Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out a stellar argument on Tuesday on why a proposed agreement between world powers and Iran was “a bad deal” that would not stop Tehran from getting nuclear weapons, but would rather pave its way to getting lots of them and leave the Jewish State in grave peril.
In a dramatic address to the U.S. Congress at what he said was a “fateful” crossroads of history, Netanyahu openly sided with President Barack Obama’s Republican critics and sparked an immediate and furious reaction from the White House, as relations between Washington and Israel spun into their deepest chasm for many years.
“If the world powers are not prepared to insist that Iran change its behaviour before a deal is signed they should at the very least be prepared to insist that Iran changes its behaviour before the deal expires,” Netanyahu said. The terms under consideration a suspension of restrictions on Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities in as little as 10 years.
He added that while Israel and similarly minded Arab states might not like such a deal, “we could live with it”.
He added that the drop in oil prices put the United States and other countries in a stronger position to negotiate with Iran.
“Iran’s nuclear program can be rolled back well beyond the current proposal by insisting on a better deal and keeping up the pressure on a very vulnerable regime, especially given the recent collapse of the price of oil.”
“We have been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well this is a bad deal. It is a very bad deal. We are better off without it,” Netanyahu said, building a case that Iran was not just bent on developing nuclear weapons but was determined to “gobble” up defenseless countries in a wider play for dominance in the Middle East.
“We are being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That is just not true. The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal,” Netanyahu said to deafening cheers in the House of Representatives chamber, while issuing a firm warning that Israel would stand alone if necessary to defend the existence of the Jewish people.
The response from the White House was predictable and juvenile, speaking to reporters shortly after Netanyahu finished his remarks, Obama said there was “nothing new” in Netanyahu’s address.
“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,” Obama told reporters before meeting with Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
An Administration official said that despite Netanyahu’s tough rhetoric, the alternatives to seeking a deal with Iran were much worse and that military action or more stringent economic sanctions would not set its nuclear program back as far as an agreement that would keep it from taking the final steps towards an atomic arsenal for a decade.
“Without a deal, Iran will certainly advance its program, installing advanced centrifuges, fueling its plutonium reactor and reducing or eliminating its breakout timeline. That would leave us with the choice of accepting a nuclear-threshold Iran or taking military action,” the official said.
“Where is the alternative? Simply demanding that Iran completely capitulate is not a plan, nor would any country support us in that position. The prime minister offered us no concrete action plan.”
Netanyahu was not in Washington at the invitation of Obama but was asked to give the speech by Republican House Speaker John Boehner in a move that exposed the U.S.-Israel alliance to treacherous domestic partisan crossfire. The fact that he is facing a tough reelection vote in two weeks also fueled suspicion among administration officials that Netanyahu was using the grand stage of a speech to Congress for a political payoff.
His speech trapped many Democrats between their long-term staunch support from Israel and their own president, and appeared to be a painful experience.
Veteran Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California described Netanyahu’s speech as “powerful” but said he had failed to lay out a solution that Israel would find “agreeable.” But Feinstein also signaled disquiet with the administration’s plan for a deal with Iran to last 10 years, saying that 15 or 20 years would be a better timeframe. “One of the things that I’ve seen in my lifetime is time goes by very fast, and 10 years is not a very long time,” said Feinstein.
Netanyahu’s speech culminated a diplomatic storm triggered by his acceptance in January of a Republican invitation that bypassed the White House and Obama’s fellow Democrats, many of whom considered it an affront to the president.
Obama refused to meet Netanyahu, saying that doing so just ahead of Israel’s March 17 general election would be seen as interference. Aides to Obama said he would not be watching the speech, broadcast live on U.S. television.
Underscoring the partisan divide over Netanyahu’s address, House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said afterwards that as a friend of Israel, she was near tears during his speech, calling it “an insult to the intelligence of the United States.” She said she was “saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran.”
The Israel leader who is up for re-election in two weeks is fiercely opposed to the putative nuclear deal being hammered out by John Kerry, the Secretary of State, while Republicans want to impose new sanctions on Tehran.
His trenchant defense of his position in front of an audience of U.S. lawmakers, Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Laureate, but no members of the Obama administration will serve to increase tensions with the White House.