Netanyahu says U.S. must up the ante on Iran

March 3, 2015
In The News

With every seat plus standing room filled in the House chamber on Capitol Hill on March 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s highly anticipated and much-debated speech on a potential nuclear deal between the United States and Iran did not reveal new information about the deal’s content, nor did it indicate a clear path forward if the deal collapses.

Instead, Netanyahu used the opportunity to passionately clarify his position to the world’s most powerful legislative body: that the deal as it currently stands “paves Iran’s path to the bomb,” that it would threaten Israel’s survival and that the U.S. should let Iran “walk away” if Iran rejects a more restrictive proposal. 

And if a bad deal is signed that would put Iran within striking distance of nuclear weapons, Netanyahu issued a forceful declaration:

“I can promise you one more thing,” he said. “Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.” As most of the chamber stood and applauded loudly — save for a small minority of Democratic lawmakers who remained seated — Netanyahu added, “But I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel.”

Noting the Purim story and Esther’s exposure of the Persian viceroy Haman’s genocidal plot against Jews 2,500 years ago and citing the Nazi genocide 70 years ago, Netanyahu told Congress that even if Iran abides by the currently proposed deal, it could still be only “weeks away from having enough enriched uranium for an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons.”

“And this with full international legitimacy,” Netanyahu said, sounding incredulous. “That’s why this deal is so bad.”

Additionally, he added, by not forcing Iran to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure and allowing it to keep its break-out capacity — the time it takes to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon — at one year, Iran would have a clear path to becoming a nuclear power.

“Inspectors knew when North Korea broke to the bomb, but that didn’t stop anything,” he said. “North Korea turned off the cameras, kicked out the inspectors. Within a few years, it got the bomb.”

In the days leading up to the speech, news reports speculated that Netanyahu might reveal confidential details about the negotiations. Speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) the evening of March 2, National Security Advisor Susan Rice even said, “I’m not going to get into details about ongoing negotiations, nor should sensitive details of an ongoing negotiation be discussed in public.”

Netanyahu revealed nothing new, but instead solidified a position that puts him at odds with the Obama administration and a significant number of Democrats — the more than 50 representatives and senators who skipped the address and perhaps the dozens who remained seated when Netanyahu said, “It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.”

Although Netanyahu and AIPAC enjoy near-unanimous Republican support in their opposition to the potential agreement as it stands, any congressional action to change or scuttle a deal acceptable to the White House would require substantial Democratic support, enough to overcome a likely Obama veto over the two major bills currently working their way through committee: one that would automatically impose new sanctions on Iran if talks fail, and another that would give Congress the authority to approve or reject any agreement.

Netanyahu has not publically mentioned or endorsed either of these bills.

The prime minister’s speech goes down as by far his most important in a long and storied political career. Supporters of his decision to address a Republican-held Congress to oppose a signature foreign policy initiative of a Democratic White House argued that Netanyahu had few other choices.

Critics charged that Netanyahu is meddling in American affairs, taking House Speaker John Boehner’s bait in turning Israel into a partisan issue and using Congress to boost his own political fortunes two weeks before Israel’s elections.

Rice delivered a tense and daring speech to AIPAC, declaring to some of the nation’s most ardent Israel supporters that they seek an “unachievable ideal” in demanding an end to all Iranian enrichment. Her talk was followed by an impassioned address by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, in which he rebuked Rice without naming her and said that leaving Iran within one year’s striking distance of a bomb “is not a good deal.”

And March 3 on Capitol Hill, the divide among Democrats over Boehner’s and Netanyahu’s perceived politicization of U.S.-Israel relations was made apparent when dozens of seats usually reserved for Democratic lawmakers and guests were instead occupied by either diplomats or staffers on the House floor, and, in the gallery, were guests of Republican lawmakers and of the Democrats in attendance — including Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, and former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. 

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, and ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer — who reportedly worked with Boehner to plan Netanyahu’s Congressional speech — were seated just behind Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

In all, more than 1,100 guests, diplomats and lawmakers were crammed into the House, with the gallery sounding and feeling at times like an inspired cheering section for Netanyahu.

