Introduction: Israeli Prime Minister addresses Congress on Tuesday, March 3. His topic, as per Speaker of the House John Boehner, is to explain “the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life.” The invitation was announced after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in January, during which he vowed to veto any new Iran sanctions bills. Obama has also downplayed the threat of terror and declined to tackle “radical Islam.”
Crucially, Obama has also promised to veto any legislation requiring him to submit any deal with Iran to Congress. The Boehner invitation is a response to that threat, as well as to Obama’s broader seizure of the constitutional powers of the legislature. For Netanyahu, the address is a chance to have a say before the end of negotiations that could decide Israel’s future, yet from which Israel has been excluded–and which will likely leave Iran’s nuclear program near “breakout.”
Critics have called the address an attempt by Netanyahu to boost his prospects in Israel’s upcoming March 17 elections, as well as an unwelcome intervention in American politics. Netanyahu’s approval rating among Americans is near an all-time high, while his party has a good chance to return to power. 56 Democrats (8 Senators, 47 Representatives) are boycotting, the Vice President and Secretary of State have found other places to be, and Obama says he will not watch.
The controversy has made Netanyahu’s speech the most anticipated address in years, and perhaps the most important oration on geopolitical affairs since Ronald Reagan’s speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987. Much will depend on how the speech is received, and whether Netanyahu introduces new information–such as the terms of the Iran deal, which the administration is urging him not to disclose. Yet the fact that he is speaking at all suggests the urgency of the issues.
The potential Iran deal, according to President Obama himself, would allow the regime to retain most of its enrichment capacity, and to become a nuclear power after ten years. Those are steep concessions that many are calling a surrender–and they are terms Netanyahu has indicated he is not willing to tolerate. For Israel, there is a sense of impending danger, especially as Iran has expanded its regional presence in recent weeks–right up to Israel’s frontier in the Golan Heights.
The speech is historic in one other sense. Not since the days of antiquity has a Jewish leader of any sort been granted an opportunity to plead the Jewish people’s case as they have faced what some fear is imminent disaster. The events are parallel to those described in the Book of Esther, some 2,500 years ago, when the Jews of Persia were saved from doom. That miracle is celebrated in the Jewish holiday of Purim, which happens to fall on Thursday–a backdrop to the speech.
This was a speech the American people needed to hear, plain and simple. 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. It demonstrated why there is such deep-seated – and bipartisan – concern about the deal that is being made. I thank my colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, who took the time to hear the Prime Minister’s address on behalf of their constituents, and I hope all Americans will have the chance to see it for themselves.
“Let me take this moment to personally thank Benjamin Netanyahu. With his presence here, he demonstrated that politics can never come before our commitment to do what’s right for our future. And he again revealed himself to be a leader of principle and deep conviction. It all speaks not only to the kind of leader he is, but to the bonds between America and Israel – bonds that will, with work and sacrifice, long outlast us.
1:40 p.m. EST: Reaction from the White House, via Charlie Spieiring:
Here at the White House, administration officials did not share their reactions to the speech with Breitbart News, but CNN’s Jim Acosta reported that the Obama administration was “furious” with Netanyahu.
“They’re saying that without this deal that they’re trying to reach with the Iranians, that Tehran would be really on the path to developing a nuclear weapon,” he reported.
A senior administration official shared with reporters a reaction to Netanyahu’s speech.
“We are pursuing a deal that verifiability prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Where is the alternative? Simply demanding that Iran completely capitulate is not a plan, nor would any country support us in that position. The Prime Minister offered no concrete action plan,” the official said.
1:35 p.m. EST: Breitbart News’ Charlie Spiering observes:
Many Democrat members of the Congressional Black Caucus who actually attended Netanyahu’s speech were among the most subdued, refusing to stand or applaud. Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH) thumbed through her smart phone for a large portion of the speech. As the speech ended she stood up with the rest of the members who were applauding. Beatty clapped a few times before returning to her smart phone and left the speech.
As Netanyahu was announced, most of Congress stood and applauded heartily. Not so with Senate Minority Harry Reid, who stood with his hands in his pockets as Netanyahu made his way up the aisles. As Netanyahu approached Reid, he shook his hand before grabbing him by both arms and pulled him closer to exchange a few words. Reid, still recovering from his exercise accident, rarely stood with the rest of his Senate colleagues as they repeatedly gave Netanyahu a standing ovation.
Netanyahu acknowledged Reid during his speech, specifically referring to the accident. “Harry, it’s good to see you back on your feet,” he said.
Prior the speech, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had an animated conversation before Schultz took her seat. During the speech, Pelosi clenched her jaw and repeatedly muttered under her breath especially as Netanyahu began criticizing the negotiations with Iran.
