The long-term impact on U.S. policy of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress today is unclear, but its short-term effect on his relationship with congressional Democrats and the White House was obvious almost immediately. The already rocky rapport only got worse.
Though Netanyahu began the speech by testifying to President Obama’s support for Israel, the bulk of his remarks constituted an implicit rebuke to the administration, whose negotiating position the Israeli leader characterized as naïve at best.
The U.S. and other world powers, including Russia and Germany, have been trying to negotiate an agreement with Tehran that would involve lifting some of the economic sanctions hobbling Iran’s economy in exchange for modifications to the country’s ongoing nuclear program designed to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu presented his case that the deal is a “very bad” one, both for Israel and the U.S. Netanyahu criticized the emerging deal as a dangerous one that “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”
President Obama rather pointedly scheduled a teleconference with other world leaders on the topic of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine at the same time as Netanyahu’s speech. However, he told reporters afterward that he had looked at the transcript.
“On the core issue, which is how do we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which would make it far more dangerous and give it scope for even greater action in the region, the prime minister didn’t offer any viable alternatives,” Obama said, according to a White House pool report.
“Keep in mind that when we came to the interim deal, Prime Minister Netanyahu made almost the precise same speech about how dangerous that deal was going to be,” he added. “And yet over a year later, even Israeli intelligence officers and some members of the Israeli government have acknowledged that in fact it has kept Iran from further pursuing a nuclear program.”
“I have repeatedly said that I would rather have no deal than a bad deal, but if we are successful in negotiating, then in fact this will be the best deal possible to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. “Nothing else comes close. Sanctions won’t do it. Military action would not be as successful as the deal that we have put forward.”
An anonymous senior White House official told CNN right after Netanyahu’s speech that it contained “literally not one new idea, not one single concrete alternative. All rhetoric, no action.”
That the White House would not be pleased with Netanyahu’s speech was predictable, and changes little about the current debate over how to proceed with Iran. But the reaction in Congress will go a long way toward determining how much room the administration has to finalize a framework for the deal. Negotiators are working to pull together that framework by the end of the month, but Congress is also considering passing new sanctions against Iran – something the administration has discouraged out of concern that it would scuttle negotiations.
“This was a speech the American people needed to hear, plain and simple,” said House Speaker John Boehner in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. “It addressed the gravity of the threats we face and why we cannot allow a nuclear Iran, or any semblance of a path to a nuclear Iran. It demonstrated why there is such deep-seated — and bipartisan — concern about the deal that is being made.”
Boehner also offered personal praise for the Israeli prime minister, who is facing a close election in two weeks.
“Let me take this moment to personally thank Benjamin Netanyahu,” Boehner said. “With his presence here, he demonstrated that politics can never come before our commitment to do what’s right for our future. And he again revealed himself to be a leader of principle and deep conviction. It all speaks not only to the kind of leader he is, but to the bonds between America and Israel — bonds that will, with work and sacrifice, long outlast us.”
“Congress should pass additional sanctions on Iran as soon as possible, and it should also ensure that any deal is submitted to Congress for a formal review,” he said. “I will continue working to increase pressure on Iran to ensure that the regime does not acquire nuclear weapons. We must not trade away U.S. and Israeli security for vague commitments from a terrorist-sponsoring regime that has killed Americans and threatens to annihilate Israel.”
But while Republicans embraced the Israeli prime minister’s message, congressional Democrats had a very different response. More than 50 Democratic members of Congress flatly refused to attend the speech, which they saw as insulting to the president.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a staunch supporter of Israel, was noticeably agitated during the speech, and released a statement afterward that said, in part, “I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech – saddened 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.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, also a long-time supporter of Israel, criticized Netanyahu for tearing into the current proposal without laying out details about his alternative path: “What he didn’t say is what would happen if there was no deal. And he didn’t make any suggestions about what Israel would find agreeable.”
After it became clear that his speech had become a partisan flashpoint in Washington, Netanyahu repeated multiple times that he did not mean for his appearance to create a partisan rift over Israel. On Monday, speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he said, “the last thing that I would want is for Israel to become a partisan issue.”
Judging by Tuesday’s Congressional reaction, though, that may be exactly what he did.
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