Report

Netanyahu: ‘This Is a Bad Deal — a Very Bad Deal’

Israel's prime minister thrilled Republicans but angered Democrats by blasting the White House's Iran nuclear talks.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 03:  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) is greeted by members of Congress as he arrives to speak during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. At the risk of further straining the relationship between Israel and the Obama Administration, Netanyahu warned members of Congress against what he considers an ill-advised nuclear deal with Iran.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 03: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) is greeted by members of Congress as he arrives to speak during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. At the risk of further straining the relationship between Israel and the Obama Administration, Netanyahu warned members of Congress against what he considers an ill-advised nuclear deal with Iran. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In his highly anticipated — and highly controversial — speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, March 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dazzled Republican members of Congress but angered many Democrats as he railed against a potential White House deal aimed at blocking Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

In his remarks, Netanyahu sought to depict Iran as a historical menace to the state of Israel and cited its support for Israel’s adversaries in Gaza, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. He also noted Iranian-directed attacks on Americans, including those against U.S. Marines in Beirut and service members in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Israeli leader, claiming that the agreement under consideration wouldn’t require Iran to dismantle any of its nuclear facilities and would expire in a decade, said a deal “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

The pep rally environment — Netanyahu received 26 standing ovations — provided a PR win for House Speaker John Boehner, who for weeks rebutted accusations that his secret invitation to Netanyahu to address the body had “injected” partisan politics into the U.S.-Israel relationship. Although more than 50 Democrats boycotted the speech, there were no empty seats on the House floor as enthusiastic nonmembers of Congress filled the vacancies.

The raucous applause put wavering congressional Democrats in the awkward position of having to choose between their president and the leader of a foreign country. Democrats largely tolerated and clapped politely as Netanyahu ticked off a series of platitudes about the U.S.-Israel relationship, but large blocks of liberals refused to stand and applaud as Netanyahu more directly criticized President Barack Obama’s handling of the talks between Iran and the coalition of world powers known as the P5+1.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pointed at Netanyahu and appeared to be visibly perturbed during multiple moments in the speech. As Netanyahu directly criticized the work of U.S. negotiators, Democrats such as Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee; Ron Wyden, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee; Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee; and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the Democratic National Committee, remained quietly seated as Republicans jumped to their feet and cheered.

Following the speech, a number of Democrats voiced their displeasure over Netanyahu’s “condescending” tone about Iran’s widely known track record of support for terrorism.

“This speech was straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said at a Democratic press conference. “This was fear-mongering at its ultimate.… Essentially saying nuclear war is inevitable if this deal were to be accepted.”*

Another Democrat, Rep. Jared Huffman of California, accused Netanyahu of trying to drag the United States into war. “This is a prime minister who’s never seen a war he didn’t want our country to fight,” Huffman said.

Although the friction was clear, Netanyahu sought to downplay accusations that he had sided with Republicans in a partisan dispute with Obama. The prime minister instead spent the opening of his speech offering detailed praise for the president’s military and political support of his country.

“I know that my speech has been the subject of much controversy,” Netanyahu said. “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention.”

For its part, the White House — which declined to meet with Netanyahu during his time in Washington — chose not to send any senior officials to the speech and made clear that Obama himself hadn’t watched it. After Netanyahu finished talking, Obama said the Israeli leader had failed to outline a viable strategy for restraining Iran’s nuclear program in the absence of a deal. “The alternative that the prime minister offers is no deal, in which case Iran will immediately begin once again pursuing its nuclear program,” he said.

Notably, Netanyahu did not outline an alternative plan to the negotiations, but merely reiterated his demand that any deal last longer than 10 years and stressed that the punishing economic sanctions should be kept in place until there is clear evidence of Iran’s adherence to the deal.

On Monday, White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice said that a deal that would permanently prohibit Iran from enriching uranium on its soil is “unrealistic” and does not have the support of the United Nations Security Council. “If that is our goal, our partners will abandon us, undermining the sanctions we have imposed so effectively together. Simply put, that is not a viable negotiating position,” she said.

Rice also said that Iran already has scientists with so much nuclear knowledge that it would effectively be impossible to put the genie back into the bottle regardless of whether a deal were struck. Netanyahu tried to specifically rebut her claims.

“Nuclear know-how without nuclear infrastructure doesn’t get you very much,” he said. “A race car driver without a car can’t drive. A pilot without a plane can’t fly. Without thousands of centrifuges, tons of enriched uranium or heavy water facilities, Iran can’t make nuclear weapons.”

On Monday, Obama tried to put to rest fears that the P5+1 seeks to secure a “bad deal” for Israel, saying the goal is to ensure that “there’s at least a year between us seeing them try to get a nuclear weapon and them actually being able to obtain one.” The so-called “breakout time” would be ensured through an invasive inspection regime, but Netanyahu said Tuesday that Israel believes Iran would be able to build a bomb more quickly than America believes. The Israeli prime minister didn’t provide any evidence to explain the difference.

Visitors in attendance included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, former senators Norm Coleman and Joe Lieberman, and Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

Photo credit: Getty Images

*Correction, March 3, 2015: This article originally misspelled Rep. John Yarmuth’s last name as “Yarmoth.” It also originally reversed the order of two sentences it quoted him as saying. The article has been corrected with the correct order of “This was fear-mongering at its ultimate.… Essentially saying nuclear war is inevitable if this deal were to be accepted.” (Return to reading.)

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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