1:00 p.m. EST: The boycotting Democrats who are slamming Netanyahu and Boehner appear to have been very poorly briefed. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) said that he disagreed with Netanyahu: “I do not trust war is the best way to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.” Netanyahu spent his speech arguing for a better deal, not for war. Later, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) claims that the U.S. and Iran have been cooperating for a century. Most of the other comments are petty and tangential. The networks are likely avoiding this event to spare Democrats some severe embarrassment.
12:45 p.m. EST: The boycotting Democrats are staging their own press conference. The news networks are ignoring them, which is really striking–except for Fox News, which is ripping the boycotters. The purpose of the conference appears to be to defend President Obama and to undermine Prime Minister Netanyahu. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) rips Netanyahu for his testimony in 2002 in favor of the Iraq war. She makes the mistake of slamming his prediction that Iranians would rise up against their government (which actually happened). She then loses herself in her prepared text.
12:40 p.m. EST: Caroline May reports on the closing of the speech–and Nancy Pelosi’s evident frustration: “Speech finished shortly before noon and the House chamber erupted in a standing ovation on both sides. Democrats began to trickle out of the chamber early as the applause continued, including Pelosi who looked infuriated. Republicans, too, began to leave as Netanyahu left the podium. More than three-and-a-half minutes later, House Speaker John Boehner hit the gavel and the applause ceased.”
12:15 p.m. EST: The Washington Post posts the full transcript of Netanyahu’s speech here.
12:11 p.m. EST: David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, who had been quite critical of the whole idea of the speech beforehand, tells CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: ““Many in Israel will feel he gave the speech of his life.” Another CNN analyst adds: “I think he helped himself.” Netanyahu’s critics seem unanimous in favor. Gloria Borger observes: “He praised Obama before he buried Obama.” (I don’t think that was his aim, though.)
12:08 p.m. EST: Fareed Zakaria, who had scorned Netanyahu’s speech beforehand, is as impressed as Sen. Feinstein, telling Wolf Blitzer: “The chances [of an Iran deal] just went to 60/40 against. This was a very good speech, from the Prime Minister’s perspective.” He praised the composition of the speech. A clear win for Netanyahu, if the reactions of his more serious critics are any sign. This is why opponents avoided listening.
12:00 p.m. EST California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who went to the speech despite blasting Netanyahu in advance, tells CNN: “I think it was a very powerful speech.” She adds that Netanyahu did not say what would happen if there was no deal, or what Israel would find agreeable. CNN’s Dana Bash finds herself forced to correct Feinstein by quoting Netanyahu’s conditions. Feinstein does not exactly respond to those points.
11:55 a.m. EST: The takeaways from Netanyahu’s speech: He made the case against the deal the Obama administration is currently discussing with Iran. He proposed that sanctions continue until Iran changes its overall foreign policy. He pledged that Israel would act alone if it needed to do so. He suggested that the U.S. could find its way to a better deal because Iran needs a deal more than the rest of the world does.
11:51 a.m. EST: Netanyahu closes with a quote from Moses in Deuteronomy, before the Jewish people enter the Land of Israel: “Be strong and courageous!” (Deut. 31:6) He adds, as the chamber bursts into a final standing ovation: “May God bless the State of Israel and may God bless the United States of America.”
11:49 a.m. EST: Netanyahu acknowledges Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel in the gallery. He talks about the importance of “never again”: “The days when the Jewish people remain passive in the face of genocidal enemies–those days are over!” Standing ovation and cheers. “I can promise you one more thing: even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.” He adds that he knows the U.S. stands with Israel. More ovations and cheers.
11:47 a.m. EST: Caroline May, at the press gallery inside the chamber, reports: “Of note, Netanyahu is not speaking off a teleprompter. His speech is written in large letters on white pages resting on the podium.”
11:45 a.m. EST: “Now we’re being told that the only alternative to this deal is war. That’s just not true. The alternative to a bad deal is a much better deal.” Netanyahu outlines what a “better deal” would look like–including dismantling Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and maintaining sanctions. He acknowledges that such a deal might not be one that Israel would like, but it would be one that Israel “could live with.” He warns that there are two paths–one leads to a bad deal that will encourage Iranian aggression and lead “inevitably” to war. The other, he says, is a better deal, and quotes Robert Frost: it is the path “less traveled.”
11:42 a.m. EST: Netanyahu then turns to the argument that there is “no alternative” to the deal because Iran is already too far advanced to becoming a nuclear power. He argues that “Iran’s nuclear program can be rolled back…by insisting on a better deal” and maintaining pressure. He says that the West should call Iran’s threat–“bluff”–to walk away from talks, “because they need a deal even more than you do.”
“This is a bad deal. It is a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.”
11:39 a.m. EST: Netanyahu points out that hope for a deal with Iran hinges on the false hope that Iran will change in the future. However, the deal removes any incentive for the regime to reform: “Why should Iran change for the better when it can enjoy the best of both worlds–aggression abroad, prosperity at home?”
He adds that the deal will encourage Arab states to arm themselves with nuclear weapons against the possibility of Iranian aggression: “This deal won’t be a farewell to arms–it will be a farewell to arms control.”
He adds that restrictions on Iran should only be lifted if Iran complies with three conditions:
first, stop its agression against its neighbors in the Middle East;
second, stop supporting terrorism around the world; and
third, stop threatening to annihilate my country, Israel–the one and only Jewish state.
He adds: “If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country!” Standing ovation.
11:37 a.m. EST: Caroline May reports: “Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) presses her lips together, does not look pleased as Netanyahu describes nuclear deal as a bad one.”
11:35 a.m. EST: “Iran could get to a bomb by keeping the deal,” Netanyahu warns, and adds that Iran is already boasting that it intends to build more centrifuges. It could, he says, do so “legitimately” under the deal, citing “my long-time friend, John Kerry, the Secretary of State.”
The chamber is quiet. This is not a rally, as was Netanyahu’s 2011 speech. This is Netanyahu telling the hard truth to America’s leaders.
11:32 a.m. EST: Netanyahu warns that mere inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities will not be enough. He cites the example of North Korea, noting that inspections have failed to prevent other rogue states from becoming nuclear powers. He cites the recent report of the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran is not coming clean about its military nuclear program, and reiterates that Iran cannot be trusted.
11:29 a.m. EST: Now for the Iranian deal: “That deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It will all but guarantee that Iran gets those nuclear weapons. Lots of them.” Netanyahu proceeds to discuss the terms of the deal that are already “a matter of public record,” including the “vast nuclear infrastructure” that the deal will retain, allowing Iran “a short breakout time” to a nuclear weapon.
11:26 a.m. EST: Netanyahu tackles the question of whether Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is really a “moderate.” He notes the human rights abuses that have continued–or worsened–under Rouhani, and warns that Iran will always be America’s enemy. He also warns that the Shia-Sunni, Iran-ISIS spat does not mean Iran will suddenly become a regional partner: “When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”
11:23 a.m. EST:“We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation, and terror.”
11:20 a.m. EST: Netanyahu turns to the core of his speech: the Iranian nuclear program. He talks about the historical and Biblical precedent of Purim, when the Jewish people were threatened by another Persian enemy. He reads directly from the tweets of Iranian-backed Hezbollah to destroy all the Jews of the world. He praises the people of Iran as heirs to a great civilization, but slams the post-1979 Iranian dictatorship. He notes Iran’s expansion throughout the region–“three tentacles of terror”–including its proxy takeover of Yemen–“just last week!”–and recounts Iran’s attacks against the United States itself.
11:15 a.m. EST: Netanyahu begins by acknowledging Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and by expressing regret for any sense in which the speech has been interpreted as a political gesture. He draws a standing ovation after acknowledging that both political parties support Israel. The relationship “has always been above politics,” he says, and must remain so. He thanks presidents from “Harry Truman to Barack Obama.”
11:10 a.m. EST: Netanyahu has entered to extended standing ovations and cheers. He takes his place at the podium and is cheered again. The most important speech in American history–in years; in world history–in decades; in Jewish history–in millennia; and it is about to begin.
11:05 a.m. EST: As the world awaits Netanyahu, leading voices in the Arab media continue to line up behind Netanyahu and against Obama. Faisal J. Abbas, Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English, has published an op-ed entitled, “President Obama, listen to Netanyahu on Iran.”
11:00 a.m. EST: Caroline May reports: “As Members of the Senate file into the House chamber both the Democratic and Republican sides looked filled, even packed. The Democrats who said they would not come appear to not have made much of a dent optically.”
10:55 a.m. EST:As Netanyahu prepares to enter Congress, to cheers and handshakes, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and Fareed Zakaria attempt to spin against him. Amanpour tries to argue that associating Netanyahu with Churchill is wrong because Churchill preferred “jaw-jaw” to “war-war.” Zakaria cites a familiar left-wing talking point about Netanyahu being wrong in the past about the timeline to an Iranian nuclear weapon, en route to claiming Netanyahu’s speech is motivated by politics, not security. During the period Zakaria cites, the Clinton administration was wrong about the timeline to India and Pakistan developing nuclear weapons–and both did.
10:45 a.m. EST:
Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif tells CNN that Netanyahu might be trying to affect negotiations with the Obama administration in Switzerland, but “I don’t think trying to create tension and conflict helps anybody.”
This from the world’s premier sponsor of state-sponsored terror, with proxy armies involved in conflicts throughout the Middle East, most recently helping topple the government of Yemen.
