Why Netanyahu speech has inflamed such passions on Capitol Hill

Tuesday's speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exposed the gulf between two fundamentally different worldviews in Congress. An effort to bridge that divide has begun, but will be fraught with difficulty.

Susan Walsh/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves as he speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday. In a speech that stirred political intrigue in two countries, Netanyahu told Congress that negotiations underway between Iran and the United States would 'all but guarantee' that Tehran will get nuclear weapons, a step that the world must avoid at all costs. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio (l.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (r.) of Utah, are behind the prime minister.

Even before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his address to Congress Tuesday, it was abundantly clear that his invitation to speak exposed something much deeper than the typical partisanship that so often convulses Washington. It exposed the raw and sometimes rancorous rift between two starkly different worldviews.

When Mr. Netanyahu’s address turned blunt – as it often did – Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas was more often than not standing, applauding, and nodding his head. “Iran has proven time and again that it cannot be trusted,” the Israeli leader said Tuesday morning, speaking of the international bid to strike a deal over Iran’s nuclear program. “We must fully understand the nature of the regime.”

A day before, Senator Cruz echoed that point at a gathering that included Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel: “I believe those who are leading this negotiation fundamentally don’t understand who it is they are negotiating with.”

To Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, however, the characterization of Iranian negotiators as essentially religious madmen with whom it is pointless to negotiate is simply wrong. Senator Feinstein said she has known Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for eight years: “I believe he’s sincere and he wants an agreement. Now whether he can get it or not, I don’t know.”

On Tuesday, Netanyahu’s speech played to this divide and amplified it. How Congress deals with the aftermath is an open question. Several senators have introduced a bipartisan bill to at least give Congress a voice – and an opportunity – to weigh in on a deal. But, perhaps more than any other foreign policy issue, Iran’s nuclear program drives a wedge between these two worldviews, suggesting that the path ahead will be fraught with challenges.

Speaking of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Netanyahu said: “This is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it,” to which Republicans in the House chamber jumped to applaud, while most Democrats remained seated.

As evidence of Iran’s rising and destabilizing influence across the Middle East, Netanyahu pointed to the Iran-backed overthrow in Yemen and its growing role in Iraq. Moreover, Iran is still threatening to annihilate Israel, he said, citing English-language tweets by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. “At a time when many hope that Iran will join the community of nations, Iran is busy gobbling up the nations,” Netanyahu warned.  

On Monday, Cruz sounded like a Texas version of Netanyahu: The negotiators’ “view is it is perfectly acceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons, and [Iran] will be part of the rational community of nations. They do not understand when you are dealing with radical, theocratic, religious zealotry that ordinary cost-benefit analysis does not work.”

After Netanyahu's speech, the senator, who is considering a run for the presidency, likened the situation with Iran to the appeasement of Nazi Germany in Munich 1938.

The claim that Iran is not really interested in negotiating or won't stick to a deal irks Senator Feinstein, the former chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “You obviously are negotiating with others than your allies and friends. That’s why you negotiate,” she said in a brief exchange with reporters on Monday.

Appearing on CNN on Tuesday, she characterized the prime minister’s speech as “powerful” but lacking alternatives. Denouncing the deal was “really premature” because negotiations are continuing, she said. 

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California was even more outspoken: “I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech – saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5 +1 nations [negotiating with Iran], and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia acknowledges that Netanyahu has a legitimate concern: “Look, Iran just helped topple the government of Yemen.” But he also said that the interim negotiations have proven the critics wrong. Iran has radically reduced the enrichment level of its plutonium, sanctions have held, and international inspectors say that Tehran is generally abiding by restrictions, said Senator Kaine, who boycotted the speech because he didn’t think Congress should give even the appearance of influencing the upcoming Israeli election. “Now, we still have questions about the ultimate deal, and so do I,” said Kaine, “but I think the interim negotiation has led to a situation that was dramatically better than the status quo before.”

If a deal is agreed on, Kaine wants Obama to submit the text to Congress for review, as stated in a bipartisan bill that he introduced on Friday with three other co-sponsors on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Chairman Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina. The legislation would also prevent the president from lifting congressional sanctions for 60 days. It has eight other cosponsors from both parties, including independent Sen. Angus King of Maine.

It is expected to come to the Senate floor next week.The president has promised a veto, saying it would complicate negotiations as they enter the final stretch.

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