Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s impassioned speech Tuesday before a joint session of Congress, a plea for America to reject an emerging nuclear deal that “paves Iran’s path to the bomb,” was interrupted by 26 standing ovations. But not everyone was cheering. As many as 60 Democratic lawmakers boycotted the address, and a group of them rushed to the microphone to denounce the prime minister shortly after he finished speaking.
The presumed leader of the anti-Netanyahu gaggle, Congressman John Yarmuth, spoke first: “First I would like to congratulate Speaker Boehner and Prime Minister Netanyahu on a very impressive bit of political theater,” the Kentucky Democrat said snidely. “Now the Prime Minister can go home to his campaign and say he lectured Congress and the American people on things that apparently we didn’t know.”
Yarmuth then proceeded to mischaracterize Netanyahu’s remarks, and inexplicably dragged former Vice President Dick Cheney out of retirement: “[Netanyahu’s] speech was straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook,” said Yarmuth. “It was fear-mongering at its ultimate. Phrases like essentially saying nuclear war is inevitable if this deal were to be accepted, phrases like this would pave the way to Iran having a nuclear bomb, these are things that I think are, again, part of what Dick Cheney would have done and did. This has been the prime minister’s pattern. He’s gone to the U.N. and done the same thing.” (Yarmuth’s out-of-left-field rant caused Dana Perino to suggest, on “The Five,” how much better it would be if Cheney were representing the U.S. at the negotiating table with Iran.)
Yarmuth wasn’t finished. After complaining about the supposedly “condescending tone” of Netanyahu’s speech (a characterization that his fellow Democrat, Congressman Brad Sherman, disputed), Yarmuth accused the Israeli Prime Minister of being “like the child who says ‘I want to go to Disneyland every day, eat ice cream and drink Coca-Cola every day,’ and not going to school [sic]. That would be a nice life for a child, but this is very serious business and it is in a — it is conducted in a very, very real world.” It’s good to know that Yarmuth is a serious adult who lives in the real world and opposes condescension.
By dismissing Netanyahu’s speech as a political stunt, Yarmuth — and his Democrat colleagues who expressed similar views — essentially questioned the sincerity of the prime minister’s concerns about the Jewish state’s continued existence. Netanyahu spoke movingly about the Jewish people’s 4,000-year fight for survival, although apparently not movingly enough to touch Yarmuth and other Democrats. After recounting some of that history, Netanyahu fast-forwarded to the present danger: “Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei spews the oldest hatred, the oldest hatred of anti-Semitism with the newest technology. He tweets that Israel must be annihilated.”
Netanyahu noted that Iran and its allies do not just oppose the Jewish state, but are intent on exterminating the Jewish people: “Listen to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, Iran’s chief terrorist proxy,” said Netanyahu. “He said: If all the Jews gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of chasing them down around the world.”
And Netanyahu explained why Iran posed an even greater threat than ISIS: “The difference is that ISIS is armed with butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube, whereas Iran could soon be armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs,” said the Prime Minister. “We must always remember — I’ll say it one more time — the greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons.”
Netanyahu then outlined why he believed that the nuclear deal, as it was developing, would almost certainly lead to a nuclear Iran: The Obama administration has already conceded, according to Netanyahu, that Iran can keep a “vast nuclear infrastructure” in place, and that restrictions on the program would be lifted after 10 years. These concessions, the prime minister asserted, would allow Iran to go nuclear after a decade — or even sooner if it (characteristically) chose to break the agreement.
Yarmuth’s comparison of Netanyahu to a “child” was itself appallingly childish. Yarmuth’s bitchy incoherence was a particularly unworthy response to Netanyahu’s plain-spoken moral clarity. But what’s truly unforgivable is that Yarmuth, by mocking Netanyahu’s sincerity, was essentially mocking the very legitimate concerns the Prime Minister raised about Iran’s threat to the Jewish’s state’s survival. And he was mocking those of us who share those concerns — including Holocaust survivor and human rights hero Elie Wiesel, who attended the speech in person and had implored President Obama to join him (to no avail, of course).
It is fine for Yarmuth, the President and other Democrats to disagree with Netanyahu respectfully and in good faith. It is quite another thing to be dismissive of Netanyahu’s very legitimate concerns for his people’s future. Yarmuth’s juvenile diatribe was offensive to Jews and others around the world who are rightly concerned about the threat this deal could pose to the world’s only Jewish state — and to America, the presumed target of the intercontinental ballistic missiles that Iran is developing.
Other Democrats joined Yarmuth in impugning Netanyahu’s motives, and hence dismissing his — and many other people’s — concerns. “If you can make the people afraid, you can make them do anything,” intoned Congressman Jim McDermott (D-Washington), as if he were imparting wisdom. “That’s what Prime Minister Netanyahu was doing. He was trying to make people afraid.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had a typically bizarre reaction to the speech. “I was near tears throughout the Prime Minister’s speech,” said Pelosi. Why, because of Netanyahu’s emotional narrative of Jewish survival against all odds? No such luck. Pelosi was “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States … and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”
Well, if Pelosi and her political allies don’t need to be told about the threat posed by Iran, why haven’t they bothered to share their knowledge with the American people? Why has no one in the Obama administration — from President Obama on down — ever articulated that threat as clearly and compellingly as Prime Minister Netanyahu just did?
The Government of Iran panned Netanyahu’s speech for being “boring and repetitive” — and thus was much more restrained in its criticism than were the above-quoted Democrats.
Team Obama has clearly been working to undermine Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S., and it is reasonable to ask Spokesman Josh Earnest whether the partial Democratic boycott of Tuesday’s speech was organized by the White House. Earnest should also be asked whether President Obama approves of the disrespectful remarks of Yarmuth and others — and indeed whether those remarks were made at the White House’s behest.
Obama, for his part, complained that Netanyahu did not offer any “viable alternatives” to the deal the U.S. was negotiating. That’s not a fair criticism, and more importantly, it suggests that the President is intent on signing the deal that’s on the table unless a “viable alternative” is presented. As others have pointed out, that appears to contradict an earlier pronouncement by Secretary of State John Kerry, purportedly speaking on behalf of the President, that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” It would thus appear that Netanyahu has very good reason to be concerned — as does every “serious” adult who lives in the “real world.”
David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.