WASHINGTON — A top adviser to President Barack Obama sharply criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plans to address Congress next week, calling the move "destructive" to the ties between the U.S. and Israel.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Netanyahu's March 3 speech, which was arranged by Republican congressional leaders, has "injected a degree of partisanship" into a relationship that should be above politics.
"It's destructive to the fabric of the relationship," Rice told the Charlie Rose show Tuesday. "It's always been bipartisan. We need to keep it that way."
Rice's statements were among the Obama administration's toughest public criticism of Netanyahu's speech and the negative impact it could have on the close alliances between the U.S. and Israel. The Israeli leader's speech was arranged without the White House or State Department's knowledge, a move the administration blasted as a breach of diplomatic protocol.
Rice's comments came as Netanyahu turned down an invitation to meet privately with Senate Democrats during his trip to Washington, saying such a session could "compound the misperception of partisanship" surrounding his visit.
"I regret that the invitation to address the special joint session of Congress has been perceived by some to be political or partisan," Netanyahu wrote in a letter to Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "I can assure you that my sole intention in accepting it was to voice Israel's grave concerns about a potential nuclear agreement with Iran that could threaten the survival of my country."
U.S. officials believe Netanyahu's trip is aimed primarily at derailing a nuclear deal with Iran, Obama's signature foreign policy objective. While Netanyahu has long been skeptical of the negotiations, his opposition has increased over what he sees as Obama's willingness to make concessions that would leave Iran on the brink of being able to build a nuclear weapon.
U.S. and Iranian officials reported progress in negotiations this week on a deal that would clamp down on Tehran's nuclear activities for at least 10 years but then slowly ease restrictions. Israeli officials warned this week that such a deal would allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state.
The U.S. and its negotiating partners — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — reached an interim agreement with Iran in late 2013 that froze key parts of the Islamic republic's nuclear program in exchange for some relief from Western sanctions. U.S. officials argue that even the interim agreement has slowed Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
"Israel is safer today with the added time we have given and the stoppage of the advances in the Iranian nuclear program than they were before we got that agreement, which by the way the prime minister opposed," Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday, referring to Netanyahu. "He was wrong."
The White House has been weighing ways to counter Netanyahu's address to Congress, as well as separate speech to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The administration is still weighing whom to send to the conference, with some officials pushing for a lower level representative than normal.
There are no plans for Obama to meet with Netanyahu next week, with the White House officially citing its practice of not engaging with world leaders in close proximity to elections. Israel's elections are set for March 17.
Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry will be traveling abroad on trips that were only announced after Netanyahu accepted lawmakers' invitation to speak to Congress.
More than a half-dozen House and Senate Democrats have said they will skip the speech, calling it an affront to Obama and the administration as they engage in high-level negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
Durbin, the Illinois senator, said in a statement that he regretted that Netanyahu could not meet with the Democrats.
"We offered the prime minister an opportunity to balance the politically divisive invitation from Speaker (John) Boehner with a private meeting with Democrats who are committed to keeping the bipartisan support of Israel strong," Durbin said. "His refusal to meet is disappointing to those of us who have stood by Israel for decades."
Netanyahu's office declined to comment Wednesday on the invitation from Senate Democrats.
AP writers Donna Cassata and Matthew Lee in Washington and Aron Heller in Jerusalem contributed to this report. Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC