend itself he also emphasized they needed the United States as an ally "to defend our common civilization against common threats."
That common civilization, the prime minister said, is evident because the two countries share the same dreams. Both pray and hope for a better world and attempt to export values that unite people in democracy, such as liberty, justice, tolerance and compassion. He said Israel is upholding these common values even "as our region descends into medieval barbarism."
"As Assad drops bell bombs on his own people, Israeli doctors treat his victims in our hospitals right across the fence in the Golan Heights. As Christians in the Middle East are beheaded and their ancient communities are decimated, Israel's Christian community is growing and thriving, the only one such community in the Middle East," he said.
"As women in the region are repressed, enslaved, and raped," he continued, "women in Israel serve as chief justices, CEOs, fighter pilots, two women chief justices in a row. Well, not in a row, but in succession. That's pretty good. In a dark, and savage, and desperate Middle East, Israel is a beacon of humanity, of light, and of hope."
The president cited a "policy" of not allowing foreign leaders to speak in Congress within two weeks of an election in their home country for his not attending or even listening to Netanyahu's speech. Vice President Biden will absent because of a scheduled trip to Guatemala. The absence of other Democrats has been declared a protest.
The White House took the initiative March 1 to defend itself against criticism regarding its reaction to the Israeli leader's visit, issuing a statement citing "5 Things You Need to Know about the U.S.-Israel Relationship Under President Obama."
The statement read in part:
"Under President Obama's leadership, American engagement with Israel has grown and strengthened to an unprecedented degree. From meeting frequently with Israeli leaders to ensuring that Israel remains the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, the President is deeply committed to helping Israel maintain its strength and security."
The press release also said the president had opposed 18 resolutions at the United Nations that unfairly targeted Israel, increased economic and military aid to the country, and defended Israel's human rights record at the U.N.
Republican leaders have been critical of the administration's response to the prime minister's visit.
Presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told the Washington Post in late January the president was being "petulant" and "childish" over his refusal to attend the address by the Israeli prime minister. Another likely candidate in 2016, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, wrote in an op-ed at National Review that the president had been disrespectful to the prime minister.
"Lost amidst the petty squabbling in our nation's capital over protocol is the simple fact that the U.S.–Israel relationship is in crisis, perhaps the most serious crisis in our history. While implementing policy that rewards Israel's enemies, the Obama administration has been questioning the prime minister's motives and attempting to undermine his message," Walker wrote March 2.
In spite of the fact Secretary of State John Kerry will not meet with Netanyahu, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro attended Netanyahu's address to the AIPAC gathering. Netanyahu greeted the ambassador and other guests by bringing greetings from "Jerusalem, our eternal and undivided capital."
Gregory Tomlin is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.