10:35 a.m. EST: Rep. Luis Gutierrez struggles to explain to CNN’s Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer why he is boycotting Netanyahu’s speech. He says he is “skipping,” not boycotting, the speech. He is also claiming that he will be meeting with “friends from AIPAC” to have a discussion later. Gutierrez also states that he does not want Congress to be used as a political backdrop in another country’s internal politics, suggesting that Netanyahu is mainly interested in his election back home. Tapper and Blitzer, rightly, are skeptical.
10:25 a.m. EST: Netanyahu has arrived at the Capitol with his motorcade, according to CNN.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, in the Purim spirit, has added some levity to the occasion:
10:15 a.m. EST: Caroline May reports: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a video Tuesday welcoming the Prime Minister to the Capitol.
In the video, McConnell addresses what Netanyahu is expected to cover in his speech to a joint meeting of Congress.
“The Prime Minister’s visit comes at a critical moment in U.S.-Israeli relations,” McConnell says. “Iran’s campaign to expand its sphere of influence across the Middle East threatens the interests of both of our countries; and Prime Minister Netanyahu is singularly capable of explaining the threat Iran’s nuclear capability poses to Israel, America, and the world.”
He continues on to urge that Congress “receive our ally warmly and respectfully” and continue to work with Israel to address the nuclear threat.
“Israel stood with us before September 11, 2001, and Israel stands with us today as the threat of radical Islamic terrorism has spread. It is an honor to welcome this friend of the American people,” he says.
10:00 a.m. EST: It’s a tale of two meetings. Caroline May reports: “House Leadership’s weekly press conference has been cancelled to allow leaders time to get to the escort committee to welcome the Prime Minister following the GOP’s conference meeting. According to a spokeswoman the meeting is also expected to go long.” However, President Obama will be on a conference call from the White House Situation Room with European leaders during Netanyahu’s speech, according to Politico–a statement of defiance, and a hint that Israel may be isolated if Obama so chooses.
9:40 a.m. EST: Caroline May of Breitbart News reports: “The Capitol is packed with people and security guards. Access to certain areas have been restricted and where I usually breeze into the Capitol, I had a long wait to just get through the usual security check point. Lots of new faces up on the Hill this morning.”
A Breitbart News source waiting in line to enter with a gallery ticket writes: “At Capitol. Lots of protestors. Long line to get in Cannon office building. We’re in line…Lots of crazy nuts screaming at us.”
9:10 a.m. EST: A member of the public who has snagged one of the gallery tickets to Netanyahu’s address sent the following address to Breitbart News this morning: “In taxi with others going to speech. Lots of excitement and anticipation. Historical day with White House threatening Bibi not to mention any parts of deal. Just like Obamacare WH doesn’t want anyone to know what’s in agreement.”
8:50 a.m. EST: The whole world really will be watching Netanyahu’s speech–and parts of the Arab world will be cheering for him, as they have done for Israel with increasing openness since the Second Lebanon War. A Saudi columnist writes (translation via MEMRI):
Since Obama is the godfather of the prefabricated revolutions in the Arab world, and since he is the ally of political Islam, [which is] the caring mother of [all] the terrorist organizations, and since he is working to sign an agreement with Iran that will come at the expense of the U.S.’s longtime allies in the Gulf, I am very glad of Netanyahu’s firm stance and [his decision] to speak against the nuclear agreement at the American Congress despite the Obama administration’s anger and fury. I believe that Netanyahu’s conduct will serve our interests, the people of the Gulf, much more than the foolish behavior of one of the worst American presidents. Do you agree with me?
8:25 a.m. EST: It is worth noting that 3 out of 4 Democrats in Congress will, in fact, be attending the speech. Some, like California’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have grumbled about it, but others, like fellow Californian Brad Sherman, are quite happy to hear Netanyahu speak. Sherman noted on Monday that he was “honored” to have been chosen to escort Netanyahu into the chamber for his address. Such gestures may preserve bipartisan support for Israel–for the most part.
7:55 a.m. EST: A group of Democrats who are boycotting the speech plan to stage their own “response” to Netanyahu’s address. No doubt they will reiterate their high dudgeon at Boehner and Netanyahu while claiming to support Israel. This is an important break for some of the Democrats, like Jan Schakowsky, who is finally liberated to say what she truly believes about Israel. However, those who refuse to listen to others can hardly claim they deserve to be listened to themselves.
7:45 a.m. EST: Speaker of the House John Boehner issues a press release: “This is an important message at an important time,” Boehner says, “and the Prime Minister is the perfect person to deliver it.” A guide to the speech on the Speaker’s website notes that Boehner will present Netanyahu with a bust of Winston Churchill–a slap to Obama, who notoriously returned a bust of the World War II-era British prime minister to the British embassy, then lied about having done so.