WASHINGTON – World powers must negotiate a better deal with Iran over its nuclear program than they have so far, or else risk prompting regional war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the US Congress on Tuesday.
Netanyahu’s third address to a joint meeting of the legislature laid bare dramatic gaps between his government and the Obama administration regarding Iran – gaps that have been public for months but that sharpened only in recent days as talks between world powers and Iran over a possible deal have intensified in Switzerland.
All parties agree that such a deal would be historic – but Netanyahu’s message to Congress was that a deal, in its current formation, would constitute a historic mistake.
The policy disagreement has resulted in what experts say is the greatest chasm between Washington and Jerusalem in decades.
Under Netanyahu’s premiership, Israel has sought to prevent Iran from acquiring any capacity to develop nuclear weapons. US President Barack Obama, alternatively, seeks to roll back and cap Iran’s nuclear program, preventing its acquisition of the weapons themselves.
“Ladies and gentlemen, history has placed us at a fateful crossroads,” Netanyahu told the chamber in his speech, which was attended by most members of the House and Senate but no representatives of the Obama administration.
“We must now choose between two paths. One path leads to a bad deal that will at best curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions for a while, but it will inexorably lead to a nuclear-armed Iran whose unbridled aggression will inevitably lead to war,” he said.
“The second path,” he continued, “however difficult, could lead to a much better deal that would prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, a nuclearized Middle East and the horrific consequences of both to all of humanity.”
The deal on the table, he said, “has two major concessions: one, leaving Iran with a vast nuclear program, and two, lifting the restrictions on that program in about a decade. That’s why this deal is so bad. It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”
The Obama administration’s response was fierce.
After suggesting since January that Netanyahu’s motivations for delivering the speech were political – that he had an eye on the March 17 elections – the White House pivoted to criticism of the premier himself.
“Where is the better alternative?” one senior administration official asked The Jerusalem Post
after the speech. “Simply demanding that Iran completely capitulate is not a plan, nor would any country support us in that position. The prime minister offered no concrete action plan.”
Another US official privately called the speech “antagonistic,” suggesting Netanyahu had spoken with campaigning in mind. And deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf called the speech “all rhetoric and nothing more.”
Obama himself criticized the speech, saying in response to reporters that “as far as I can tell, there was nothing new,” and that “the prime minister didn’t offer any viable alternatives.”
The speech essentially expanded on a series of arguments Netanyahu has expressed for nearly a year, in opposition to Obama’s negotiating position with Iran.
Iran’s decision to accept the current proposal put forth by the P5+1 – the US, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany – “all but guarantee[s] that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them.”
While his remarks did not reveal any previously undisclosed intelligence – White House officials had warned Netanyahu ahead of time against doing so – it provided him with a platform to address the administration’s criticisms of his policy.
Responding to the accusation that he had no counter-proposal to the current deal aside from war, Netanyahu said, “That’s just not true.”
He argued that “the alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal.”
A new element that Netanyahu introduced into the public debate was that any deal should be conditional on Iran’s behavior across a broad range of issues.
Before the world lifts restrictions and sanctions, he said, it should demand that Iran do three things: Stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East; stop supporting terrorism around the world; and “stop threatening to annihilate my country, Israel, the one and only Jewish state.”
“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,” he said.
Congressionally mandated nuclear- related sanctions are separate from sanctions related to Iran’s activities as a state sponsor of terrorism, as a violator of human rights, and in illicit trafficking. Sanctions separate from the nuclear issue have not changed throughout the diplomatic process, according to the Treasury Department.
“If Iran changes its behavior, the restrictions would be lifted. If Iran doesn’t change its behavior, the restrictions should not be lifted,” Netanyahu continued. “If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country.”
Regarding the claim that his trip was motivated by politics, Netanyahu expressed regret over the perception of electioneering, but not over the timing of the speech itself.
World powers hope to reach a political framework agreement with Iran by the end of March.
“The remarkable alliance between Israel and the United States has always been above politics,” he said. “It must always remain above politics.”
Netanyahu said that two major concessions in the negotiations were unacceptable to Israel: a sunset clause, which limits the deal to a finite period and normalizes Iran as a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and the decision to leave Iran with, as he said, a “vast nuclear infrastructure” that would not be significantly dismantled.
In one revelatory comment, Netanyahu said that “according to the deal, not a single nuclear facility would be demolished.”
Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Netanyahu’s speech challenged the Obama administration to address how the nuclear file on Iran could be extracted, entirely, from the issue of its export of terrorism.
“In an important aside, Netanyahu took issue with the working assumption of US nuclear negotiators that the deal on the table would provide a year warning before Iranian breakout,” Satloff said. “Instead, said Netanyahu, Israeli intelligence says it would produce less warning. Resolving that analytical issue could be a major hurdle for the Obama team.”
When Netanyahu called the current proposal a “very bad deal,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California), a close confidante of the president, literally threw up her hands, rolled her eyes and refused to stand. The former House speaker repeatedly looked around the chamber to see who stood for applause lines.
And many applause lines proved effective: In the 45-minute speech, Netanyahu was interrupted by applause 36 times, including 23 standing ovations.
Netanyahu – who noted early in his address that on Wednesday evening, Jews would be commemorating Purim, the holiday on which they were saved from a Persian despot – ended by mentioning the attendance of Nobel Peace Prize winner, Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel.
He said to Wiesel that although he could not guarantee that the world learned the lessons of history, he could guarantee that “the days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies – those days are over.”
The line received broad applause in a room generally warm to the Israeli leader, after talk of protesting the speech dominated media coverage in the weeks leading up to his visit.
Later in the speech, Netanyahu added that the Jewish people were no longer scattered among the nations or powerless to defend themselves.
“We restored our sovereignty to defend our ancient home,” he said.
“For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves,” he continued. “This is why, as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.”
He then added, “I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel.”
Following meetings with House and Senate leaders after his speech, Netanyahu said he was moved by the bipartisan support for tackling the major issue of our time.
Speaking with the Post
in the Capitol Rotunda after the speech, several current and former members of Congress used the word “powerful” to describe the address.
Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), though he was skeptical of Netanyahu’s visit, said the prime minister was a “very powerful speaker.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who criticized the prime minister as “arrogant” on Sunday, said she agreed a nuclear deal should last significantly longer than a decade.
“I’m concerned here about the zeal for a deal,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce, “the zeal that’s driving the deal, irrespective of what’s in the deal.”
“He made the case really almost as if he was a lawyer speaking to a jury,” said former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, calling it an “excellent, moving speech.”
Pelosi, meanwhile, released a statement saying she was “near tears throughout” the speech, “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5+1 nations.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League all praised the speech, calling for unity behind Netanyahu’s position.
“I think its going to consolidate Congress against a bad deal,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich said.
Nicholas Burns, former US undersecretary of state and ambassador to NATO, said in a phone interview that he was shocked at the "exceedingly unwise" and "unprecedented" hostility towards the president expressed in Netanyahu's address.
"I thought it was a brilliantly conceived speech. Very compelling," Burns said. "But you walk into the heart of our Capitol, right in the middle of a partisan division, and this is going to harm the US-Israel relationship. He tried to eviscerate the logic of the president and the secretary's policies on Iran."