Rants and raves for Netanyahus congressional speech

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 Congress on 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 that caused 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, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “That is exactly what would happen if the deal currently being negotiated is accepted by Iran.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Congress on March 3. photo/jta-getty images-win mcnamee

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 in his address. “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention.”

Netanyahu praised Obama for his support of Israel, eliciting a rare standing ovation for the president from both sides of the aisle. It was clear, however, that Democrats in particular remained unhappy with the speech. At least 60 lawmakers, including one Republican, chose not to attend, 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. “Saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States … and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”

Netanyahu received multiple standing ovations. However, at the point in which he came out most forcefully against the deal currently being negotiated, most Democrats remained seated, with some clapping politely, while many Republicans stood, whooped and hollered.

Republicans said Netanyahu’s speech was a necessary tonic for talks 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 … this is a bad deal.”

Earlier in the week, there were reports that the Obama administration was worried that Netanyahu would reveal secrets that negotiators had shared with the Israelis. Netanyahu in his speech said the two main areas of the emerging agreement that concerned him were easily found in a Google search.

He said 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.

After Netanyahu spoke, an Obama administration official told CNN that he offered nothing new. “Literally, not one new idea, not one single concrete alternative; all rhetoric, no action,” the network quoted the official as saying.

Obama himself has said the fallout from the speech will not cause permanent damage. On Monday, the president told Reuters that he would meet Netanyahu again soon after Israel’s March 17 elections if Netanyahu is re-elected.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief