Netanyahu to Congress: Deal with Iran paves way to bomb

(JTA) — In his address to Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that the proposed nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran will lead inexorably to a nuclear-armed Iran and war in the Middle East.

“This deal has two major concessions: One, leaving Iran with a vast nuclear program, and two, lifting the restrictions on that program in about a decade,” Netanyahu said in his speech Tuesday morning. “That’s why this deal is so bad. It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb, it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

Netanyahu argued that the deal under consideration, which is being negotiated with Iran by the United States and other world powers, would let most of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure stay in place, including thousands of centrifuges. That would leave Tehran with a very short “breakout time” with which it could produce nuclear weapons, he said.

The Israeli leader also said that the inspection regime under negotiation would be insufficient because inspectors can only document violations, not stop them, and Iran has a history of maintaining secret nuclear facilities.

“Like North Korea, Iran, too, has defied international inspectors,” Netanyahu said. “Iran has proven time and again that it cannot be trusted.”

Because Iran threatens many of its neighbors, other countries in the region likely would develop their own nuclear weapons to keep pace with the Islamic Republic, Netanyahu warned, leaving the region “crisscrossed with nuclear tinder-wires.”

“If anyone thinks this deal kicks the can down the road, think again,” he said. “When we get down that road, we will face a much more dangerous Iran, a Middle East littered with nuclear bombs and a countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare.”

Netanyahu urged Congress to reject the deal.

“For over a year, we’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal,” Netanyahu said. “Well, this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.”

The audience responded with a standing ovation.

This was Netanyahu’s third address to a joint session of Congress, tying him with Winston Churchill for most speeches to joint sessions of Congress by a foreign leader.

Organized by House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the Israeli prime minister unbeknownst to the White House, the speech proved highly controversial in the run-up to Tuesday. President Barack Obama said he would not attend because of its occurrence within weeks of Israel’s scheduled elections on March 17, and Vice President Joe Biden cited a scheduling a conflict in saying he would not be present.

Numerous Democratic lawmakers, Israeli political figures and prominent American Jews called on Netanyahu to scrap the planned speech, warning that it risked the appearance of a partisan political move. More than 50 Democratic lawmakers and one Republican lawmaker — including six Jewish lawmakers — said they would not attend.

But Netanyahu insisted that the speech was necessary to warn Congress and the American people about the dangers of the developing deal with Iran.

At the outset of his address, Netanyahu sought to dismiss the notion that it was a partisan political play, praising Obama’s record on Israel and citing several specific instances of support, including U.S. assistance in helping the staff at Israel’s embassy in Cairo escape unharmed during a siege in 2011 and bolstering Israel’s anti-rocket infrastructure during last summer’s Gaza war.

“The remarkable alliance between Israel and the United States has always been above politics; it must always remain above politics,” Netanyahu said. “Israel is grateful for the support of America’s people and of America’s presidents, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.”

But, he said, “As prime minister of Israel, I feel a profound obligation to speak to you about an issue that could well threaten the survival of my country and the future of my people: Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.”

In a nod to the upcoming Purim holiday, Netanyahu compared Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to the Persian villain in the Purim story, Haman. Iran’s regime is not just a threat to Israel, Netanyahu said, but to the entire world. He noted Iran’s support for terrorism worldwide, including the bombings via its proxies of the U.S. Marines barracks in Lebanon in the 1980s, the AMIA Jewish center and Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s, and U.S. embassies in Africa in the late 1990s.

Today, Netanyahu said, Iran dominates four capitals in the region — Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana — and its regime is as radical as ever.

“Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam,” he said. “Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire, first on the region and then on the rest of the world.”

The difference, he said, is that “ISIS is armed with butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube, whereas Iran is armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

Netanyahu argued that war is not the only alternative to a deal, saying Iran needs an agreement more than America does, especially given the pressure on its economy.

“Now we’re being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That’s just not true. The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal,” Netanyahu said, “a better deal that Israel and its neighbors may not like, but with which we could live, literally.

“If Iran threatens to walk away from the table — and this often happens in a Persian bazaar — call their bluff,” Netanyahu said. “They’ll be back because they need the deal a lot more than you do.”

One of the loudest applause lines of the speech came after the prime minister introduced the Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, who was seated next to Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, and urged world leaders not to repeat history’s mistakes.

“The days when Jewish people remain passive in the face of genocidal enemies — those days are over,” Netanyahu said to thunderous applause.

“Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand,” he said. “But I know Israel does not stand alone. I know America stands with Israel, I know that you stand with Israel.”

Netanyahu concluded his speech with a biblical quote from Moses, first in Hebrew, then in English.

“Be strong and resolute, neither fear nor dread them,” he said, then added, “May Israel and America always stand together, strong and resolute.”