Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress on March 3 was unprecedented in many ways.
- It constituted a major breach of protocol, in that it was the first time the Speaker of the House has extended such an invitation without consulting the Administration or the opposition party.
- It took place just two weeks prior to national elections in the foreign leader’s home country, thereby giving the impression of an endorsement of his campaign by what Netanyahu noted was “the most important legislative body in the world.”
- An invitation to speak before a joint session of Congress is a rare honor. Indeed, the only other foreign leader besides Netanyahu to appear before such a joint session of Congress on three occasions was Winston Churchill. Underscoring the high regard Congress has for the right-wing Israeli leader, Speaker of the House John Boehner presented him with a bust of the late British prime minister.
- Most strikingly, Netanyahu is the only foreign leader to have been invited to address a joint session of Congress with the express purpose of undermining U.S. foreign policy: in this case, the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, currently entering their sensitive final stages.
Some pundits have speculated on the reaction if the Democrats had invited French president Jacques Chirac to criticize President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy, or Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to criticize President Ronald Reagan’s Central America policy.
The difference, though, is that Chirac and Arias represented the vast majority of international opinion in opposing U.S. policy, whereas—in the case of the Iran talks— the vast majority of international opinion appears to be in support of the ongoing negotiations.
Indeed, these nuclear talks are not a unilateral initiative of the Obama Administration. The United States is one of six world powers (the others being Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia) empowered by the United Nations to pursue these negotiations. If one were to believe Netanyahu and his Congressional allies, the international community is naively appeasing the Iranians, with only him and the U.S. Congressional leadership possessing the wisdom and understanding to recognize the supposed Iranian threat.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has been a strident supporter of the right-wing Israeli prime minister, praising Netanyahu’s harsh rebukes of President Obama's Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives in 2011 by declaring, "I think it's clear that both sides of the Capitol believe you advance the cause of peace."
This time, however, she observed that the Israeli leader’s remarks were an “insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5 +1 nations” and that she was “saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation."
Among the many misleading aspects of Netanyahu’s address was his failure to acknowledge the tremendous progress that diplomatic efforts have already made in halting expansion and rolling back Iran's nuclear program. Whereas international inspectors had previously been able to visit Iran’s facilities once every few weeks (or even months), they are now being monitored daily. The Obama Administration has made clear they will not accept any agreement that would allow the Iranians to develop enough fissionable material to come anywhere less than a one year breakout period of developing even a single nuclear weapon.
Given that the negotiations with Iran are secret and no one outside those negotiations is even familiar with the details of the various proposals being discussed, it is profoundly presumptuous for Netanyahu and the Republicans to condemn the process. In essence, then, what they are disagreeing with is any kind of negotiated settlement. Netanyahu and his Congressional allies insist that a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities and allowing unprecedented access to that country’s nuclear facilities would somehow threaten Israel and the United States, while breaking off talks and thereby allowing Iran to accelerate its nuclear program would somehow make our countries more secure.
In many respects, opponents to the Obama Administration’s nuclear talks with Iran parallel those who opposed the Ford and Carter administrations’ nuclear talks with the Soviet Union: Their argument is based upon the assumption that negotiations in and of themselves somehow constitute appeasement, that the other side is fanatical and cannot be trusted (even with strict verification procedures), and that sanctions and threats of war are the only way to go.
In reality, it is Netanyahu and his supporters, not the Obama Administration, who are naïve, thinking that Iran would simply buckle under U.S./Israeli threats to eliminate its nuclear program. They want a return to the Bush Administration policy of threats and ultimatums, which went nowhere. Indeed, under Bush, Iran's nuclear program expanded and there was a real threat of a disastrous military confrontation.
While several dozen Democrats boycotted the speech, the vast majority were in attendance, many giving the right-wing Israeli leader standing ovations as he attacked the American President. Among those on Netanyahu’s official “escort committee” were New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, whom Congressional Democrats have chosen as their foreign policy spokesperson as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Brad Sherman of California, second-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The Republicans and their Democratic allies are attempting to convince the American public to trust a right-wing foreign leader without any direct knowledge of the actual negotiations on what is in the best interest of peace and security over that of the elected President and America’s closest NATO allies. They cheered when Netanyahu made a series of demonstrably false claims regarding Iran: that the Shia republic collaborates with Al-Qaeda and other Sunni movements which are, in fact, its sworn enemies; Iran “dominates” Arab governments that are actually backed by the United States; Iran is supposedly “gobbling up” other nations; and that the nuclear deal would somehow “all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them.”
What is often forgotten is that Netanyahu’s alarmism is not new. During his first address before a joint session of Congress in 1996, he declared that Iran was "extremely close" to developing nuclear weapons and that failure to act immediately would risk "the lives of our children and our grandchildren."
What is disturbing is that so many in Congress still believe him.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.