WASHINGTON, DC – When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke before a joint session of Congress on March 3, he became only the second foreign leader in history to have done so three times: the other being Winston Churchill.
It is not unusual for foreign leaders to address Congress – other notable speakers include Charles de Gaulle, Queen Elizabeth II and Nelson Mandela – but all of them, as well as Netanyahu in 1996 and 2011, were invited directly by the president. The prime minister’s Mar. 3 speech, however, at the invitation not of president Obama but rather House Speaker John Boehner, defied protocol.
As White House spokesman John Earnest described to reporters, “the typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there. “That certainly is how President Obama’s trips are planned when he travels overseas. This particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”
But Boehner sees things differently. As he told the press: “Congress can make this decision on its own. I don’t believe I’m poking anyone in the eye. There is a serious threat that exists in the world, and the president last night kind of papered over it. And the fact is that there needs to be a more serious conversation in America about how serious the threat is from radical Islamic jihadists and the threat posed by Iran.”
Boehner’s invitation sparked backlash from both major political parties. Democrats accused Boehner of trying to undermine the president, while Republicans countered that we are living in dangerous times and Netanyahu’s speech right now is vital.
The prime minister began his address by insisting that there is nothing political about his speech or at least, that is not how he ever intended it to be. He emphasized: “I want to thank you, Democrats and Republicans, for your common support for Israel, year after year, decade after decade,” and added that “the remarkable alliance between Israel and the United States has always been above politics. It must always remain above politics.
Because America and Israel, we share a common destiny, the destiny of promised lands that cherish freedom and offer hope. Israel is grateful for the support of American – of America’s people and of America’s presidents, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.”
Continuing his praise of President Obama – even as their sometimes-chilly relationship has been much publicized – Netanyahu said: We appreciate all that President Obama has done for Israel. Now, some of that is widely known, like strengthening security cooperation and intelligence sharing, opposing anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N. Some of what the president has done for Israel is less well-known. I called him in 2010 when we had the Carmel forest fire, and he immediately agreed to respond to my request for urgent aid. In 2011, we had our embassy in Cairo under siege, and again, he provided vital assistance at the crucial moment. Or his support for more missile interceptors during our operation last summer when we took on Hamas terrorists. In each of those moments, I called the president, and he was there. And some of what the president has done for Israel might never be known, because it touches on some of the most sensitive and strategic issues that arise between an American president and an Israeli prime minister. But I know it, and I will always be grateful to President Obama for that support.
At the core of Netanyahu’s speech, however, was his insistence that Iran remains a threat not only to Israel, but to world peace as a whole. He likened the Iranian regime, theocrats who “hijacked” a great people and culture, to ISIS, saying that the only real difference between the two is that they disagree about which one of them should be in charge.
He declared false the notion of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and said, to thunderous applause, that “when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”
He emphasized that a strategy to defeat ISIS that involves a nuclear Iran is winning the battle but losing the war.
Netanyahu criticized what he says is the framework of a proposed U.S.-Iran deal, whose fundamentals are publicly available and “you can Google it,” because it involves inspectors: they can make a note of something, Netanyahu said, but they cannot stop it – citing North Korea as an example.
Netanyahu called on Congress to reject such a deal. “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,” he said.
“Now, if Iran threatens to walk away from the table — and this often happens in a Persian bazaar — call their bluff. They’ll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do. And by maintaining the pressure on Iran and on those who do business with Iran, you have the power to make them need it even more.
“My friends, for over a year, we’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well, this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it. Now we’re being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That’s just not true.
“The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal.”