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Obama: Nothing New in Netanyahu Speech


President Barack Obama speaks at the White House about Iran and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress, March 3, 2015.
President Barack Obama speaks at the White House about Iran and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress, March 3, 2015.

President Barack Obama was critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech Tuesday before the U.S. Congress, saying the Israeli leader offered no new alternatives on dealing with Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

Obama told reporters in the Oval Office he did not watch the speech but did see a transcript. “As far as I can tell, there was nothing new,” said the president, who was taking part in a videoconference with European leaders on Ukraine and other issues as the Israeli leader was speaking.

Obama said he agreed with Netanyahu when the prime minister described the U.S.-Israel relationship as unbreakable, and when he called Iran a dangerous regime. But he rejected Netanyahu’s criticism of negotiations on a nuclear deal with Tehran.

“On the core issue, which is how do we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which would make it far more dangerous and would give it scope for even greater action in the region, the prime minister didn't offer any viable alternatives,” the president said.

Defending the U.S.-led efforts to broker a nuclear deal with Iran, Obama said an agreement would be the best way to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons that it would use to threaten Israel.

The president’s criticism of Netanyahu’s speech was consistent with the displeasure that White House officials have expressed over House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to invite Netanyahu without first consulting the administration.

White House officials said the invitation and speech were a breach of protocol. At a regular briefing Tuesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the speech had “theatrical” elements, referring to some members of Congress who were seen talking and laughing during the speech.

Obama planned no meetings with Netanyahu during the Israeli leader’s Washington visit.

In a further sign of disapproval, Obama sent Vice President Joe Biden on a trip to Central America, meaning the vice president was not sitting at his usual place behind the podium on speeches, as is the norm when foreign dignitaries address the Congress.

Meanwhile, State Department officials say the Israeli leader's speech also took comments about Iran made by Secretary of State John Kerry out of context.

"He (Netanyahu) claimed Secretary of State John Kerry 'confirmed last week that Iran could legitimately possess' 190,000 centrifuges enriching uranium by the end of a long-term nuclear agreement that the U.S. is negotiating with Iran. That, Netanyahu warned, could put Iran 'weeks away' from an arsenal of nuclear weapons,” a statement issued by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "But that’s not what Kerry said."

The statement stressed that "Kerry wasn’t saying that “Iran could legitimately possess” 190,000 centrifuges. He was saying that “a civilian power plant that’s producing power legitimately” could have 190,000 or more centrifuges.

VOA State Department Correspondent Pam Dockins contributed to this report from Switzerland.