WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama said Tuesday afternoon that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “didn’t offer any viable alternatives” to the current negotiations with Iran in his speech to Congress earlier in the day.
The White House had said Obama would likely not watch the entire address but the president said he had read a transcript of Netanyahu’s speech.
“As far as I can tell, there was nothing new,” he told reporters ahead of a meeting with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
In his speech, Netanyahu assailed an emerging nuclear deal with Iran and told Congress that the negotiations between the two countries would “all but guarantee” that Tehran gets nuclear weapons to the detriment of the entire world. The invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress, extended by House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, has triggered a political furor in the United States. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s opponents in Israel accused him of staging the speech as an campaign ploy.
The president said Netanyahu made almost the same speech when he warned against an interim deal reached with Iran. Obama maintained that the interim deal had resulted in a freeze and rolling back of Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama added that Netanyahu’s alternative to talks amounted to no deal at all. That, he noted, would lead Iran to redouble its efforts to build a nuclear bomb.
“We don’t yet have a deal. But if we are successful, this will be the best deal possible with Iran to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon,” he said.
“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,” he said.
Taking a thinly veiled swipe at the prime minister, whose address appeared aimed at persuading legislators to block a deal if it comes to the Senate floor for a vote, Obama noted that the US has a system of government where “foreign policy runs through the executive branch and the president, not through other channels.”
Other officials also accused the prime minister of lacking any innovation and merely criticizing others’ plans.
An unnamed senior US official told CNN that the prime minister’s speech has “literally not one new idea; not one single concrete alternative; all rhetoric, no action.”
“Without a deal, Iran will certainly advance its program — installing advanced centrifuges, fueling its plutonium reactor and reducing or eliminating its breakout timeline. That would leave us with the choice of accepting a nuclear-threshold Iran or taking military action,” the official said.
“Simply demanding that Iran completely capitulate is not a plan, nor would any country support us in that position,” the official added. “The prime minister offered us no concrete action plan.”
Netanyahu faced still harsher criticism from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California), who said that she was “near tears” during Netanyahu’s speech.
Describing Netanyahu’s speech as an “insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5+1 nations,” Pelosi said that she was “saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”
Pelosi, who was an early and outspoken opponent of the prime minister’s speech, reiterated that “the unbreakable bonds between the United States and Israel are rooted in our shared values, our common ideals and mutual interests” and emphasized that “ours is a deep and abiding friendship that will always reach beyond party.”
Pelosi was notably cold and visibly disinterested throughout the speech, capping her indignation by standing up immediately to leave the room before Netanyahu made his way outside through the throngs of applauding legislators.
Other Democratic congressmen agreed.
The speech was “fear-mongering” that was “straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Kentucky) told reporters, referring to the hawkish Bush-era vice president.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), one of about 60 Democratic congresspeople who boycotted Netanyahu’s speech, said the Israeli leader has time and again gruffly pushed the United States towards war.
“I’ve listened to his alarmist predictions. I listened to him cheerlead for the United States’ greatest single blunder in our history, the Iraq war,” Blumenauer said. In Tuesday’s address, he added, Netanyahu “gave no alternative path forward, just…a series of demands.”
Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) too, bristled at Netanyahu’s approach.
“What I heard today felt to me like an effort to stampede the United States into war once again,” Schakowsky said.
Not all Democrats, however, shared such an acerbic take on the speech.
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York) and fellow New Yorker Rep. Eliot Engel were among the Democrats who defended the prime minister’s position while treading a delicate balance to avoid criticizing Obama.
Engel, a co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Israel Allies Caucus, defended Netanyahu’s speech as reflective of a bipartisan consensus. “Netanyahu’s speech showed that there remain serious and urgent concerns about the nuclear negotiations with Iran,” he wrote after the address. “These are not new — and many of them are shared by Republicans and Democrats, including officials in the Obama administration.”
Engel asserted that “I expect that Democrats and Republicans will move forward together in the interest of our national security and strengthening the US-Israel relationship.”
Lowey, the Ranking Member on the House Appropriations Committee, wrote in a statement that “Prime Minister Netanyahu made a powerful presentation to members of Congress regarding the threat of a nuclear Iran.”
Lowey noted that she “shares the prime minister’s concerns regarding the P5+1 negotiations,” calling on the United States and Israel to “jointly confront the Iranian challenge.”
At the House chamber Netanyahu received a decidedly warm reception. Republicans applauded Netanyahu’s remarks frequently, rising to their feet. Democratic lawmakers were far more restrained, although they cheered the Israeli leader when he praised Obama’s efforts on Israel’s behalf. In all, the premier received 25 standing ovations.
“I am encouraged by the bipartisan reception given to the prime minister, and hope all Americans focus on the substance of the prime minister’s concerns,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said afterwards.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a press briefing following the address that the US did not believe that there was a real possibility of getting Iran to sign a better deal than the draft agreement as leaked over the past few days.
“The president has made as his priority resolving the broader international community’s concerns with their nuclear program. Military actions, we know, would fall far short of that,” he said.
“The strategy that the president has laid out is the best possibility,” Earnest added, referring to the plan by which Iran would be at least one year away from breaking out to a nuclear bomb.
Earnest once again insisted that the fact that Obama wouldn’t meet Netanyahu during his visit was purely due to the fact that Netanyahu was heading for an election and “does not reflect a change in policy” regarding US-Israeli relations.
On Monday, in response to reports that Netanyahu could reveal sensitive details of the Iran talks during his very public speech, Obama administration officials including National Security Adviser Susan Rice issued dire warnings against revealing too much information during the speech before Congress.
Reports have indicated the US is seeking a deal that would keep Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon for 10 years, before allowing Tehran to ramp enrichment back up.
But Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Tuesday that his country would never give in to the “greedy demands” of other countries, rebuffing comments from Obama on a 10-year curb of nuclear activities as “unacceptable.”
Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report