Even as President Barack Obama was refuting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion before a joint session of Congress Tuesday that a better deal is possible to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, a leading House Democrat called for an end to the rancor between the two men.
“It is definitely time to move on,” Rep. Steve Israel (D-L.I.), a former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who was among the honor guard that escorted Netanyahu into the House chamber, told The Jewish Week.
“The problem started with the way the prime minister was invited, and the optics of the invitation supplanted the substance of a deal with Iran,” he said, referring to the invitation from Republican House Speaker John Boehner without White House knowledge.
“It’s time to get past the optics of the invitation and get back to bipartisan support for Israel and to focus on the deal with Iran. The irony is that on everything that matters — Iron Dome, and financing for Israel’s ballistic missile program, foreign assistance — the level has been the highest it can be.”
Israel said that both Obama and Netanyahu “need to go back to a calm and productive relationship,” and that “somebody should pick up the phone [and call the other]. … I was skeptical about a deal with Iran before the speech. He made a forceful speech that reinforces my skepticism towards the deal.”
The speech, which was boycotted by about 50 Democrats, served to highlight the essential difference between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government on the issue of the Iranian threat: Israel wants to eliminate the threat by compelling Iran to destroy its nuclear infrastructure, while the U.S. believes the best deal possible is one that permits international inspection to ensure that Iran does not begin making nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu argued against what he termed “two major concessions” given to Iran as part of the proposed deal still being negotiated. One is “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.”
This deal is being negotiated, Netanyahu said, because the U.S. and the other five countries negotiating the deal (China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain known as the P5+1) “hope that Iran will change for the better in the coming years, or they believe that the alternative to this deal is worse.”
“I disagree,” he continued. “I don’t believe that Iran’s radical regime will change for the better after this deal.” Negotiators should “insist that restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program not be lifted for as long as Iran continues its aggression in the region and in the world. … Nuclear know-how without nuclear infrastructure doesn’t get you very much. A racecar driver without a car can’t drive. A pilot without a plane can’t fly. Without thousands of centrifuges, tons of enriched uranium or heavy water facilities, Iran can’t make nuclear weapons.”
He added: “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 in the price of oil. If Iran threatens to walk away … call their bluff. They’ll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do.”
Obama told reporters later that he did not watch Netanyahu’s speech but read it and found “nothing new.” In fact, he said, the prime minister had previously “made almost the same speech” about the dangers of the deal that brought Iran to the bargaining table, but he said it has kept them from developing nuclear weapons.
He dismissed Netanyahu’s assertion that sanctions would extract a good agreement from Iran, saying: “If we double down on sanctions it would not do that,” and that there is evidence to support that contention.
“When it comes to this nuclear deal, let’s wait until a deal is on the table, at which point everyone can evaluate it,” Obama added. “I will be able to prove it is the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take that case to every member of Congress once we have that deal.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was also quick to criticize Netanyahu, saying she walked out of his remarks early because she found them to be an “insult to the intelligence of the United States.”
In a statement, she said that as “one who values the U.S.-Israel relationship, and loves Israel, 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 P5 +1 nations, and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said it was “sad” to hear such comments.
“The prime minister came in not to lecture but to advocate Israel’s concern,” he told The Jewish Week after attending Netanyahu’s address.
He added that in his remarks Monday before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Netanyahu said that both the U.S. and Israel have the same goal when it comes to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. But, Foxman noted, Netanyahu said that for the U.S. “it is a matter of security, for Israel it is a matter of survival. And that is what Nancy Pelosi needs to understand. He was not lecturing or displaying arrogance or teaching us lessons. Please understand, he was saying that our anxiety is different than yours.”
But Erel Margalit, a senior member of Israel’s Labor Party who was in Washington for the AIPAC conference, told The Jewish Week that Netanyahu’s approach to the Iranian issue has caused Israel to be shut out of the P5+1 talks. If his party wins the upcoming election and assembles a coalition government, he said it would ask that Israel join the talks.
“Netanyahu has been kept on the outside without a real ability to influence,” he said. “My criticism is that a statesman uses leverage to influence reality and not just clasp the hands of audience members. Unfortunately, the president of the United States and the secretary of state have never been so remote from the Israeli government and its prime minister as they are today. As much as he got a standing ovation, he was very ineffective in convincing the U.S. administration to come back to the table with Israel and figure out a constructive solution.”
But Michael Makovsky, chief executive of the pro-Israel nonprofit organization JINSA, said he thought Netanyahu delivered a “very strong speech that addressed clearly the issues of why this be a bad deal; it was pretty sober.”
Makovsky said that Netanyahu had indeed presented an alternative to the deal now being developed: “Crippling sanctions and a credible military option.”
“Obama has been against sanctions and said he would veto new sanctions,” he said. “He has also made clear that he does not want Israel to strike [militarily], and he has indicated the U.S. would not. So he has completely undermined our leverage in the talks.”
Although Netanyahu insisted that Iran should be compelled to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure, that is something Iran would never agree to, according to Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University.
“Iran is not going to give up its right to enrich uranium,” he argued. “Just like in Israel, Iran has different parties that can paralyze the government. The president, parliament, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, must all be satisfied — and they are all not going to do that.”
“To suggest [as Netanyahu did] that no deal is better than a bad deal is very simplistic because there is no such thing as a perfect deal,” Ben-Meir said. “Having no deal means leaving Iran to its own devices to pursue nuclear weapons, which it could do in less than a year. An imperfect deal is better than no deal.”
But just as the free world did not compromise with the Nazis, “you don’t compromise with Iran,” insisted Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon. “When you are dealing with total evil, you need total surrender. … The prime minister’s speech was very powerful. It was probably the speech of his life and the speech of our generation as Jews and Israelis. He said Israel reserves the right to self-defense and to do all it can to ensure its future.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he attended the speech and that “members of Congress I met on the way out said it was the best speech they heard in decades. There were some Democrats who had a more reserved reaction, but in the end they applauded. And his appeal about Jews not being defenseless anymore touched people very deeply. People said they were very moved; some were in tears.”