After weeks of anticipation and controversy, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a punchy and combative speech to a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday, making the case against what he argues would be a “bad deal” over Iran’s nuclear program.
The speech had been billed as a response to President Obama’s most recent State of the Union address, and the prime minister’s entrance to the chamber had the feeling of a presidential speech. The booming voice we’re used to hearing introduce the American president as he walks into the chamber instead announced, “Mr. Speaker, the prime minster of Israel.” Netanyahu was then mobbed by members of Congress trying to shake his hand—a sight likely to provoke extreme irritation in both the White House and among his election challengers back in Israel.
The speech, which was boycotted by 56 Democratic members of Congress, began with an acknowledgment of the controversy, with Netanyahu saying, “I deeply regret that some might perceive my being here as political—that was never my intention.” Netanyahu was full of praise for Democrats, shouting out well wishes to recently injured Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, listing how Obama has helped Israel, and praising the support of U.S. presidents “from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.” Later in the speech, Netanyahu referred to “my longtime friend Secretary of State John Kerry,” a figure whose relationship with the current Israeli government has been testy at best. Netanyahu also recognized the role of U.S. military support during last summer’s war in Gaza, saying, “This capitol dome helped build our Iron Dome.”
After getting all that out of the way, the punchline-heavy speech, which included references to the biblical story of Esther, A Farewell to Arms, Robert Frost, and Game of Thrones, tried to make the case that despite the recent election of Hassan Rouhani, “Iran’s regime is as radical as ever,” and “This regime will always be an enemy of America.”
Netanyahu took a specific shot at Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, saying, “The same Zarif who charmed Western diplomats laid a wreath at the grave of Imad Mugjniyah,” a senior member of Hezbollah.
Netanyahu rejected the notion that the unofficial alliance in the battle against ISIS has given the U.S. and Iran common interests. “When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy,” he said. “To defeat ISIS and let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle but lose the war.”
Netanyahu noted that pro-Iranian governments are now in place in four Middle Eastern countries—Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen—and alliteratively warned, “Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its Revolutionary Guards in the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of jihad.”
As for the nuclear deal itself, Netanyahu argued that because it “leaves Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure” it would “all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons.”
Rejecting the argument that the alternative to a deal would be war, Netanyahu said “the alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal,” suggesting that Western sanctions and the falling price of oil would increase leverage over Tehran. “If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country,” he said.
As he has in the past, Netanyahu drew parallels between the threat faced by Israel today and the Holocaust. “The days when the Jewish people remain passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over,” he said. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who was sitting in the audience, got a special mention.
While the response may not have been as rapturous as Netanyahu’s previous two appearances—he is now the only foreign leader other than Winston Churchill to address Congress three times—he was interrupted frequently by standing ovations as well as sustained applause at the beginning and end. There was plenty of red meat for Republicans who share his opposition to the Iran deal, and the paeans to bipartisanship will likely do little to improve his strained ties with the White House. If Netanyahu holds on at the polls later this month, the tensions of the last few weeks aren’t going anywhere. If this was his last trip to the U.S. as prime minister, it was quite a finale.