- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu challenged Congress on Tuesday to stand firm in the face of terrorist threats whether from Iran or the Islamic State, and accused President Obama of naivety in his negotiations to try to constrain Iranian leaders’ nuclear program.

With negotiations reaching a critical point, Mr. Netanyahu said Mr. Obama, desperate to avoid war, is about to make concessions that would leave Iran less than a year from capability to construct nuclear weapons, known as “breakout.” The prime minister said that kind of “bad deal” is worse than no deal at all.

Mr. Obama, who pointedly avoided even watching the speech to a joint meeting of Congress, said he later skimmed the transcript and dismissed the prime minister’s remarks as nothing new. But his opposition to the speech likely made it even more important — and certainly more difficult for Democrats, who were left divided over whether to attend and how to evaluate what the prime minister said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the speech insulting to Congress, but her top foreign relations colleague, fellow California Democrat Brad Sherman, said Mr. Netanyahu was spot-on.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, moved quickly to exploit Democrats’ divisions by announcing that he would force debate next week on a bill requiring Mr. Obama to submit any deal with Iran to Congress for its approval.

“This deal has two major concessions: one, leaving Iran with a vast nuclear program, and two, lifting the restrictions on that program in about a decade,” Mr. Netanyahu told a House chamber packed as if it were hearing a State of the Union address from a U.S. president. “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.”

Making his third such speech to Congress over the past two decades, Mr. Netanyahu delivered a lecture on nuclear centrifuges, timetables for enrichment, intercontinental ballistic missiles and the dangers Israel would face if it had to live in the shadow of a nuclear Iran.

Analysts said it was the most charged address by a foreign leader to a joint meeting of Congress in modern political history. Security outside the Capitol was at a maximum, with phalanxes of police patrolling the grounds and monitoring protesters. Inside, Democratic lawmakers wrestled with the question of whether to attend the speech.

Those who did show up faced difficult decisions about whether to applaud Mr. Netanyahu’s portrayal of the negotiations and his criticism of Mr. Obama’s diplomatic approach, where he is working with Germany and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the so-called P5+1 — to keep a unified front.

Mrs. Pelosi was particularly incensed, occasionally waving her hands in frustration and keeping a running commentary with her lieutenant, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who sat next to her studiously writing notes about Mr. Netanyahu’s speech.

“I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech,” Mrs. Pelosi said in a statement afterward. “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.”

Mr. Obama and fellow Democrats said two factors made the speech unseemly: House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, invited the Israeli prime minister before notifying the White House, and Mr. Netanyahu faces a re-election contest in Israel in two weeks.

The president refused to meet with the prime minister during his visit to Washington. Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who normally would preside over the session with Mr. Boehner, arranged to be out of town. His place was taken by Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican.

Mr. Netanyahu began his speech by apologizing for the fuss. He specifically credited Mr. Obama with being a friend of Israel, both publicly and privately.

“I know that my speech has been the subject of much controversy,” he said. “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention.”

But Mr. Netanyahu repeatedly questioned the administration’s negotiating stance and said the president ignores Iran’s long history of backing terrorism, its territorial aims and its stated goal of destroying Israel.

He also warned against using Iran’s cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State as a reason to believe it wants to be a cooperating member of the international community.

“When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy,” he said. “The difference is that ISIS is armed with butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube, whereas Iran could soon be armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs.”

Mr. Obama, who scheduled a video conference with European leaders to discuss Ukraine at the same time as Mr. Netanyahu’s speech, later said there was little in the remarks to interest him.

“What I’m focused on right now is solving this problem,” he said. “I’m not focused on the politics of it, I’m not focused on the theater of it. And my strong suggestion would be that members of Congress, as they evaluate it, stay similarly focused.”

Mr. Obama said no deal with Iran has been finalized and that negotiations so far have pushed Iran somewhat further from nuclear weapons capability.

The Obama administration’s goal is to create a situation in which it would take Iran a year to create a nuclear bomb once it made the decision to go ahead.

Mr. Netanyahu, however, said the terms the White House is considering would leave “breakout” less than a year away and the goal should be to prohibit Iran from taking any path toward nuclear weapons capability.

The galleries were packed for Mr. Netanyahu’s speech, just as they were less than two months ago for Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address, but a practiced eye could spot the differences. The members of the Congressional Black Caucus who normally packed the aisle seats for a chance to be photographed with Mr. Obama were absent from those prime seats, replaced by Republicans eager to get Mr. Netanyahu’s attention.

In the spot where first lady Michelle Obama has sat for the past six years was Nobel Prize winning author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who received two standing ovations from the crowd.

⦁ Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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