What Benjamin Netanyahu Really Meant in His Speech to Congress, Explained in 5 Quotes

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress to warn lawmakers about the threat of a nuclear-capable Iran and the pressing need to stop crackdown on global terror.

The much-anticipated speech stirred controversy beforehand, with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) inviting Netanyahu to speak without consulting the Obama administration. What intelligence would he reveal? Would he use his time before Congress as a campaign speech for the upcoming Israeli elections? But most worrisome of all, could his remarks undermine the Obama administration's controversial nuclear talks with the Iranian regime and the president's foreign policy legacy?

As it turned out, the speech itself wasn't nearly as bombastic as the Obama administration and some Democrats had feared. While blasting the proposed Iran deal, he offered little in terms of an alternative. He made his points in his signature baritone, earning more than 20 standing ovations from Congress. But other legislators blasted the speech: Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) called it "fear-mongering" and "condescending," and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said it was "insulting to the intelligence of the United States."

Despite the backlash both before and after, Netanyahu's speech was effective in raising the stakes over the nuclear negotiations with Iran. His remarks warrant close scrutiny, as they revealed some valuable insights into how the leader of one of America's closest allies views the world. Here's an explanation of some of the finer points from Netanyahu's address to Congress, using his own words:

1) What Netanyahu said:

What he meant: By beginning his address by thanking Congress and Obama for their constant support of Israel, the prime minister was not only reminding the audience of the strength of the U.S.-Israel long-standing partnership, but also that disagreement has been a central dynamic in their relationship since Israel's founding.

Netanyahu made a similar argument during a speech to the American Israel Political Affairs Committee on Monday, the day before his Congressional address. He listed historical disagreements the two countries have weathered, from Secretary of State George Marshall's opposition to David Ben-Gurion's intention to declare statehood in 1948 to U.S. opposition to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's launch of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 and others in between. Time and again, he told the crowd, Israel has acted in its own best interest. The friendship survived, and the relationship strengthened.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu told Congress that "I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention." He pointed out that the relationship is stronger than any disagreement. The main difference this time, however, is that media outlets (and many left-leaning American and Israeli legislators) have tried to frame the disagreement in light of the March 17 Israeli elections, not on what hangs in the balance with Iran.

2) What he said:

What he meant: Speaking about the threat Iran poses to the Jewish people on the eve of the holiday of Purim was no coincidence. On the day after the address, Jews around the world remembered another instance when their ancestors stood tall and defeated Persian efforts to wipe out the Jewish nation some 2,500 years ago. Netanyahu argues that Israel faces a similar threat from Iran.

Similarly, by alluding to the Holocaust in writer and activist Elie Wiesel's presence, Netanyahu recalled the promise Jews all over the world made following World War II: "Never again." Never again will the Jewish nation fall prey to an outside force that threatens its existence, nor will it sit idle watching such tragedy happen to others.

Having the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate in the House Chamber during his speech gave Netanyahu an opportunity to drive this point home. Netanyahu turned to Wiesel, saying, "And I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned. I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past."

3) What he said:

What he meant: Netanyahu believes that one evil does not trump another. This is the core of why the Israeli prime minister addressed Congress in the first place. If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, he believes that both countries are in big trouble. Right now, Israel, the United States and Iran alike want the Islamic State group defeated, but according to Netanyahu, this does not make all three buddy-buddy.

The Obama administration wants to trust Iran as a more rational actor, in part due to Iran's offensive against the Islamic State group. But Netanyahu reminded Congress why he thinks the U.S. should be suspicious of Iran's intentions — namely because of their backing of the Assad regime in Syria, their support of rebels in Yemen and the Iranian leadership's threats to annihilate the state of Israel. Just last week, even in the midst of the U.S.-Iran "nuclear talks," Iran carried out a military exercise blowing up a mock U.S. aircraft carrier. Netanyahu let these actions speak for themselves.

4) What he said:

What he meant: Netanyahu believes that Obama treating Iran as a rational actor is misguided, and that in fact, Iran can't be trusted. Obama's nuclear plan involves more trust than Netanyahu is willing to give. 

Netanyahu's belief that the current nuclear deal sitting on the table would lead inevitably to war in the Middle East shows his deep distrust of the Obama administration. The United States has often said that no deal is better than a bad deal, and Netanyahu called the U.S. plan "a bad deal."

Last week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said in a televised speech that he would destroy the large northern Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa with a single weapon if provoked. In his speech, Netanyahu cited a disputed quote attributed to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, Iran's chief terrorist proxy, who allegedly said, "If all the Jews gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of chasing them down around the world."

The Iranian regime's actions and words give Netanyahu good reason to be nervous about Iran's nuclear capabilities. The United States pledges to be one of Israel's closest friends, and Netanyahu wants support from his strongest ally.

5. What he said:

What he meant: Netanyahu came to Washington with one goal in mind: Block the nuclear deal. As he explained elsewhere in his speech, this goal isn't about politics, and it sure isn't partisan. The Obama administration wants the current deal because it thinks that a de-escalation in tensions over the Iranian nuclear program would help quell tensions in the region overall. 

Netanyahu believes that the concessions necessary to secure a deal — allowing Iran to maintain a civilian nuclear power program, for instance — are too big a risk for Israel, the United States and the world at large. What Netanyahu is trying to argue is that by giving Iran a nuclear inch, they could potentially take a mile.

The reaction: The initial reactions from U.S. legislators told us a lot about the U.S.-Israel relationship. Immediately, many members of Congress reacted positively, calling Netanyahu's remarks both strong and powerful. But in the minutes following the speech, other legislators stated that the speech, while powerful, lacked any sort of concrete plan to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Soon after the speech, Obama remarked that Netanyahu said "nothing new." Nevertheless, the serious concerns raised by the prime minister deserve a reasoned response, not rhetoric, from the president — which has yet to be seen.

Still, as Netanyahu explained during his AIPAC address, "America and Israel are more than friends. We're like a family... Now, disagreements in the family are always uncomfortable, but we must always remember that we are family."

These days, family relations are looking chilly.

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Ariel Cohen

Ariel is an American journalist living in Israel. She specializes in Mid East Christian populations and hummus consumption.

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