WASHINGTON – White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, questioned about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial trip to Washington, said Monday the Israeli-U.S. relationship cannot be reduced to a battle between “political parties.”
Earnest fielded questions about Netanyahu’s speech Monday morning to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group. Earnest focused on America’s ongoing relationship with Israel, despite concerns that the prime minister’s Washington trip has created political tension between the two nations.
“The good news for Netanyahu is that in almost every situation, what’s good for the U.S. is good for Israel,” Earnest said.
Netanyahu, who was invited by Republican House Speaker John Boehner, is slated to speak to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. Democratic President Barack Obama, who was not advised of the Netanyahu visit by Boehner, will not meet with the prime minister while he is in Washington, citing a desire to avoid interfering in upcoming Israeli elections.
One of the hottest issues addressed by Netanyahu Monday was the state of negotiations between the U.S. and Israel’s long-time enemy Iran over that country’s budding nuclear program. Netanyahu told AIPAC that he had a “moral obligation” to warn the U.S. about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In Congress Tuesday, the prime minister is expected to call on lawmakers to pass additional sanctions against Iran. He has argued that Iran has acted in bad faith in negotiations with the U.S., continuing to covertly develop its nuclear capabilities.
Addressing the possibility of stiffer sanctions, Earnest was adamant that they would jeopardize negotiations.
“We can’t put in place an additional hurdle for that agreement to overcome at the 11th hour,” he said.
In exchange for agreeing to stringent regulations preventing them from developing weapons-grade nuclear material, Iran hopes to have many of the economic sanctions passed by the U.S. and its allies lifted. The sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy, limiting the country from exporting oil, its biggest source of revenue.
While the press secretary said that there “has been progress” in ongoing negotiations with Iran, he noted that the ultimate outcome is still unclear, with an “only at best 50-50” chance of success. With a deadline set for the end of the month to complete a framework agreement, Earnest placed the prospect for success on the shoulders of Iranian leadership.
“All of this comes down to the likelihood of Iran’s political leadership signing off on the deal,” he said. “That’s the biggest X factor that remains here.”
Despite apparent policy contradictions, Earnest stressed that U.S. and Israeli interests overlap. He said that Obama’s negotiation policy “is consistent” with a desire to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and that the current sanctions and negotiations are weakening Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
The administration’s strategy “is clearly in the best interests of the United States, [and] it’s clearly in the best interests of Israel,” he said. “It’s why we would encourage people to not criticize these agreements before they’re even in place.”
The press secretary also dealt with the threatened Department of Homeland Security shutdown due to a budget stalemate.
A partial shutdown was averted on Friday evening as Obama signed a one-week funding extension. Earnest said the president was “disappointed” in the stopgap measure. He called on the Republican House leadership to pass a funding extension through September, as approved in the Senate.
“When an initiative like that that has strong bipartisan support that’s critical to the homeland security of America, it reflects failed leadership when it isn’t put to a vote among the House of Representatives,” he said.