US & World

Netanyahu's Congress address: Israeli prime minister assails Iran-nuclear talks; Obama says 'nothing new' in speech

In this handout provided by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. Tomorrow March 3rd Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint session of the US Congress.
In this handout provided by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. Tomorrow March 3rd Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint session of the US Congress.
Handout/Getty Images

In a speech that stirred political controversy in two countries — and one that may have no precedent in Congress — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress on Tuesday that negotiations underway between Iran and the United States would "all but guarantee" that Tehran gets nuclear weapons to the detriment of the entire world. President Barack Obama responded by saying that Netanyahu has offered no "viable alternatives" to the nuclear negotiations. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called Netanyahu's remarks condescending. Secretary of State John Kerry meanwhile met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in hopes of completing an international framework agreement later this month to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.


Updated 2:02 p.m.: Pelosi, Democrats furious over Netanyahu 'condescension' 

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi politely stood and clapped when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered the House chamber for his long-awaited, and highly controversial, speech to Congress. The longer he spoke, the less enthusiastic she got.

At one point, when Netanyahu suggested his nation's relationship with the United States should be above politics, Pelosi looked at her lap and shook her head. When he declared that, "if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand," Pelosi threw her hands up in exasperation. More than once, she turned to her deputy, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and appeared to vent. And even before Netanyahu had begun his ascent up the center aisle toward the exit, Pelosi pivoted and headed out a different door and into the Democratic cloakroom.

"I was near tears throughout the prime minister's speech — saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States," she fumed in a statement afterward, adding that she didn't appreciate "the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation."

Pelosi's was the highest-profile sign that Netanyahu had inflamed his relationship with some congressional Democrats with his address to Congress, a 39-minute warning that Obama's negotiations on limiting Iran's nuclear capability would all but guarantee that Tehran gets nuclear weapons. Even as he spoke, the Obama administration pressed on with those talks, and the president dismissed Netanyahu's speech by noting that "foreign policy runs through the executive branch and the president, not through other channels."

More than four dozen Democrats skipped the speech altogether, offended by an array of developments before they even got to the policy substance of the speech itself.

House Speaker John Boehner's invitation to Netanyahu, without first notifying Obama, was one. The speech coming so soon ahead ofelection day in Israel was another.

Then there was this sight: Netanyahu standing at the podium where the president delivers the State of the Union speech, framed by two Republicans seated behind him — Boehner and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the president pro tempore of the Senate.

By custom, the vice president sits with the speaker, but Vice President Joe Biden was out of town and didn't attend. Hatch is next in line.

"It was putting Netanyahu on an equal level with the president of the United States," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. "And that was wrong."

Most Democrats, though, attended, because the real issue is how to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. One pushed back against Pelosi and other Democrats who shared her frustration.

"Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech was not condescending," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who was one of the lawmakers who escorted Netanyahu into the House chamber. "Every speech contains passages which remind the audience of facts they already know, and conclusions with which they already agree. That is not condescension; that is oratory."

But Cohen and 11 other House Democrats later expounded on their multiple frustrations with the speech, including the substance. His statement about Israel standing alone particularly chafed.

"I think that's delusional," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who skipped the speech. "The notion somehow that he thinks that Israel can just bull through this on their own against the world ... Israelis don't believe that."

"What I heard today felt to me like an effort to stampede the United States into war once again," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who also skipped the speech.

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said the speech was "straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook — fearmongering at its worst."

— Laurie Kellman/Associated Press

AP writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

Updated 11:10 a.m.: Netanyahu offers no viable alternative to Iran talks, Obama says

President Barack Obama says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn't offer any "viable alternatives" to the nuclear negotiations with Iran during his speech to Congress.

Obama says he read a transcript of Netanyahu's speech Tuesday. He says "there was nothing new" in the speech.

Video: Obama on Netanyahu's speech

Obama says Netanyahu made almost the same speech when he warned against the interim deal reached with Iran. Obama says that deal has resulted in a freeze and rolling back of Iran's nuclear program.

Obama says Netanyahu's alternative to the talks amounts to no deal at all. He says that would lead Iran to redouble efforts to build a nuclear bomb.

In his speech, Netanyahu said the deal would all but guarantee that Iran gets nuclear weapons.

Obama spoke in the Oval Office alongside Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

Updated 11:02 a.m.: No precedent for Netanyahu's contentious speech to Congress 

Given anywhere else, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech Tuesday wouldn't have caused such a ruckus.

But a foreign leader denouncing President Barack Obama's policy from within the grand hall of American democracy upended nearly two centuries of tradition.

A joint meeting of Congress, gathering senators and representatives together in the House chamber, is a ceremony typically bestowed on one or two friendly foreign leaders per year. It looks a lot like a presidential State of the Union address. The speaker embodies his or her nation; the audience of lawmakers represents all Americans.

