Netanyahu speech divides Dems

Netanyahu speech divides Dems
© Greg Nash

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday delivered a blistering rebuke of President Obama’s Iran strategy, warning in an address to Congress that the nuclear disarmament talks would “all but guarantee” a march to war.

The fiery takedown of one of Obama’s top foreign policy priorities split leading Democrats, with some hailing the speech as a thoughtful warning from America’s closest ally in the Middle East and others condemning it as an underhanded attack on the White House.

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More than 50 Democrats boycotted the speech to protest both Netanyahu’s censure of Obama’s policies and Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) decision to invite the prime minister without first consulting the White House or Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill. 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who attended the speech, issued a scathing statement afterward.

“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 [negotiating] nations, and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation,” Pelosi said.

That view wasn’t shared by other top Democrats, who praised Netanyahu’s message as both powerful and necessary amid a time of rising terrorist threats in the Middle East.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said it was “a very strong speech” in defense of Israel’s position.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, called it a “powerful, strong, factual, inspiring” address that “sent a very strong message to the entire world.”

And Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, said it was “a brilliant speech” that did “a very effective job” warning Congress of the risks surrounding Obama’s Iran negotiations.

“I was skeptical about the deal going in, I’m just as skeptical after the speech, and I think a significant number of my colleagues are where I am,” Rep. Israel said. “He changed minds. The question is: How many minds did he change?”

Joined by leaders in a handful of other Western nations, Obama has sought a diplomatic approach to dismantling Iran’s nuclear program in lieu of the tougher sanctions being pushed by Netanyahu and Republicans on Capitol Hill. The deadline for those negotiations is March 24, and Obama has urged Congress to hold off on any new sanctions legislation while administration officials try to finalize a deal.

In his 40-minute speech Tuesday, Netanyahu hammered that approach, arguing that Iran simply can’t be trusted to negotiate a nuclear deal faithfully. The result of a deal, he warned, would be a nuclear-armed Iran that would escalate tensions and leave the world facing “a countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare.”

“A deal that’s supposed to prevent nuclear proliferation would instead spark a nuclear arms race in the most dangerous part of the planet,” Netanyahu said. “It won’t be a farewell to arms; it will be a farewell to arms control.” 

Netanyahu received thundering applause and multiple standing ovations throughout the speech, and he was given a rock-star reception upon his entry to the chamber, with a crush of lawmakers moving in to shake his hand and wish him well.

Anticipation for the speech was so high, leadership offices said, that there was no way to accommodate the demand for tickets.

Obama — who has declined to meet with Netanyahu this month, citing Israel’s coming elections — was less enthusiastic, saying he had read the transcript of the speech and found “nothing new” in it.

“The prime minister appropriately pointed out that the bond between the United States of America is unbreakable, and on that point I thoroughly agree,” Obama said.

“But on the core issue, which is how do we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which would make it far more dangerous and would give it scope for even greater action in the region, the prime minister didn’t offer any viable alternatives.” 

A long list of liberal Democrats echoed that message on Tuesday, accusing Boehner and Netanyahu of using Congress as a vehicle for staging a high-profile attack on Obama to score political points in the U.S. and Israel alike.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) characterized the speech as “political theater worthy of an Oscar.”

“I believe the prime minister was successful in probably getting reelected,” Cohen said. “I’m sure this will play well in Israel.”

Other liberals piled on. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), noting that no pact with Iran has been reached, accused Netanyahu of “smacking down a straw-man deal that doesn’t exist.” 

And Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) accused Netanyahu of undermining the historically strong, bipartisan bond between the United States and Israel.

“The biggest long-term mistake … the prime minister made was embracing a Boehner-led effort while he snubbed, very directly, the president of the United States,” Welch said.