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Netanyahu Warns US Deal with Iran Would Turn Middle East into 'Nuclear Tinderbox'

In his speech to Congress Tuesday, the Israeli prime minister Blasted the Obama administration’s approach to ending Iran’s nuclear program.

by Harriet Salem
Mar 3 2015, 10:05pm

Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's impassioned address on the dangers of a US nuclear deal with Iran may have won him 26 standing ovations in Congress Tuesday, but it also earned him a rebuke from US President Barack Obama who retorted that the Israeli leader had offered no "viable alternative" in his critique.

In the near 40 minute-long speech, Netanyahu invoked the Jewish history of persecution and claimed that Iran's "tentacles of terror" were already clutching Israel and posed a "threat to the entire word." He warned that a US agreement with Iran would turn the Middle East into a "nuclear tinderbox" and said a potential deal wouldn't "block Iran's path to the bomb… It paves Iran's path to the bomb."

There are just two weeks to go until Israelis head to the ballots for the state's upcoming elections, and polls show Netanyahu's Likud party and the Zionist Union, a coalition camp made up of Labor and Livni, are currently neck-to-neck in the election race. With this in mind, many expected the Israeli prime minister to seize the opportunity to play hardball on the Iran deal in such a high-profile forum Tuesday, and he did not disappoint.

"This is his [Netanyahu's] thing," Yossi Mekelberg an Israeli political analyst with Chatham House and Regents University in London told VICE News. "A lot is going against him in Israel; corruption scandals, rising house prices. So, the goal is to tell voters: 'I'm Mr. Security. I'm going to Congress. I'm going to defend you against Iran.'"

Related: A Public Relations Machine Is Trying to Sink a Deal to End Iran's Nuclear Program.

Back in Israel, the speech was subject to a five-minute delay on Israeli television channels, so that broadcasters had enough time to monitor the speech to make sure Netanyahu refrained from electioneering. Israel maintains strict laws on the broadcasting of election materials and the speech was problematic, given its proximity to the ballot. Nonetheless, Netanyahu promoted a livestream of the speech on his Likud party's website, knowing that a tough stance on security issues always plays out well with Israel's right-wing electorate.

While Netanyahu's hellfire approach to the ongoing Iran nuclear negotiations may have shored up vital votes for the Israeli leader in the upcoming election, they may have come at the cost of deepening rifts with the Obama administration.

Speaking Tuesday evening while out on the campaign trail at an Israeli community close to the Gaza border, Netanyahu's main rival, Zionist Union leader Yitzhak Herzog, noted that the speech may have been "impressive" to a domestic audience, but it would not change the outcome of the negotiations and was a "harsh wound" to diplomatic relations with "Israel's greatest ally and strategic partner."

Netanyahu's Congress stunt comes at an "extremely sensitive moment" in the Iranian nuclear negotiations, Mekelberg told VICE News. "The last thing US negotiators need at the moment is to be seen to be acting on behalf of the Israeli government. They wanted low-profile talks, not for the Iranians to think that they are acting in a certain way because they're afraid of Netanyahu."

"Of course [the speech] has upset the Obama administration," he added. "A lot has been invested politically in these talks."

Related: Leaders Defend 'Progress' in Iran Nuclear Talks After Deadline Is Extended by Seven Months.

In spite of Netanyahu's scathing address, US State Secretary John Kerry continued talks with Iranian officials in the Swiss town of Montreux Tuesday. "We're working away, productively," Kerry told reporters after the two-hour morning meeting.

The tensions Tuesday were palpable, even though Israel and the US both attempted to downplay the strain in the build up to the talks, which was pointedly arranged on the back of an invitation from Republicans in Congress, without consulting the Obama's administration. 

Nearly a quarter of Democrats boycotted the talks, including Vice President Joe Biden and other high-ranking officials.

"The people around Obama can't stand Netanyahu and can't stand his attitude," Mekelberg said. "The rift between Netanyahu and Obama is having a great impact right now. If Netanyahu stays on as Prime Minister, Israel-US relations will have a rough ride through the remainder of the Obama administration."

Indeed, the deterioration of relations between the two leaders has reached such cosmic proportions of late that an Israeli film production company, Hafakot 101, recently released a short Star Wars parody clip portraying Netanyahu as Obi-Wan Kenobi, battling Obama with a lightsaber in an effort to prevent the US president boarding a flight to Tehran to sign a nuclear deal.

One Democratic leader who was present at the speech later laid out a biting assessment of Netanyahu's rhetoric. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that as someone "who values the US-Israel relationship," she was in near tears and "saddened by the insult to the US."

Related: Iran Says US Airstrikes Can't Beat the Islamic State.

In a statement released shortly after the speech concluded, Pelosi implied that the Israeli prime minister was merely being provocative, considering that the US had already expressed its "commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation" and was aware that a "bad deal is worse than no deal."

Naomi Dann, a spokesperson for Jewish Voice for Peace, a California-based NGO that led a grassroots campaign encouraging members of Congress to skip Netanyahu's address, said that while most Democrats boycotted because they felt the "timing was inappropriate," the speech also provided a rare and invaluable opportunity for leftists to encourage questioning of the dominant discourse on Israel.

"Mainstream media in the US pretty much keeps to the line that Israel is right no matter what," Dann told VICE News. "So, anything that opens up debate about the special relationship between the US and Israel is great."