President Barack Obama dismissed the speech given by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a joint session of Congress on March 3. Obama said that Netanyahu offered “nothing new” with regard to the dangers posed to the world should Iran obtain nuclear weapons. On the issue of forbidding the Islamic Republic from building nuclear weapons, Obama declared that “the prime minister didn’t offer any viable alternatives.” Neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden attended the speech.
Approximately 60 Democrats absented themselves from the speech in protest. While speaking to assembled journalists at the White House, Obama averred that he had not watched the speech either. However, he did read a transcript of it later on. “As far as I can tell, there was nothing new,” Obama said. Obama said that he and the government “focused on the central issue” of preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons. “I’m not focused on the politics of it,” said Obama.
Obama also questioned Netanyahu’s foreign policy credentials, saying "Netanyahu made all sorts of claims. This was going to be a terrible deal. This was going to result in Iran getting $50 billion worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement. None of that has come true." He added, "It has turned out that in fact, during this period we've seen Iran not advance its program. In many ways, it's rolled back elements of its program.”
To thunderous applause, Netanyahu told Congress earlier that day that the potential agreement being worked out by the Obama administration and Iran is not acceptable because it would not dismantle the Iranian nuclear weapon infrastructure. Such a deal, said Netanyahu, would allow Iran to restart its bomb-making capability. “This deal is so bad. It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb, it paves Iran’s path to the bomb,” Netanyahu said.
The two most prestigious newspapers in the country offered distinctly different perspectives on the speech and its importance in the US/Israel relationship. The Washington Post harrowed Obama for dismissing the concerns voiced by Netanyahu. "Mr. Netanyahu’s arguments deserve a serious response from the Obama administration — one it has yet to provide," the Washington Post editorial wrote. "The White House has sought to dismiss the Israeli leader as a politician seeking reelection; has said that he was wrong in his support for the Iraq war and in his opposition to an interim agreement with Iran; and has claimed that he offers no alternative to President Obama’s policy. Such rhetoric will not satisfy those in and out of Congress who share Mr. Netanyahu’s legitimate questions."
At the New York Times, an editorial declared that Netanyahu’s speech was political theater that serves as a pre-election ploy by the prime minister. "Even Washington doesn’t often see this level of exploitative political theater; it was made worse because it was so obviously intended to challenge President Obama’s foreign policy," the New York Times wrote. "Mr. Netanyahu’s speech offered nothing of substance that was new, making it clear that this performance was all about proving his toughness on security issues ahead of the parliamentary election he faces on March 17."
According to Reuters, Obama said that the deal currently being negotiated would require Iran to halt its nuclear weaponization program for 10 years. This deal, he said, is "far more effective in controlling their nuclear program than any military action we could take, any military action Israel could take and far more effective than sanctions will be."
Democrats came out swinging in support of embattled Obama. Approximately 60 Democrats, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) were absent during the speech. "That the speaker of the House of Representatives would allow the floor of this chamber to be used to undercut the negotiations of the president of the United States is partisan. and it's not right," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., shortly after the speech. Lewis and the rest of the Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus were absent.
"The House of Representatives is the most prestigious venue in the world. And to use it for political purposes was something that I did not want to be part of," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) was present for the address. Some observers sought to interpret her facial expressions during the speech as signalling disapproval. Pelosi did not greet Netanyahu at the end of the speech; she exited the chamber before Netanyahu did.
In a statement released after the address, while she declared her love for Israel, Pelosi wrote “… 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, and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”
“Today, Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated something we all agree upon: a nuclear armed Iran is unacceptable to both our countries. We have all said that a bad deal is worse than no deal, and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons is the bedrock of our foreign policy and national security. As President Obama has said consistently, all options are on the table for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.”