WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech, in the end, was about reminding Americans that the enemy of your enemy may still be your enemy.
He may have lost some friends in the process.
Netanyahu spoke before the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, March 3 following a six-week buildup that spurred questions about the propriety of an Israeli prime minister using Congress as a platform for his views two weeks before elections in his country and resulted in a rupture, for now, between the Obama and Netanyahu governments.
“To defeat ISIS and let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle and lose the war,” Netanyahu said during his 45-minute address, using an acronym referring to the so-called Islamic State, the terrorist group targeted by a U.S.-led coalition. “That is exactly what would happen if the deal currently being negotiated is accepted by Iran.”
Netanyahu spoke at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who in a breach of protocol did not consult the White House, congressional Democrats or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. No Obama administration officials attended the speech, and Vice President Joe Biden, who conventionally co-chairs such events with the House speaker, was out of the country.
“I know that my speech has been the subject of much controversy,” the Israeli leader said early in his address. “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention.”
Netanyahu praised President Barack Obama for his support of Israel, eliciting a rare standing ovation for the president from both sides of the aisle. (Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who is a patron both to Netanyahu and the Republican Party and was present, did not clap.)
It was clear, however, that there were those on the Democratic side who remained unhappy with the speech. At least 60 lawmakers, including one Republican, chose not to go, and applause was often perfunctory on the Democratic side.
When Netanyahu strode up the center aisle of the House of Representatives chamber, it was mostly Republicans who rushed to shake his hand. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and one of the most prominent Jews and outspoken Israel supporters in the party, studiously hung back. So did Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the minority leader in the House.
“As one who values the U.S.-Israel relationship, and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech,” Pelosi said afterward. “Sad-dened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5+1 nations and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”
The P5+1 is the acronym for the six major powers negotiating with Iran: the United States, Russia, China, Germany, France and Great Britain.
Netanyahu received multiple standing ovations. However, at the point in which he came out most forcefully against the deal being negotiated, most Democrats remained seated, with some clapping politely, while many Republicans stood, whooped and hollered.
“This is a bad deal, it’s a very bad deal, and we’re better off without it,” Netanyahu said.
Republicans said Netanyahu’s speech was a necessary tonic for talks that they say have been conducted without transparency.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear how dangerous the direction of these negotiations really is,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) said in a statement. “With two deadline extensions behind us, with the administration’s acquiescence to enrichment, and with a potential sunset clause of no more than 10 to 15 years in the agreement, we now know once and for all this is a bad deal.”
Earlier in the week, there were reports that the Obama administration was worried that Netanyahu would reveal secrets that its negotiators had shared with the Israelis. Netanyahu in his speech said that the two main areas of the emerging agreement that concerned him were easily found in a Google search.
He said that the two likely outcomes — allowing Iran a limited uranium enrichment capacity and letting the deal lapse after a period of at least 10 years — would leave Iran a nuclear threshold state. Netanyahu instead counseled a deal that would require Iran to moderate its behavior, ending its regional troublemaking and backing for terrorism, and its threats against Israel.
Obama administration officials have said that demanding the dismantling of Iran’s enrichment capacity would collapse the talks, in part because it is seen as unrealistic by some of the major powers now squeezing Iran with sanctions. Additionally, the administration has said that any deal must have a period of duration, and it has resisted attaching non-nuclear issues to the talks, including Iran’s behavior in the region.
On Monday night, speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Susan Rice, the U.S. national security advisor, confirmed reports that any deal would lapse after a set period. Rice said the term would be at least 10 years.
“I know that some question a deal of any duration,” she said, pre-empting whatever surprise Netanyahu may have reserved for his speech. “But it has always been clear that the pursuit of an agreement of indefinite duration would result in no agreement at all.”
A nuclear deal with Iran must include access to its nuclear facilities even after the expiry of restrictions “to provide the international community the assurance that it was not pursuing nuclear weapons,” Rice said.