House Democrats listen to Netanyahu’s speech / Getty Images
As the echo of the sustained ovations that greeted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress began to fade, Democratic apologists for the Obama administration had a problem. For several weeks, the White House succeeded in focusing attention on the question of the alleged breach of protocol and partisanship that they claimed the invitation to Netanyahu represented. But once the address was actually delivered by the prime minister, this spin on events passed its expiration date.
Faced with Netanyahu’s powerful arguments explaining why an Iran deal predicated on a series of Western retreats would be a disaster, the White House and the rest of the president’s cheering section need to find a way to defend positions that have discarded the president’s past pledges to end Iran’s nuclear program. But, instead, they are reverting back to last week’s talking points. It won’t work.
Netanyahu laid out a cogent analysis of why a deal that leaves Iran in possession of its nuclear infrastructure and will eventually expire is an invitation for more Iranian cheating. But even if you believe that the U.S. has the sort of intelligence that would enable it to detect a nuclear breakout in time, the sunset clause that President Obama has discussed means, as Netanyahu pointed out, that even in the unlikely event that the Islamist regime abides by its terms, the deal may still lead to a nuclear Iran.
Moreover, contrary to his critics, Netanyahu did offer a realistic alternative to Obama’s strategy of negotiation by capitulation. By returning to the path of tough sanctions (strengthened by the Kirk-Menendez bill now before Congress) that the president prematurely abandoned in 2013, there is a chance that the regime can be forced to negotiate terms that are consistent with the president’s 2012 campaign promises. The president seems more intent on building a new détente with a terror-supporting, anti-Semitic regime bent on regional hegemony than in using the leverage he discarded.
So, however unsympathetic one may be to Netanyahu or John Boehner and however much many liberals may like the president, the speech requires a serious response. But rather than seeking a way to defend the indefensible, Democrats are merely reverting to invective.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called it “an insult to the intelligence of the United States.” Others were in denial about the terms offered by the United States to Iran that have been leaked by the administration they seek to defend. Still others simply ignored the substance and even the way Netanyahu bent over backwards throwing bouquets to President Obama for his support for Israel (while diplomatically omitting the many other instances in which he has undercut the Jewish state) and the tradition of bipartisan support for Israel. Instead, they mouthed the same tired clichés about the speech being “political theater” and recycled the charge about it being an Israeli gift to the Republicans — when not comparing the prime minister to Dick Cheney.
That’s unfortunate. The country needs a debate about the direction of the Iran talks and the way the president seeks to bury the hatchet with a nation that, as Netanyahu pointed out, still threatens neighbors with aggression, supports terrorism and threatens Israel with annihilation. Instead, all we’re getting is name-calling.
What this illustrates is a basic truth about this story. Contrary to the Democratic broadsides, it was not Netanyahu who injected partisanship into the Iran debate. It was the president and his defenders who invoked party loyalty to get some Democrats to boycott the speech and to oppose an Iran sanctions bill that has always had across-the-board bipartisan support. Now they want to use it to silence doubts about the president’s disastrous Iran policy. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.
Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary. Follow him on Twitter.