WASHINGTON — Seeking to lower tensions, Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. officials cast their dispute over Iran as a family squabble on Monday, even as the Israeli leader claimed President Barack Obama did not — and could not — fully understand his nation's vital security concerns.
"American leaders worry about the security of their country," Netanyahu said as he opened a controversial trip to Washington. "Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country."
Netanyahu's remarks to a friendly crowd at a pro-Israel lobby's annual conference amounted to a warm-up act for his address to Congress Tuesday, an appearance orchestrated by Obama's political opponents and aimed squarely at undermining the White House's high-stakes bid for a nuclear deal with Iran.
Netanyahu tried to paper over his personal differences with Obama, insisting he was not in Washington to "disrespect" the president and saying any reports of the demise of U.S.-Israel ties were "not only premature, they're just wrong."
The prime minister's remarks were bracketed by speeches from a pair of top Obama advisers: U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, whose address served as a preemptive rebuttal of Netanyahu's expected critique of the Iran negotiations Tuesday.
With Secretary of State John Kerry opening a new round of talks with Iran in Switzerland, Rice said the U.S. was seeking a deal that would cut off "every single pathway" Iran has to producing a nuclear weapon. She said Obama keeps all options on the table for blocking Tehran's pursuit of a bomb and declared that "a bad deal is worse than no deal."
Still, Rice warned against holding out for "unachievable" outcomes, such as getting Iran to fully end domestic enrichment.
"As desirable as that would be, it is neither realistic or achievable," she said. "If that is our goal, our partners will abandon us."
Netanyahu appeared to be reserving his most specific criticism of the negotiations for his remarks to lawmakers. But he said he had a "moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there is still time to avert them."
Negotiators are working to reach a framework agreement before an end-of-March deadline. U.S. officials have reported progress toward a prospective agreement that would freeze Iran's nuclear program for at least 10 years but allow the Iranians to slowly ramp up in later years
Obama spoke dismissively of Netanyahu's warnings about the risks of such a deal, saying the prime minister had previously contended Iran would not abide by an interim agreement signed in 2013 and would get $50 billion in sanctions relief, a figure the U.S. says is far too high.
"None of that has come true," Obama said in an interview with Reuters.
Obama views the prospect of a nuclear accord with Iran as a central component of his foreign policy legacy — as much as Netanyahu views blocking such a deal as a component of his own.
Netanyahu has been wary of Obama's diplomatic pursuits with Iran from the start, fearing the U.S. will leave Tehran on the cusp of being able to build a bomb. As the outlines of a deal have emerged and the deadline has drawn near, his criticism has become more forceful.
The prime minister has suggested the U.S. and its partners have "given up" on stopping Iran. In response, Kerry has said America's historic support of Israel suggests Washington deserves the benefit of the doubt.
While Obama and Netanyahu have never gotten along personally, the rift over Iran has sunk their relationship to a new low. The White House has criticized the prime minister's address to Congress as a breach of diplomatic protocol, and officials have publicly questioned his judgment on the merits of the Iran deal.
The U.S. has also stopped sharing some information about the nuclear talks with Israel because of worries that government officials have leaked selected details aimed at putting the emerging deal in a negative light. Some officials fear Netanyahu may make sensitive details public in his speech to Congress.
In veiled warnings to the prime minister, both Kerry and Rice said Monday that sensitive details of the negotiations should not be discussed publicly.
Obama has no plan to meet with Netanyahu this week, citing Israel's March 17 elections and longstanding U.S. policy to avoid appearing to play favorites in foreign voting.
Kerry and Netanyahu spoke by phone over the weekend, but it did not appear the prime minister would hold any in-person meetings with Obama officials. Vice President Joe Biden was traveling in Guatemala on a trip announced only after the Netanyahu address was revealed.
Netanyahu did plan to meet with a bipartisan group of senators after the congressional address, according to his published schedule.
As Senate president, Biden would have sat behind Netanyahu during his speech to Congress. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican senator, was expected to take Biden's place.
House Speaker John Boehner plans to present Netanyahu a bust of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a gift chosen because the two men will be the only foreign leaders to have addressed Congress three separate times.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Geneva and AP writers Bradley Klapper and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.