Unity and shared purpose are the standard themes. Standing ovations are a given.

"It establishes there is a strong bond between the two nations," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. "In that context, a speech that provokes controversy at home or abroad is problematic."

So leaders speaking against the backdrop of the chamber's 8-foot-tall American flag tend to gloss over national differences and steer clear of internal politics.

Some of these speeches are powerful — think Winston Churchill rallying Americans for a long, hard war or Nelson Mandela calling them to lead all humanity toward democracy and peace.

Others, frankly, are so bland they're dull. It's not unusual for staffers and student pages to be sent in to fill the seats of lawmakers who didn't bother showing up.

Netanyahu's appearance, in contrast, was so contentious that more than four dozen Democratic lawmakers announced they were staying away in protest, despite the nation's close ties to Israel.

Still, demand for seats in the chamber and visitors' gallery was fierce, and Netanyahu was welcomed with enthusiastic ovations and cheers, especially from Republicans.

Netanyahu said he was morally obliged to speak out in hopes of stopping what he called the "bad deal" the U.S. is in the midst of negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.

Before the address, the White House complained that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had violated protocol by invitingNetanyahu without first consulting the White House. Boehner responded that Americans needed to hear Netanyahu's fears that Iran will get nuclear weapons.

History offers scant precedent for Netanyahu's contentious speech. But joint meetings of Congress have produced other dramatic scenes:


The tradition of inviting foreign dignitaries dates to the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, who gave separate speeches to the House and Senate in 1824.

It took another 50 years for the two bodies to come together to hear a foreigner — King Kalakaua, of what was then the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Since World War II, these joint meetings — similar to the "joint sessions" that hear U.S. presidents — have become the favored venue for foreign leaders and dignitaries. Usually their appearances get more notice back home than among Americans, which madeNetanyahu's address before a cheering Congress just two weeks before he's up for re-election in Israel even more controversial.

Israel is one of a few allies that dominate the rostrum. With Netanyahu's return, it ties Britain and France at eight speeches apiece. In all, 110 foreigners and a handful of Americans — mostly early-Space Age astronauts — have addressed joint meetings.

As Australian prime minister in 2011, Julia Gillard nailed the mutual-admiration genre. Her voice breaking, Gillard recalled being a small girl amazed that Americans had landed on the moon.

"On that great day I believed Americans could do anything," she said. "I believe that still."


The closest comparison to Netanyahu's latest speech to Congress may be Netanyahu's last speech to Congress.

The Israeli prime minister's 2011 visit went through diplomatic channels and included a stop at the White House. But Netanyahu'sappearance with Obama turned frosty. He sternly rejected Obama's suggestion that peace negotiations with the Palestinians should start from Israel's boundaries before it seized territory in 1967.

In his speech to Congress, Netanyahu repeated his rejection of "indefensible boundaries," prompting scathing reactions from Palestinian leaders.

Inside the House chamber, however, Netanyahu was embraced enthusiastically by Republicans and Democrats alike.


The speaker who famously denounced a president's war policy was an American.

In 1951, President Harry S. Truman stunned the world by firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur as commander of U.S.-led forces in the Korean War. MacArthur had publicly challenged Truman's decision to limit the conflict and avoid all-out war with bordering China.

Acclaimed for his World War II exploits in the Pacific, MacArthur was welcomed home as a hero. Congressional Republicans invited him to speak and the Democrats controlling Congress agreed. Truman didn't object, calling it a fitting honor.

MacArthur was unbowed.

"In war there can be no substitute for victory," he declared, accusing Truman of faltering against the communist Chinese. The public soon rejected MacArthur's ideas.

But the words he used to close a 52-year military career live on.

He quoted a ballad from his days at West Point:

"Old soldiers never die," MacArthur said. "They just fade away."


A foreigner invited to brace up the president still can stir controversy in Washington and at home.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke in defense of the Iraq War in July 2003, months after the invasion, when the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the realization that fighting would not end quickly was souring public opinion in the U.S. and further inflaming war opposition in Britain.

Congressional Democrats were starting to question President George W. Bush's rationale for going to war. Still, members from both parties cheered Blair, who assured them, "We will be with you in this fight for liberty."

Nearly two decades earlier, another British leader, Margaret Thatcher, gave a rousing endorsement of President Ronald Reagan's Cold War strategy. She called her speech to Congress "one of the most moving occasions of my life."


Netanyahu is only the second leader to address a joint meeting three times.

The other — British Prime Minister Churchill — gave one of the Capitol's most dramatic speeches in 1941.

Churchill rushed across the Atlantic to make war plans with President Franklin Roosevelt when the United States entered World War II.

