NEW DELHI: United States President Barack Obama has reacted scathingly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Iran’s nuclear programme. In the speech, Netanyahu warned that a deal with Iran could "pave Iran's path to the bomb" rather than block it. We've been told that no deal is better than a bad deal," Netanyahu said. "Well this is a bad deal, a very bad deal, We're better off without it." Obama, in turn, criticised the speech for offering no viable alternative.

Netanyahu’s speech was controversial before it even happened, leading to a dip in Israel’s relations with the White House. The Israeli Prime Minister was invited by Republicans -- who agree with his opposition to the Iran deal -- angering the Democrats and prompting White House spokesperson, Josh Earnest, to warn against reducing US-Israeli ties to a party political issue. A day earlier, National security adviser Susan Rice denounced Netanyahu’s upcoming address as "destructive" to the relationship between the United States and Israel. "It's always been bipartisan. We need to keep it that way. We want it that way. I think Israel wants it that way. The American people want it that way. And when it becomes injected or infused with politics, that's a problem," Rice said.

Other senior leaders have also hit out at Netanyahu, with Secretary of State John Kerry questioning the Israeli PM’s judgement on the issue. “He [Netanyahu] may have a judgement that just may not be correct here,” Kerry told a congressional hearing. The Secretary of State reiterated that the negotiations were restricted to a civilian nuclear programme, telling senators, “the president has made clear - I can't state this more firmly - the policy is Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.” “Israel is safer today with the added time we have given and the stoppage of the advances in the nuclear program than they were before we got that agreement, which, by the way, the prime minister opposed,” Kerry said. “He was wrong.”

Kerry took another hit at Netanyahu when he said said the Israeli leader “was profoundly forward-leaning and outspoken about the importance of invading Iraq under George W Bush, and we all know what happened with that decision.”

Netanyahu’s address was arranged entirely by Republican congressional leaders without consulting the Democrats or the White House, just two weeks ahead of Israel’s elections. Several Democratic leaders, including Vice President, Joe Biden did not attend the speech -- leading to an unprecedented split in the usual stance of bipartisan support for Israel.

In fact, whether the Israeli Prime Minister and congressional leaders intended it or not, the speech has come to dominate the election campaign in Israel. Brushing off calls to cancel the speech, Netanyahu tweeted, “I am going to the United States not because I seek a confrontation with the President but to speak up for the very survival of my country.”

Critics however allege that the trip has more to do with Netanyahu’s own survival. The elections, scheduled for March, are being held two years ahead of schedule, with Netanyahu having fired two key cabinet ministers, the finance minister, Yair Lapid, leader of the large centrist Yesh Atid party, and the justice minister, Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Hatnuah party. Livni, along with running mate Isaac Herzog, now head the Labour Party that is offering stiff competition to Netanyahu and his Likud party.

Analysts believe that given the tight race, if Netanyahu is able to trump up national security as a key issue, he will in all probability return for a historic fourth term. Israelis generally agree with Netanyahu’s position on Iran, but there is a level of caution in reference to alienating the country’s closest ally -- the US. This dilemma was captured by the headline of a front-page column in Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, “You’re Right, But Don’t Go.”

Columnist Ben-Dror Yemini wrote, “Precisely because the Iranian threat is so important, precisely because you’re right, precisely because the things you would tell Congress are important — don’t go. Because doing this would hurt the very issue that is the reason for your trip.”

Israel’s contending Labour Party has been quick to criticize Netanyahu’s move, with Herzog telling the Washington Post, “When I am prime minister, you won’t see us involved” between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. “Let the American people decide. It is embarrassing, this debate.”

The debate itself is located in the context of Iran’s nuclear programme, with Iran and the P5 + 1 (i.e., the US, Russia, China, UK and France, plus Germany) seemingly reaching a compromise that may break the deadlock that has characterised negotiations for years.

The contention was over Tehran’s refusal to meet the P5’s demands for deep cuts in the number of centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium. Iran was resisting on the grounds that its nuclear programme is peaceful and geared toward generating electricity and producing radioisotopes to treat cancer patients, whereas the US-led bloc is concerned about Iran’s intentions to use the process for military/defence.

With the deadline for negotiations fast approaching, the compromise reportedly involved allowing Iran keep much of its uranium-enriching technology but reduce its potential to make nuclear weapons. President Obama, has in fact, said that he will veto a bipartisan bill that would impose additional sanctions on Iran, on grounds that it will undermine negotiations and risk setting up a military confrontation.