In a most historic address before the joint sessions of Congress on Tuesday morning, March 3rd, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the assembled body of legislators that "to defeat ISIS and allow Iran to get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle and lose the war - we can't let that happen!"
His much anticipated address had drawn a maelstrom of polemical reactions from the international media, Jewish organizations and Democratic lawmakers who interpreted the speech as an affront to the Obama administration’s foreign policy initiative in terms of negotiations with Iran over their nuclear intentions.
No one from the Obama administration attended the prime minister’s address including Dan Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel.
Prime Minister Netanyahu joins the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as the only leader of a foreign government who has addressed the joint sessions of Congress for the third time in his political tenure. To mark the occasion, House Speaker John Boehner presented the Israeli Prime Minister with a bust of Churchill. Pundits have opined that in context, the gesture can be interpreted as a statement in opposition to President Obama’s policies concerning the pernicious nature of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Entering the Congressional chamber in a manner similar to the president prior to a State of the Union address, Netanyahu received rapturous and extended applause as he navigated through a sea of enthusiastic legislators; shaking hands and exchanging words before ascending the podium to cheers.
"I am deeply honored... to be invited to speak before the most important legislative body in the world," Netanyahu began.
Netanyahu described a “fateful crossroads” on the Iranian nuclear threat and said that the emerging deal between Iran and world powers is paving the way for a Middle East “littered with nuclear bombs.”
“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.
“That’s why this deal is so bad,” he said. “It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb, it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”
Acknowledging the controversy surrounding his speech, the prime minister reiterated that it was never his intention to offend the White House, according to an INN report.
"The remarkable alliance between Israel and the United States has always been above politics, and it must remain above politics," he said.
Netanyahu began by thanking American presidents "from Harry Truman to Barack Obama." Despite the media hype, President Obama had remained a loyal ally to Israel, he insisted.
"We appreciate all that President Obama has done for Israel. Some of that is widely known like strengthening security cooperation and intelligence sharing, opposing anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations."
"Some of what he has done is less known," the PM continued, for example the emergency aid Obama sent to Israel during the devastating 2010 Carmel forest fire, or during the siege of Israel's embassy in Cairo - as well as approving emergency support for Israel's missile defense systems during last summer's Gaza war.
The Israeli leader also thanked Congress for its support for Israel, including the funding of the highly successful Iron Dome missile defense system.
“This capital dome helped build our Iron Dome,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu’s speech was repeatedly punctuated by applause and standing ovations, often bringing both Democrats and Republicans to their feet. The speech fell just two weeks before Netanyahu stands for re-election in a close race at home, shading the speech with elements of his domestic politics as much American divisions.
“I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention, he said.”
Netanyahu drew a parallel between the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim—which commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people in ancient Persia—and the modern-day Iranian threat.
"We are an ancient people. In our nearly 4,000 years of history many have tried repeatedly to destroy the Jewish people," he continued.
He noted how Queen Esther saved the Jewish people from annihilation by exposing the Persian plot. "Today the Jewish people face another attempt... to destroy us" from Persia, today's Iran.
"Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei spews the oldest hatred of anti-Semitism with the newest technology," he added.
But Iran is not just a Jewish problem, he cautioned, comparing it to the Nazi regime during World War Two. The six million Jews murdered in the holocaust "were only a fraction" of the victims of the Nazis, he noted.
The prime minister said Iran is seeking to take over the Middle East, dominating four capitals in the region—Baghdad (Iraq), Damascus (Syria), Beirut (Lebanon), and Sana’a (Yemen)—and exporting its brand of jihad across the world.
"We must all stand together to stop Iran's march of conquest, subjugation and terror."
Despite claims to the contrary, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is no moderate, and the regime is "as radical as ever," he said.
Under Rouhani, Tehran still "hangs gays, persecutes journalists and executed more prisoners than ever before."
While Netanyahu noted that the Iranian people are “very talented,” he said that in 1979, the country was hijacked by “religious zealots”—in reference to the Iranian Revolution of that year, under Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Iranian regime is “as radical as ever,” Netanyahu declared.
He cautioned against seeing Iran as an ally in the fight against the Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim terrorist organization that has conquered large swaths of Syria and Iraq and has been battling Iranian-backed Shi’a Muslim terror groups such as Hezbollah.
“The battle of Iran against ISIS (Islamic State) doesn’t turn Iran into a friend,” Netanyahu said.
"Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam - one calls itself the Islamic Republic, one calls itself the Islamic State."
Both seek to build an Islamic empire, he continued, "They just disagree among themselves who should rule that empire."