Speaking under the newsreel cameras' bright lights, his voice carried live to anxious Americans by radio, Churchill voiced outrage at Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor but openly rejoiced that the United States "has drawn the sword of freedom," bringing hope to its battered European allies.


A few speakers bring Congress a transcendent vision. Mandela did it twice.

In 1990, newly freed from 27 years in prison, the anti-apartheid leader rallied Americans to help black South Africans end segregation and achieve democracy.

"Let us keep our arms locked together so that we form a solid phalanx against racism," he implored.

In 1994, Mandela returned as South Africa's first black president.

He urged Americans to look beyond their national borders and take the lead in creating a world of democracy, peace and prosperity.

"Once you set out on this road," Mandela said, "no one will need to be encouraged to follow."


A coming attraction: Pope Francis.

Boehner invited him to become the first leader of the world's Roman Catholics to address Congress, on Sept. 24.

They may not agree with all the pope has to say, but Obama and Republican and Democratic lawmakers are heralding it as a landmark occasion.

— Connie Cass/Associated Press

10:13 a.m.: Netanyahu assails Iran-nuclear talks in Congress address

In a speech that stirred political controversy in two countries, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress on Tuesday that negotiations underway between Iran and the United States would "all but guarantee" that Tehran gets nuclear weapons to the detriment of the entire world.

"And lots of them," he added in an appearance before a packed House chamber that drew loud applause from Republicans and a more restrained reaction from Democrats.

Video: Netanyahu's address to Congress

"Iran has proven time and again that it cannot be trusted," no matter what it says about permitting verification of the terms of any accord designed to prevent it from getting such weapons, he said. "The greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons."

Netanyahu spoke in English shortly after Secretary of State John Kerry met for more than two hours in Switzerland with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in hopes of completing an international framework agreement later this month to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

The Israeli leader's appeal also came two weeks before tight elections in which he is seeking a new term — and after the invitation to address Congress extended by House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, triggered a political furor in the United States. More than four dozen House and Senate Democrats said in advance they would not attend the event, a highly unusual move given historically close ties between the two allies.

Many of Netanyahu's comments were greeted by loud applause from U.S. lawmakers, but not everyone was persuaded by his rhetoric.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California conspicuously refrained from applauding on several occasions. And when the Israeli leader called for holding out for a better deal with Iran, she held her hands wide and shook her head in disagreement.

The White House expressed its displeasure with Netanyahu's appearance by word and deed, dispatching Vice President Joe Biden on an overseas trip that meant he did not fill his customary seat behind the House rostrum during the speech. Nor did the Israeli leader meet at the White House with Obama on his trip to the United States.

The prime minister was greeted with a roaring welcome as he walked down the same center aisle of the House chamber that presidents tread before their annual State of the Union speeches.

He also sought to smooth over any political unpleasantness, thanking Obama lavishly for the help he has given Israel since he became president. In a grace note, he took a moment to mention Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who is back at work after suffering an eye injury in an accident at home.

At the same time, Netanyahu was unrelenting in his condemnation of the negotiations the administration is conducting with Tehran.

He said that with the concessions the United States was prepared to make Iran would not only gain nuclear weapons, but also eventually would become free of international economic sanctions. As a result, he said, it would be emboldened to finance even more terrorism around the Middle East and the world.

The result for Iran, he said, would be "aggression abroad and prosperity at home."

Instead, he said that if Iran wants to be "treated like a normal country, it ought to behave like a normal country."

"We've been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well this is a bad deal, a very bad deal," he said.

He said the deal being discussed offered two major concessions to Iran. One would leave intact the country's vast nuclear infrastructure, and the other would lift restrictions on that program in about a decade, the "blink of an eye in the life of a nation," he said.

He also said that the world needs to insist that no restrictions are lifted on Iran's nuclear program until the country stops aggressive actions against its neighbors in the Mideast, stops supporting terrorism around the world and stops threatening to annihilate Israel.

Netanyahu singled out Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel, a world-renowned author.

"I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned," he said in a reference to the Nazis, who killed 6 million Jews.

A few moments later, he added, applause swelling, "The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies are over."

"Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand," he vowed, although he quickly added that it does not, and "American stands with Israel."

The Obama administration has complained that congressional Republicans injected destructive partisanship into the U.S.-Israel alliance by inviting Netanyahu to speak. But the White House played down the controversy in the hours before the address.

Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett called it "a bit of a distraction" but told MSNBC the dispute wouldn't undermine Obama's commitment to Israel.

"We share a common goal of ensuring that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons," Jarrett said, and disagree with Netanyahu only over "the tactics of how to get there."

The U.S. and Iranian sides met for two hours on Tuesday morning in the Swiss resort of Montreux, according to U.S. officials.

"We're working away, productively," Kerry told reporters.

— Associated Press reporters Aron Heller and Deb Riechmann

This story has been updated.