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)

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.