"Christians, Jews and Muslims who don't share the Islamist... creed" all face a common threat from both, he emphasized. "When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy!"
Iran, however, poses a greater threat, given that while ISIS "is armed with butcher's knives, captured weapons and YouTube," Iran already possesses a powerful military and is well on its way to achieving nuclear weapons.
"The greatest threat facing our world is the marriage of radical Islam and nuclear weapons," Netanyahu declared.
But that is exactly what could happen if the deal now being negotiated is accepted by Iran," he continued, moving on to the central issue of his address: the looming "bad deal" with Iran.
"That deal will not prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, it would all but guarantee" it.
Addressing reports that the U.S. has cut off intelligence sharing with Israel on the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 powers, Netanyahu highlighted two major aspects of the emerging deal with Iran that he said are already “public record.”
Netanyahu said the ability for Iran to retain its nuclear infrastructure in a deal is “dangerous” and could lead to a quick nuclear breakout capability. Secondly, he warned against the proposed lifting of restrictions on Iran 10 years after an agreement is signed.
“Not a single nuclear facility would be demolished,” Netanyahu said, saying that nuclear breakout time under the proposed terms of the deal could be less than a year, according to U.S. assessments. In a decade—what Netanyahu called “a blink of an eye”—Iran could produce “many, many nuclear bombs.”
"True, certain restrictions would be imposed to Iran's nuclear program," he conceded, but inspectors "document violations, they don't stop them."
"Inspectors knew North Korea were on their way to the bomb...that didn't stop anything," he pointed out.
Iran has already defied inspectors on three occasions, and will continue to do so, he added, noting that "Iran was caught twice operating secret nuclear facilities in Natanz and Qom" that inspectors never knew about. "Iran has proven time and again that it cannot be trusted."
The second concession was even more dangerous, said Netanyahu; namely, that after a decade Iran would be allowed to restart its program and "legitimately" acquire nuclear weapons.
"The foremost sponsor of global terrorism could be weeks away from...an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons?" he asked rhetorically.
It would spell the "countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare."
The way out was not war, Netanyahu cautioned, but determination to uphold the existing sanctions regime until Iran yields, setting three key conditions he insisted should be met by Tehran.
"First, stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East; second, stop supporting terrorism around the world; and third stop threatening to annihilate my country Israel, the one and only Jewish state!"
"At the very least," the deal "should insist that Iran changes its behavior before the deal expires," he added. "If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country."
Whatever happens, however, Netanyahu vowed that Israel would do whatever it took to defend itself against the Iranian threat.
Turning to Nobel Laureate and Nazi hunter Eli Wiesel, and echoing his own words at AIPAC's Policy Conference on Monday, he pledged: "The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies - those days are over!"
"We've restored our sovereignty in our homeland... for the first time in two thousand years we the Jewish people can defend ourselves.”
"Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand. But I know that Israel does not stand alone - I know that America stands with Israel; I know that you stand with Israel."
The prime minister ended his address with a quote from Moses, given prior to the Jewish people's entrance into the land of Israel after centuries of slavery in Egypt and decades wandering in the desert.
"Be strong and resolute, neither fear nor dread them," he repeated, in Hebrew and English. "May Israel and America stand together, strong and resolute.
"May God bless the State of Israel and may God bless the United States of America."
The build-up to Netanyahu’s address was unprecedented, with nearly every major broadcast news network or newspaper devoting considerable coverage to the event, and tickets in high demand.
Pastor John Hagee, founder and chairman of Christians United for Israel, said America and the world “had the opportunity to experience a Churchill moment with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel.”
“In the dark days of World War II, when Hitler and the Nazis were destroying Europe, Winston Churchill addressed the British making this statement: ’You ask what is our aim. I can answer in one word: It is victory... for without victory, there is no survival,’” Hagee told JNS.org.
“Today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it very clear that Iran must not be allowed to obtain a nuclear bomb,” added Hagee. “To quote the prime minister, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal.’ This is the hour that America has heard the truth, and now we must respond with meaningful legislation to guarantee liberty for both Israel and America.”
In a statement released to the media AIPAC said it “commends the overwhelmingly bipartisan attendance and positive response to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to the joint meeting of Congress today. The prime minister expressed appreciation for the unbroken U.S. commitment to Israel from President Truman to President Obama. The prime minister’s message to Congress and the American people is critical at a moment when there is a danger that an agreement will be reached that fails to dismantle Iran’s program such that it does not have a path to a nuclear weapon.”