By Yunita Ong and Paige Leskin
WASHINGTON – Democratic leaders criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday as “political theater” and an “affront” to President Barack Obama, the State Department and the Democratic Party that will hurt relations between Israel and the United States.
Netanyahu spoke to a joint meeting of Congress about the United States’ talks with Iran over its nuclear programming at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner. Boehner’s request was made without consulting Obama.
Netanyahu and Republicans succeeded in making the speech into what multiple Democrats called “political theater.”
“It’s an affront to the president, Democrat leadership and the State Department,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who chose not to attend the speech. “It should not be used as a partisan tool … I hope this will never happen again.”
More than 40 congressional Democrats joined Lewis in skipping Netanyahu’s speech in protest. In his remarks, the prime minister said the deal being discussed between the United States and Iran to set centrifuge limits and increased inspectors of the Iranian nuclear program would only briefly delay the expansion of Iran’s nuclear arsenal, which it would then be able to legally build in its “global network of terror.”
“We must stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror,” Netanyahu said. “Iran’s supreme leader spews the oldest hatred of anti-Semitism with the newest technology … If Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow.”
Secretary of State John Kerry is pursuing negotiations with Iranian officials in Geneva to limit Iran’s nuclear program. But Netanyahu said Tuesday that the deal on the table was “really bad” and called for the United States to demand harsher sanctions and objectives that would destroy the Iranian nuclear arsenal.
But top Democrats said that by bringing up his concerns in front of Congress instead of directly to negotiating officials, Netanyahu is undermining any progress made in peace talks with Iran.
Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky said the prime minister’s remarks were meant as “fearmongering” in a move “straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook.”
“Netanyahu is laying out his terms before a Joint Session instead of at negotiating table.” Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia tweeted during the address. “A big gamble.”
Meanwhile, Republicans praised Netanyahu for calling for stronger sanctions against Iran, whose regime has, in the words of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, “openly stated … it wants to murder Americans and Israelis.”
Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., criticized congressmen who skipped the speech.
“I believe this sends a reckless message to the international community that the United States is not approaching ongoing talks with Iran on that nation’s nuclear program from a position of strength, but from one of compromise—which we cannot do,” Tipton said.
Yet Netanyahu’s speech did not lay out an alternative for the deal he criticized, Democrats and experts said. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said the prime minister offered no tangible policy solutions in his speech “for a demagogue, not for diplomacy.”
Zogby said that Netanyahu’s address also served to boost his own re-election campaign. Israel’s prime minister election will take place on March 17, with Netanyahu, the Likud Party politician, running a tight race against the Labor Party’s Isaac Herzog.
“He could have made this address after this election, but the fact that he chose a date and time just right for the primetime audience in Israel is very telling,” Zogby said.
Advocacy groups weighed in on Netanyahu’s appearance and his demands in the nuclear talks. While J Street, a “pro-peace, pro-Israel” American advocacy group, said his conditions were impossible to meet, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — known as AIPAC —supported Netanyahu.
Members of AIPAC, which is holding a three-day conference in Washington, were present in large numbers on Capitol Hill for the speech. In a statement, the pro-Israel group called on politicians to reach an agreement that would “dismantle Iran’s program such that it does not have a path to a nuclear weapon.”