Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
WASHINGTON – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday and blasted a pending White House deal on Iran’s nuclear program, asserting it could “pave the way” to mass destruction in the Middle East.
But he appeared to make little headway with New Mexico Democrats as he encouraged congressional opposition to the Obama administration’s negotiating strategy.
The speech at times drew thunderous applause and standing ovations, but some Democrats – including Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. – remained unmoved and even stone-faced at times. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., was the only member of the state’s delegation to boycott the speech, although he watched from his Senate office.
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., said she was dismayed by Netanyahu’s tone, while her guest, Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld of Albuquerque’s Congregation Albert, told the Journal that Netanyahu “reinforced the seriousness of the threat that Iran poses to Israel and the world.”
Rosenfeld also said that “as an American Jew” he was gratified to witness Congress’ enthusiastic support for Israel within the House chamber. He said that although there is no consensus within his congregation about how to deal with the Iranian threat, “everybody is extremely worried.”
“People would like a tougher deal than what they are hearing about,” Rosenfeld said.
Netanyahu’s speech was fraught with controversy because it was not cleared by the White House and Israeli elections are approaching. The Israeli prime minister told Congress that the nuclear agreement the White House is pursuing “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” He also offered a brief history lesson, reminding Congress of the radical Islamic revolution that transformed Iran’s politics 36 years ago.
“Iran’s revolutionary regime is deeply rooted in militant Islam, and that’s why this regime will always be an enemy of America,” Netanyahu said.
“If anyone thinks this deal kicks the can down the road, think again,” Netanyahu added. “When we get down that road, we’ll face a much more dangerous Iran, a Middle East littered with nuclear bombs and a countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare.”
At the White House, President Barack Obama dismissed Netanyahu’s speech as “nothing new” and insisted ongoing negotiations toward a deal will best ensure Iran doesn’t acquire a nuclear weapon. The White House contends Netanyahu’s approach would lead to less – not more – scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program, and that could lead to a need for military action. Obama said Netanyahu’s speech “didn’t offer any viable alternatives.”
“I have repeatedly said that I would rather have no deal than a bad deal,” Obama said. “But if we are successful in negotiating then, in fact, this will be the best deal possible to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Nothing else comes close. Sanctions won’t do it. Military action would not be as successful as the deal that we have put forward.”
Netanyahu insisted that the world demand Iran stop threatening its neighbors in the Middle East, supporting terrorists and vowing to destroy Israel.
“This is a bad deal – a very bad deal,” he said of the pending nuclear pact. “We are better-off without it.”
The atmosphere swirling around Netanyahu’s controversial speech rivaled that of a presidential State of the Union address, but with more protesters outside the Capitol and perhaps even more security inside. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who presented Netanyahu with a bust of Winston Churchill before his speech, said the prime minister was blunt and effective.
“This was a speech the American people needed to hear, plain and simple,” Boehner said. “It addressed the gravity of the threats we face and why we cannot allow a nuclear Iran, or any semblance of a path to a nuclear Iran.”
Udall, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, entered the chamber shortly before Netanyahu’s speech and stood in the back. He applauded softly at some of Netatyahu’s remarks but remained unmoved by others. Udall said he attended the speech “out of respect for the U.S.-Israel relationship.” He also said that although all U.S. leaders oppose a nuclear-armed Iran, American diplomats should be given room to negotiate a deal that prevents such a scenario.
“I have deep concerns with how the speaker (Boehner) and prime minister scheduled his remarks and with the message the prime minister delivered,” Udall said. “A resolution would reduce Iran’s capability to produce the nuclear materials for a weapon while guaranteeing strict international inspections that allow the international community to respond to any possible nuclear breakout. Attempting to undermine these talks two weeks before the Israeli elections is both crassly political and dangerous. I urge the Congress not to interfere with the negotiations – that is a risky and myopic road to take.”
Rep. Steve Pearce, the delegation’s lone Republican, applauded Netanyahu’s address.
“The Israeli leader rightfully criticized the administration’s ongoing closed-door negotiations between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which are leading our nation down a very dangerous path and placing our world in harm’s way,” Pearce said. “We must not turn our backs on Israel in favor of Iran, a country that has proven itself untrustworthy. I stand with Israel. And so should President Obama.”
Heinrich said he feared that Netanyahu’s approach would lead to a war “that would likely cost our nation dearly in blood and treasure.”
“If we abandon negotiations due to unrealistic expectations, then we will undoubtedly lose (international) inspections,” Heinrich said. “That would encourage Iran to resume development and would result in a very high likelihood of direct military conflict.”
Rep. Ben Ray Luján offered support for Israel.
“Although the timing and planning of the speech was not ideal, our relationship with Israel must remain strong and bipartisan,” he said.
Lujan Grisham said, “It was pretty clear (that Netanyahu was saying), ‘You’ve got to decide between what’s being recommended to you by the White House and me.’ ”
“There was no softening. I was hopeful that he would have a softer tone and say, ‘Here are my worries.’ He didn’t do that.”