Obama: Netanyahu Speech ‘Theater’ and ‘Nothing New’

The president has little in the way of praise for the Israeli Prime Minister’s address to Congress.

US President Barack Obama (R) speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, May 18, 2009. The White House meeting marks Obama's most testing diplomatic challenge yet after he made clear that he will vigorously push for a peace deal based on a Palestinian state and will seek to defuse Iran's nuclear drive with diplomacy.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
Add to Briefcase
George E. Condon Jr.
March 3, 2015, 11:30 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama dis­missed Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu’s ad­dress to Con­gress as of­fer­ing “noth­ing new” and lack­ing “vi­able al­tern­at­ives” to his ap­proach to halt­ing Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar weapons pro­gram.

Poin­tedly not­ing that he was too busy to watch the speech, Obama called it “theat­er” and fired a warn­ing shot at the con­gres­sion­al lead­ers who staged the event, let­ting them know he is not about to sur­render his con­sti­tu­tion­al prerog­at­ive to run the na­tion’s for­eign policy.

The pres­id­ent’s com­ments came shortly after the ap­plause died out in Con­gress, and be­trayed none of an­ger he is be­lieved to feel over Speak­er John Boehner’s in­vit­a­tion to Net­an­yahu. But be­hind the scenes, top White House aides made no ef­fort to hide their fury. Their re­ac­tion was swift and fierce, send­ing two mes­sages.

The sub­stant­ive mes­sage was that Obama will not be de­terred by either Net­an­yahu or his con­gres­sion­al crit­ics from the dip­lo­mat­ic ap­proach he thinks has the best chance of thwart­ing Ir­an’s bid for nuc­le­ar arms. The more per­son­al mes­sage was that the already-strained re­la­tions between the two al­lied lead­ers are head­ing in­to an even deep­er freeze.

Re­peatedly, the White House — from the pres­id­ent down — lamen­ted what they see as the politi­ciz­a­tion of the U.S.-Is­raeli re­la­tion­ship, with Con­gress used as a prop for Net­an­yahu’s re-elec­tion bid in the March 17 Is­raeli elec­tions.

In his Oval Of­fice re­marks, Obama re­minded Con­gress that he in­tends to call the shots. “We have a sys­tem of gov­ern­ment in which for­eign policy runs through the ex­ec­ut­ive branch and the pres­id­ent, not through oth­er chan­nels,” he said.

The pres­id­ent said he did not watch the speech be­cause he was con­fer­ring with oth­er world lead­ers on the crisis in Ukraine. But he said he read it. His ver­dict was dis­missive: “As far as I can tell, there was noth­ing new.”

He then chal­lenged Net­an­yahu’s key con­ten­tions that the deal he is ne­go­ti­at­ing will threaten Is­rael’s ex­ist­ence and guar­an­tee Ir­an will ac­quire nuc­le­ar weapons. He also called in­to ques­tion Net­an­yahu’s track re­cord for pre­dic­tions about Ir­an.

“On the core is­sue — which is how do we pre­vent Ir­an from ob­tain­ing a nuc­le­ar weapon which would make it far more dan­ger­ous and would give it scope for even great­er ac­tion in the re­gion — the prime min­is­ter didn’t of­fer any vi­able al­tern­at­ives,” said the pres­id­ent.

Obama, who said deny­ing nuc­le­ar cap­ab­il­ity to Ir­an was “one of my primary goals in for­eign policy,” noted that the United States and oth­er coun­tries came up with “an ex­traordin­ar­ily ef­fect­ive sanc­tions re­gime that pres­sured Ir­an to come to the table to ne­go­ti­ate in a ser­i­ous fash­ion.” Already, he claimed, this has led to pro­gress.

And that — he ad­ded poin­tedly — came des­pite Net­an­yahu’s pre­dic­tions of doom.

“Keep in mind that when we shaped that in­ter­im deal,” he said, “Prime Min­is­ter Net­an­yahu made al­most the pre­cise same speech about how dan­ger­ous that deal was go­ing to be. And yet, over a year later, even Is­raeli in­tel­li­gence of­ficers and in some cases mem­bers of the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment have to ac­know­ledge that, in fact, it has kept Ir­an from fur­ther pur­su­ing its nuc­le­ar pro­gram.”

Even be­fore the pres­id­ent spoke to re­port­ers, his aides were press­ing the ar­gu­ment that Net­an­yahu failed to of­fer a vi­able al­tern­at­ive to the pres­id­ent’s ap­proach. To them, there are three op­tions — force Ir­an to ne­go­ti­ate a deal, con­tin­ue sanc­tions, or go for a mil­it­ary solu­tion. Net­an­yahu, in his speech, ar­gued for con­tin­ued sanc­tions un­til Ir­an caves. But the ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieves that is an un­likely out­come. If the deal col­lapses, said the pres­id­ent, “Ir­an will im­me­di­ately be­gin once again pur­su­ing its nuc­le­ar pro­gram, ac­cel­er­ate its nuc­le­ar pro­gram, without us hav­ing any in­sight in­to what they’re do­ing. And without con­straint.”

Say­ing that Net­an­yahu is ar­guing for the ratchet­ing up of sanc­tions, he ad­ded: “We have evid­ence from the past dec­ade that sanc­tions are not suf­fi­cient to pre­vent Ir­an from pur­su­ing its nuc­le­ar am­bi­tions.”

He called it crit­ic­al that Ir­an see some chance of fu­ture re­lief from sanc­tions. Without that, he said Ir­an will press ahead with its nuc­le­ar pro­gram.

While he would not pre­dict suc­cess in the talks with Ir­an, Obama said it is the only chance to block the coun­try from get­ting nuc­le­ar weapons. “Noth­ing else comes close. Sanc­tions won’t do it. Even mil­it­ary ac­tion would not be as suc­cess­ful as the deal that we have put for­ward.”

He prom­ised to ag­gress­ively sell any deal to Con­gress and cast him­self as the one per­son fo­cused on find­ing a solu­tion. “I’m not fo­cused on the polit­ics of it. I’m not fo­cused on the theat­er of it. And my strong sug­ges­tion would be that mem­bers of Con­gress as they eval­u­ate it stay sim­il­arly fo­cused.”

It was no sur­prise to the White House that Net­an­yahu took such a hard line on the on­go­ing talks. But they don’t think it should be a sur­prise that they were angry about the event, one they be­lieve was an ef­fort to let the prime min­is­ter burn­ish his elec­tion cre­den­tials while giv­ing the Re­pub­lic­ans a chance to em­bar­rass the pres­id­ent at home.

In the wake of the speech, with its mul­tiple stand­ing ova­tions, sharp rhet­or­ic, and emo­tion­al evoc­a­tions of the his­tor­ic ties between the two na­tions, both Net­an­yahu and the Re­pub­lic­ans could reas­on­ably pro­claim “mis­sion ac­com­plished.” But such de­clar­a­tions are of­ten only good in the short term, and, in this case, the ver­dict can eas­ily change if the talks with Ir­an suc­ceed.

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