WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday warned a joint session of the US Congress that an emerging deal over Iran's nuclear program would "inevitably" trigger war.
Netanyahu was interrupted numerous times by US lawmakers' wild applause. Though the Israeli leader said his appearance and remarks were not political, Republicans clearly appeared more receptive and enthusiastic about his hawkish tone on Iran.
At times, Netanyahu sounded like a political analyst, arguing why the terms of a potential deal that would essentially freeze Iran's nuclear arms program would threaten Israel.
"This deal will not change Iran for the better," he said. "It will only change the Middle East for the worst."
In one memorable line, Netanyahu said if Tehran agrees to the deal reportedly offered by the United States and other global powers, it would not bring about "a farewell to arms," but rather "a farewell to arms control."
Israeli officials would support existing and potential new sanctions and restrictions on Iran to be lifted only if the regime in Tehran "lifts its aggression on the region and the world."
Facing a re-election vote back home in mere days, Netanyahu warned the US lawmakers that even while dealing with sanctions, Iran is interfering in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
He challenged those in the chamber to imagine what else Iran would do if sanctions were lifted.
"The world should demand that Iran do three things: stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East," he said. "Second, stop supporting terrorism around the world. And third, stop threatening to annihilate my country, Israel, the one and only Jewish state."
That was among the many lines that drew a standing ovation from many in the House chamber, especially on the Republican side.
"If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country," Netanyahu said, "let it act like a normal country."
At other times, Netanyahu channeled his inner nuclear physicist.
He told the joint session that the emerging deal would allow Iran to retain keep in place too much of its existing nuclear infrastructure. And he warned that US and other Western powers are proposing to allow Iran to develop too many nuclear centrifuges, a key component to one day fielding an atomic weapon.
"If anyone thinks this deal kicks the can down the road, think again."
"The alternative to this deal," Netanyahu said, his voice booming as he pounded the podium with his left hand, "is a much better deal."
"A better deal that doesn't leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and short breakout times," Netanyahu said. "A better deal that doesn't give Iran an easy path to the bomb. … This is a bad. A very bad deal. We're better off without it."
That line, too, was met with loud applause.
Netanyahu was very much a politician mindful that his political future is on the line, and he turned the supposedly nonpartisan address into what felt like a war rally. As he turned toward the speech's climax, the prime minister seemed to be preparing both voters back home and one of his country's closest allies for a possible war.
And his message to the domestic audience was clear: I am the man to lead it.
"We must now choose between two paths: One path leads to a deal that curtails [the program] for a while," he said. "The other leads to a nuclear-armed Iran … that inevitably leads to war.
"Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand," he said to raucous applause."
"But I know that Israel doesn't stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel. I know that you stand with Israel," he told the US lawmakers, who erupted in wild applause.
The day before, Susan Rice, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference "the bottom line is simple, we have Israel's back, come hell or high water."
"deeply rooted in militant Islam, which is why Iran will always be an enemy of America."
In a slightly less hawkish tone, Netanyahu the former Israeli ambassador to the United States advised US lawmakers against viewing the Shiite regime in Tehran as an ally in the fight against the Islamic State, a violent Sunni group.
"Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. … They just disagree among themselves who will be the leader of that empire," he said, adding under an Islamic "empire" there would be "no room" for Americans, Israelis, women, nor any "freedom for anyone."
"When it comes to Iran, the enemy of your enemy," Netanyahu said in another applause line, "is your enemy."
At the start of his remarks, Netanyahu attempted to tamp down talk on both sides of the Atlantic about a deepening rift with Obama and his top aides.
"We appreciate everything that President Obama has done for Israel," Netanyahu said at the top of his speech.
He expressed appreciation for Obama's moves to bolster US-Israeli intelligence sharing and his pro-Israel actions at the United Nations.
Netanyahu said some things Obama has done for Israel is "less well known," including forest fire aid, and military assistance last year against Hamas.
Though some speculated during the run up to the address that he was there to criticize Obama, Netanyahu said: "That was never my intention."
The prime minister, who considers himself an expert on US politics, thanked Republicans and Democrats alike for what he described as their joint support of Israel "year after year and decade after decade."
"I know that whatever side of the aisle you sit, you stand with Israel," he said, banging the podium as he delivered the last four words to polite applause.
He also praised Congress for increasing funding for the joint American-Israeli "Iron Dome" missile defense system, which his military used to great fanfare in its conflict last year with Hamas.
"This Capitol dome," he said, "helped build our Iron Dome."
But the remarks were not met with wild applause from every member.
Reporters who watched the speech from the House press gallery reported a visibly angry House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
"The unbreakable bonds between the United States and Israel are rooted in our shared values, our common ideals and mutual interests," Pelosi said in a statement.
"As one who values the US-Israel relationship, and loves Israel, 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," Pelosi said, "and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation."
House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, DR-Wash., through a spokesman, told CongressWatch before the speech that he "remains troubled by the timing of the speech and the lack of coordination with the White House."
Initial reaction from senior Republican members was much the opposite, however.
"Despite the sobering nature of the remarks themselves, Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered an important message that all of Congress, indeed all of America, needed to hear," Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said in a statement. "At this critical juncture in history, the prime minister's warnings should also be heeded by President Obama, who appears to be on a dangerous and reckless path in negotiations with Iran.
"Even though the administration believes that a deal with Iran is possible, I remain deeply skeptical that the country will abide by any sort of agreement reached," Cole said. "As Prime Minister Netanyahu conveyed today, Israel shares that same concern and distrust of Iran. A nuclear armed Iran is a threat to the safety of the entire West, but also poses a direct threat to the very existence of Israel, as well as to the Sunni states of the Middle East."