As Netanyahu entered the chamber around 11 a.m., accompanied by an escort of Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the entire chamber rose in an extended round of loud applause. 

And as he did in his March 2 address to AIPAC, Netanyahu said early in his address that he “deeply regret[s] that some perceive my being here as political.”

“That was never my intention,” he said. After expressing his gratitude to Obama for his military and intelligence cooperation with Israel in recent years, and to Congress for its decades of military assistance and bipartisan support, he delved into why he so fears an Iranian nuclear weapon.

“Iran took dozens of Americans hostage in Tehran, murdered hundreds of American soldiers — Marines — in Beirut, and was responsible for killing and maiming thousands of American servicemen and [service] women in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Netanyahu said, adding, of course, its leaders’ repeated calls for Israel’s annihilation.

Iran and ISIS, Netanyahu said, referring to the terrorist group also known as the Islamic State or ISIL, are “competing for the crown of militant Islam.”

“So when it comes to Iran and ISIS,” he said to an applauding chamber, “The enemy of your enemy is your enemy.” The difference, though, he continued, is that ISIS has “butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube, whereas Iran could soon be armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs.”

Shortly after Netanyahu’s address, Obama told reporters at the White House that Netanyahu “didn’t offer any viable alternatives” to the administration’s current strategy. Other Democrats offered a similar critique. 

“The speech itself added passion to what I think we all know, and that is that Iran cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and that the deal being negotiated in Switzerland is not a good deal,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said in an interview with the Journal. “What was not addressed was, well, if you don’t have a bad deal you’re still going to have a bad situation.”

The closest Netanyahu came to offering an alternative plan other than a critique of the current one was when he outlined the three things Iran must do before it can be treated like a “normal country.”

“First, stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East,” Netanyahu said. “Second, stop supporting terrorism around the world. And third, stop threatening to annihilate my country.” 

As Sherman pointed out, though, the current Iranian regime will not soon become an “asset” to the world and Netanyahu knows that, which is why the Israeli leader added the caveat, “If the world powers are not prepared to insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal is signed, at the very least they should insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal expires.”

Sherman, who spoke at AIPAC March 1 and was among the lawmakers who escorted Netanyahu into the House chamber, said the deal currently on the table “is not a good deal” and that he would support additional sanctions if either a bad agreement or no agreement is reached. He added, though, that whereas in previous months he may have supported a bill stipulating conditional sanctions, he would no longer vote for such a bill before the March 24 negotiating deadline, and that it would not enjoy a veto-proof majority.

“Netanyahu is more popular in the House and the Senate [than Obama], but not by 67 percent,” Sherman said.

Freshman Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) wrote via email in response to a list of questions, that he, too, would support “trigger sanctions” against Iran if the March 24 deadline passes without an acceptable nuclear agreement.

“Bad actors respond to threats of military action or sanctions,” Lieu wrote. “We need to continue to follow that course.”

Asked whether he wants Congress to have final review of any deal reached between the White House and Iran, he responded, “Congress has a clear role to play in any hypothetical agreement.”

“The U.S. cannot give Iran the permanent sanctions relief it wants without Congress voting to lift the sanctions regime,” Lieu said.

Whether Netanyahu’s controversial decision to address Congress will impact lawmakers’ positions on any possible deal will not be known for weeks or months, at the earliest. And whether it will be remembered as a turning point in U.S.-Israel relations or as a wrench for Israel’s bipartisan support in Congress is also a question.

Lieu said that although the speech was “politicized” by Boehner, the U.S.-Israel alliance isn’t in trouble. “ ‘Speech controversies’ will come and go as they always have,” he said.

Sherman said he believes Netanyahu would have been better off addressing Congress in April — after Israel’s elections and after the release of more details following the March 24 deadline — but that people can “stop arguing” about the circumstances surrounding the speech now that Netanyahu has given it.

“I think the timing would’ve been better in April for a number of reasons,” Sherman said. “That being said, that argument’s over. Don’t waste a lot of ink on whether the speech should have been in March or April.”