WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John Kerry stepped into contentious territory on Wednesday when he made a critical remark about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judgement record on U.S. foreign policy.
The comments came while Kerry was testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Committee member Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) pointed to Netanyahu’s upcoming address to the U.S. Congress as evidence of the weakness of the deal being negotiated between Iran, the United States and five other world powers over Iran's nuclear program.
“The Prime Minister was also profoundly forward-leaning and very outspoken about the importance of invading Iraq and George W. Bush,” the secretary of state shot back, referring to Netanyahu.
Sixth months before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Netanyahu, who previously served as Israel's prime minister from 1996 to 1999, was invited to testify before the House to offer an Israeli perspective on the advisability of toppling Saddam Hussein. "If you take out Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region," Netanyahu said at the time. "The task and the great opportunity and challenge is not merely to effect the ouster of the regime, but also to transform that society and thereby begin the process of democratizing the Arab world."
Kerry, who voted for the Iraq war while serving in the Senate, added on Wednesday that Netanyahu had been "extremely outspoken about how bad the interim agreement was, calling it the ‘deal of the century for Iran.’”
The secretary of state's comments were a reference to the temporary deal with Iran that the U.S. and its negotiating partners reached in November 2013. The deal has been extended twice as diplomats attempt to reach a permanent agreement.
"Israel is safer today with the added time we have given and the stoppage of the advances in the nuclear program than they were before we got that agreement, which, by the way, the prime minister opposed," Kerry continued. "He was wrong."
Kerry's comments are yet another indication of the deepening rift between Netanyahu and the Obama administration. In what White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has described as a breach of typical protocol, last month Netanyahu accepted an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to speak before Congress, without first notifying the White House. Netanyahu’s address will take place March 3, two weeks before the Israeli elections, and will focus on the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu said, "This agreement, if indeed it is signed, will allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state. That is, with the consent of the major powers, Iran –- which openly declares its intention to destroy the state of Israel –- will receive a license to develop the production of bombs."
He added, "It is my obligation as Prime Minister to do everything that I can to prevent this agreement; therefore, I will go to Washington to address the American Congress because the American Congress is likely to be the final brake before the agreement between the major powers and Iran."
The Obama administration has continually clashed with Congress, particularly congressional Republicans, over Iran policy. Members of Congress have called for additional sanctions on Iran, while President Barack Obama has threatened to veto further punitive measures. But even some of those who are skeptical of the negotiating efforts were offended by Netanyahu and Boehner’s defiance of the president. A growing list of lawmakers has joined Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in boycotting Netanyahu's address.
On Wednesday, Kerry warned lawmakers against judging an agreement that has not yet been reached. His entreaty was largely ignored by some members of the committee, including Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who told the secretary that it is a matter of “when,” not “if” Iran cheats on its obligations under any nuclear deal that is agreed to.
Sires urged Kerry to recall his days as a senator and to understand that it is difficult for Congress to quietly wait to be handed what he called a “fait accompli” on Iran’s nuclear program.
In an effort to give Congress more input about a final agreement, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has introduced a bill that gives Obama three days to submit the text of any negotiated deal to Congress for a 15-day review period. If Congress doesn’t approve of the agreement, the bill calls for the reimposition of any sanctions on Iran that have been lifted.
Although the subject of Wednesday's committee hearing was the State Department budget, Kerry ended up fielding more questions about the nuclear negotiations with Iran, as was the case with his testimony Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
This story has been updated to include further context about Netanyahu's support for the 2003 Iraq invasion.