By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took his case against a nuclear accord with Iran directly to the U.S. public on Sunday, denouncing “a very bad deal” that he feared the Obama administration was pursuing.
Negotiators from world powers will resume talks with Iran in 10 days after failing late on Saturday to reach agreement on an initial proposal to ease international sanctions against Tehran in return for some restraints on its nuclear program.
Israel is skeptical of any move to reduce sanctions without first eliminating what it sees as a danger that Iran could build a nuclear weapon. Tehran denies pursuing any such ambition.
On CBS television’s Face the Nation on Sunday, Netanyahu said the proposed interim agreement, as “described to us by American sources”, would have allowed Iran to maintain its capability to enrich material for nuclear bombs.
A member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, Naftali Bennett, plans to travel to the United States this week, and is expected to voice Israel’s concerns to dozens of members of Congress, where support for Israel is traditionally strong.
In Jerusalem, Netanyahu urged hundreds of supporters attending an assembly of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, many of them from the United States, to help him avert what he called a “bad and dangerous deal” emerging with Iran.
“You are our partners, you are our brothers and sisters, and we are one big Jewish family. Like all families we have to face challenges together, that’s what families do,” Netanyahu said.
“Do you want that?” he asked the audience, referring to what he called a possibility that Iran could some day fire missiles tipped with nuclear warheads at the United States.
Many in the audience shouted back “no”.
“Well, do something about it, we are,” Netanyahu said.
“It is time now to speak up, all of us, all of us have to stand up now and be counted,” he said.
Talks between Iran and six world powers in Geneva failed to clinch the interim deal on Saturday after France hinted it came short of neutralizing the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb.
Supporters of the proposed accord say it would have been only a first step towards a more comprehensive agreement. Most sanctions would be left in place and any easing could be reversed if Iran did not continue to cooperate.
“Nobody has talked about getting rid of the current architecture of sanctions. The pressure will remain,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told NBC’s Meet the Press.
“We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid,” Kerry said. “I think we have a pretty strong sense of how to measure whether or not we are acting in the interests of our country and of the globe, and particularly of our allies like Israel and Gulf states and others in the region.”
Netanyahu’s relations with President Barack Obama have often been tense. An American-accented speaker of English, he has occasionally used U.S. media to make his case to the public.
Netanyahu told his cabinet he had spoken by telephone over the weekend with Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“I asked all the leaders, ‘What’s the rush?’,” Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday. “I requested they wait,” he said. “It is good that that was ultimately the decision.”
Netanyahu has long issued veiled threats that Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, could take unilateral military action against Iran.
He scoffed at assessments made by some security experts that Israel lacks the military capability to stop Iran’s nuclear drive on its own, and would risk international isolation if it tried to do so.
“They must know something I don’t know,” Netanyahu said. “We will always defend ourselves.”
U.S. officials said on Friday it was Obama who telephoned the Israeli leader in an apparent effort to calm his anger over a prospective interim deal.
On Sunday, Wendy Sherman, U.S. undersecretary for political affairs, arrived in Jerusalem for consultations with Israeli officials about the Geneva talks and Iran, a U.S. official said.
The West’s intensified engagement with Iran has also upset some Arab allies of the United States, including Saudi Arabia, and drawn concern in Congress, where some Republicans and Democrats have called for even tougher sanctions.
“There are many Arab leaders in the region who are saying this is a very bad deal for the region and for the world,” Netanyahu said on Sunday on CBS. “And you know when you have the Arabs and the Israelis speaking in one voice, it doesn’t happen very often, I think it’s worth paying attention to it.”
(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Alistair Lyon)