The White House made clear today that it’s accpetable for British Prime Minister David Cameron to lobby Congress against passing Iran sanctions legislation, but it’s not all right for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do so because he doesn’t agree with the administration’s position.
In the fallout of the latest administration fight with Israel, press secretary Josh Earnest today highlighted Cameron’s visit a week ago in which President Obama and his British counterpart tried to discourage congressional action.
“On Iran, we remain absolutely committed to ensuring that Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon,” Cameron said then. “The best way to achieve that now is to create the space for negotiations to succeed. We should not impose further sanctions now; that would be counterproductive and it could put at risk the valuable international unity that has been so crucial to our approach.”
Cameron told reporters that he was contacting a handful of unnamed senators on his Washington trip. “Not in any way as British prime minister to tell the American Senate what it should or shouldn’t do; that wouldn’t be right — but simply to make the point as a country that stands alongside America in these vital negotiations, that it’s the opinion of the United Kingdom that further sanctions or further threat of sanctions at this point won’t actually help to bring the talks to a successful conclusion and they could fracture the international unity that there’s been, which has been so valuable in presenting a united front to Iran,” he said.
Earnest was asked today about that lobbying versus the White House’s anger at Netanyahu’s forthcoming lobbying before a joint session of Congress.
“What we’d prefer is we’d prefer that the Israeli prime minister share the president’s view about our approach to resolving the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program,” Earnest replied. “He doesn’t share that view. We’ve done our best to try to persuade him that pursuing this diplomatic opening that has been created because of the forceful sanctions regime that’s been put in place is one that’s worth pursuing.”
“But time and time again, Prime Minister Netanyahu has indicated that he does not believe that that diplomatic opening is worth pursuing and we have a fundamental disagreement about that.”
He repeated the administration mantra that Obama will not meet with Netanyahu when he visits March 3 because of the proximity to Israeli elections.
But he also couldn’t name any policy that set a specific amount of buffer time between foreign elections and when the president will meet with an incumbent candidate.
For example, Obama visited Berlin three months before German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2013 re-election — and publicly sang the incumbent’s praises.
“I can’t give you a specific time period. I’m not sure that there’s, you know, a big difference between, you know, 28 days or 45 days or 90 days or whatever it is,” Earnest said.
“I think we could all probably — as reasonable observers of the political process — would conclude that having a meeting about two weeks before a national election might raise questions in some quarters about whether or not that was an attempt to interfere or try to influence the outcome of a democratically held election. That’s precisely what we’re trying to avoid. We want to avoid even the appearance of doing so.”
However, Secretary of State John Kerry is flying to Lagos, Nigeria, on Sunday ahead of the Feb. 14 election “to emphasize the importance of ensuring the upcoming elections are peaceful, non-violent, and credible.”
Kerry will meet with candidates President Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari. He won’t be meeting with the dozen other presidential candidates on the ballot.
“They’re entirely different scenarios in our view,” State Department press secretary Jen Psaki said. “…There’s a difference between hosting a meeting exclusively with one candidate in your own country and visiting a country and making clear to all candidates and all parties about the need to keep — reduce violence, about the need to see the electoral process through.”
On why he’s only picking two out of 14 presidential candidates for meetings? “He’s only going to be there a short period of time,” Psaki said. “But it’s not a situation where we’re hosting one candidate or another in our country, or he’s meeting to support one candidate or another.”
Back at the White House, Earnest also today claimed he misheard an important question.
A reporter asked, “Is it safe to say that he would welcome a change of Israeli prime minister?”
“In fact, we would, and that’s a case that we’ve made to him on many occasions, and that case has been made at a variety of levels,” Earnest replied.
Pressed further, he added, “I’m sorry. I thought you said welcome a new position taken by the Israeli prime minister.”