Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was met with rounds of applause and repeated standing ovations Tuesday while addressing a joint meeting of Congress but make no mistake: Democrats were by no means joining in the acclaim.
With their hands, their feet and their mouths, Democratic members made clear during and after the speech that they had significant objections to Netanyahu’s remarks — both in how they were delivered and in what they contained.
President Obama said that Netanyahu didn’t offer any “viable alternatives” to the nuclear negotiations with Iran during his speech to Congress.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wore a fierce expression during much of the speech and left the House floor before Netanyahu did, without greeting him, and saying later that she was insulted by the speech.
In a statement, Pelosi said she was “near tears” throughout the speech, “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States . . . and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”
While Netanyahu’s remarks in praise of the U.S.-Israel relationship and his nation’s right to exist free of threat won near universal applause, comments critical of the current multilateral negotiations met with a cold reception from many Democrats.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), one of nine Jewish senators and one who has enjoyed good relationships with pro-Israel groups, criticized what she called “circular reasoning” in Netanyahu’s speech.
“He seemed to say that there was no way, in any way, to ever trust Iran, which says to me you can’t have a deal with Iran, and then he said, ‘Well, why don’t you work for a better deal?’ ” Boxer said. “I don’t know what he’s saying: Should we work for a better deal or should we cut off any negotiations at this time? . . . It was not helpful at this point to criticize a deal that hasn’t even been completed.”
Republicans, meanwhile, seized on the applause and the acclaim Netanyahu won inside the House chamber. The galleries were packed with supporters invited by members of Congress, many of them members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is holding its annual policy conference this week.
The atmosphere in the chamber resembled a State of the Union address, with Netanyahu walking up the aisle, flanked by supporters and members jostling to shake his hand, while cameras focused on Israel’s first lady, Sara Netanyahu, and Jewish American political activist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, both sitting in the gallery.
“I’ve been here 23 years, I’ve never seen this reaction to a foreign leader,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), one of his party’s top voices on national security issues.
Nearly a dozen House Democrats — most of whom chose not to attend the address — lambasted Netanyahu and the Republicans who invited him in a media briefing held shortly after the speech.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) called the address “an affront to the president of the United States, to the Democratic leadership of Congress and the Department of State,” while Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) sought to throw doubt on Netanyahu’s security acumen by mocking his support for the Iraq War more than a decade ago.
Saddam Hussein’s removal would have “enormous positive reverberations on the region,” Netanyahu told Congress in 2002. “The big winner of the Iraq war was Iran,” Schakowsky said Tuesday.
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) also referenced the national security battles of yore, accusing the prime minister of “fearmongering” with a speech that was “straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook,” while Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) took a more highminded tone, saying the address “set a dangerous precedent” that threatened to “tarnish the grand tradition of the joint session.”
Not joining those Democrats was one of the House’s most outspoken Israel supporters, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), who said later that Netanyahu’s address was “compelling” and relayed “legitimate concerns.”
And he sought to play down the partisan divide in the reaction to the speech, saying it amounted to “ruffled feathers” more than meaningful long-term damage to the countries’ relations: “Presidents come and go, prime ministers come and go, members of Congress come and go, senators come and go, members of the Knesset come and go; it’s the U.S.-Israel relationship that has to endure in a bipartisan fashion.”
While members seethed most openly in the House, it is in the Senate, where there is emerging bipartisan interest in reviewing any Iran nuclear deal, that the speech’s impact is being more closely watched.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he believed that the address “crystallized a lot of thinking” for members of the Senate who are staking out what role to play in shaping or ratifying any agreement reached in the multilateral talks. Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has co-sponsored a bill that would give the Senate 60 days to review any deal. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that the bill could come to the Senate floor as soon as next week.
“Surely if you ran for the United States Senate, you would want to have the opportunity to weigh in on whether the sanctions that we put in place can be lifted based on the type of deal that ends up being negotiated, if one comes to fruition,” Corker said.
While more than four dozen members of Congress said they would skip the speech, there were no empty seats. Several senators who waited until the last moment to decide whether to attend ultimately chose to do so.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the minority whip, said he did not decide until Monday night — choosing to attend “out of respect for Israel” and the wishes of a personal friend.
He said nothing that Netanyahu said changed his mind about how to proceed with an Iran deal, adding that he was looking “very carefully” at the bipartisan bill providing for Senate review.
“The prime minister has doubts about Iran, and I have doubts about Iran,” Durbin said. “I did going in, I still do,” he said, adding that Netanyahu “may have mischaracterized” aspects of the talks now underway.
Durbin said he had never heard a foreign leader be so critical of an American president in the halls of Congress. But he played down the consequences: “I don’t think there will be any long-term damage. Our friendship and alliance with Israel is based on decades of trust.”
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.