After much anticipation and controversy, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint session of US Congress today.
Obama says “nothing new” in Netanyahu speech
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday to the US Congress drew mixed reactions from American officials. The White House and State Department strongly criticized the speech, with members of Congress being divided.
President Barack Obama downplayed the importance of the address, which he described as “nothing new” and similar to a previous speech at the time of the interim agreement with Iran, which led to the lightening of sanctions last year. He criticized Netanyahu for not offering “viable alternatives.”
State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki accused Netanyahu of twisting Secretary of State John Kerry’s words when he objected to a statement made by Kerry that Iran could use 190,000 centrifuges for an entirely peaceful nuclear power program.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi found the speech to be offensive. “As one who values the US-Israel relationship and loves Israel, 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,” she said.
The contenders for Republican candidate for the next presidential election all issued statements in favor of Netanyahu’s address. Gov. Jeb Bush described it as “powerful” on Twitter and Facebook, saying he was “glad he addressed Congress & detailed the dangers of a nuclear Iran.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal was more emphatic, writing, “The worst legacy of Obama & Hillary Clinton is the intentional damage they caused to our relationship with Israel and the coddling of Iran.”
Among members of Congress, feelings were mixed. New York Senator Charles Schumer, who had criticized Rep. John Boehner’s handling of the invitation, strongly approved of Netanyahu’s remarks, which he described as, “powerful, particularly the recitation of Iran’s perpetration of continued acts of terrorism.” His remarks were echoed by co-Senator Kirstin Gillibrand, who said, “I have always believed that the best solution is a strong and verifiable diplomatic deal, but whether any deal is truly verifiable and achievable is a serious question that needs to be answered.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, however, disagreed with the prime minister’s remarks. “We all share the primary goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. That is in the best interest of the United States, Israel and the global community. Where I differ from Prime Minister Netanyahu is how best to actually accomplish that. If we abandon negotiations due to unrealistic expectations, then we will undoubtedly lose IAEA inspections. That would encourage Iran to resume development and would result in a very high likelihood of direct military conflict,” he said.
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who skipped the speech, openly accused Netanyahu of using the speech to score political points in the upcoming Israeli election. He wrote on Twitter, “The Floor of the House shouldn’t be used as a tool to re-elect a foreign leader.”
Netanyahu speech greeted with 26 standing ovations
With a slightly more serious tone than his two previous speeches to a joint session of Congress, Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed what he termed the current “bad deal” being negotiated between the P5+1 and Iran. He used the upcoming holiday of Purim, when Jews in Persia faced annihilation some 2,500 years ago, as a backdrop to today’s threats by Iran to annihilate Israel.
In his speech, he touched on a few major points. He started off by thanking the American people and American presidents. “We appreciate all that President Obama has done for Israel. Now some of that is widely known… Some of what the president has done for Israel is less well-known… Some of what the president has done for Israel might never be known. But I know it. And I will always be grateful to President Obama for that support.”
Iran as a Regional Destabilizer
Netanyahu noted that a nuclear deal did not change the fact that Iran is a destructive power in the region. “Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam,” he said, noting that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is compelled by the constitution to export the Islamic Revolution throughout the world and that Iran already controls Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. “To defeat ISIS and to let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle, but to lose the war. We cannot let that happen.”
Problems with Current Deal
Netanyahu expressed two objections to the current nuclear deal. The first is that it “would leave Iran with a massive nuclear infrastructure,” he said, “because Iran’s nuclear program would be left largely intact, the breakout time would be very short; about a year by US assessment, even shorter by Israel’s.”
The second objection was that the deal expires in 10 years. Iran has openly stated that it would like to have 190,000 centrifuges to ostensibly produce fuel for power plants. According to Netanyahu, once sanctions against Iran are lifted, “Iran would then be free to build a huge nuclear capacity.” If Iran decided to go nuclear, “Iran could make the fuel for an entire nuclear arsenal, and this in a matter of weeks.”
Instead, Netanyahu suggested that the restriction of sanctions also be tied to three demands: “First, stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East; second, stop supporting terrorism around the world; and third, stop threatening to annihilate my country, Israel, the one and only Jewish state.”
Better to Wait for a Better Deal
Netanyahu told Congress not to be afraid to walk away from a bad deal. “They need the deal a lot more than you do, and by maintaining the pressure on Iran and on those who do business with Iran, you have the power to make them need it even more.
“My friends, for over a year, we’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well, this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.
“Now we’re being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That’s just not true. “The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal.”
Israel Does Not Stand Alone
Netanyahu noted that if America does not act, Israel can still defend itself. “The days when the Jewish people remain passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over,” he said. However, “ I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel. I know that you stand with Israel.”
Watch the Speech Here:
Netanyahu Speech to Congress: Background
In a long anticipated speech, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the US Congress on Tuesday, March 3.
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) invited the prime minister in January to speak to Congress about the Iran nuclear threat in February. The invite quickly turned into a huge controversy when the White House expressed anger over not being informed of the invite. The administration decided to inform the Prime Minister’s Office that President Obama would not meet with the prime minister during his visit to Washington because Israeli elections would be only two weeks away and Obama did not want to be seen by the Israeli public as interfering.
To deflect what was perceived as a head-on fight with the White House, Netanyahu requested to move his speech to coincide with the AIPAC conference so that he would not be seen as disrespecting Obama by flying to Washington specifically to address Congress.
Vice President Joe Biden decided to skip town so as not to have to attend Netanyahu’s speech. According to The Hill, “while Biden has cited a scheduling conflict, other Democrats are staying away from the speech to protest what they see as an attack on President Obama.”
“Democrats face a difficult decision on whether to attend the address. Many will want to show support for the White House but will be wary of snubbing the leader of an important US ally.”
Strong US-Israel Alliance
In his address to the annual AIPAC conference on Monday, March 2, Netanyahu took care to emphasize the continuing and strong alliance between the US and Israel.
“Despite occasional disagreements the friendship between America and Israel grew stronger and stronger, decade after decade, and our friendship will weather the current disagreement as well to grow even stronger in the future,” he declared.
“And I’ll tell you why – because we share the same dreams. Because we pray, hope and aspire for a better world.” As the Middle East “descends into medieval barbarism, Israel is the one that maintains these values common to us and to you,” Netanyahu asserted. He stressed that his Congressional speech, which was opposed by the Obama administration, was “not meant to show any disrespect for President Obama or for the office that he holds, I have great respect for both.”
Neither does he want to make support for Israel into a partisan issue, he said. “And I regret that some people have misperceived my visit here this week as doing that. Israel has always been a bipartisan issue. Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue.”
Pointing to Iran’s support for terrorist organizations and its stated goal to destroy the Jewish state, he asked the crowd to “imagine what Iran will do with nuclear weapons.”
“If it develops nuclear weapons, it would have the means to achieve that goal. We must not let that happen. And as prime minister of Israel, I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there’s still time to avert them.”