WASHINGTON -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won applause, whoops and standing ovations on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, but conversations with lawmakers immediately after Netanyahu's long-awaited address suggest that he didn’t win the prize he was really looking for: a decisive shift in the conversation about nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
Instead, legislators reiterated old talking points about the nuclear negotiations backed by the Obama administration, and expressed their respect for the Israeli leader and the position he sees himself in as his country’s last hope against a potential Iranian nuclear attack. Of course, those who attended the controversial speech were already making a silent statement in support of Netanyahu, given the administration’s strident criticism of his address and the choice by many Democrats to give it a miss.
“It was very powerful,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said of the speech. “But I hope it doesn’t explode the possibilities of an agreement.”
The comment from Feinstein, one of a number of Democrats who have not openly challenged the administration on the negotiations but have indicated receptiveness to Netanyahu’s concerns, captured the overall congressional response to Bibi’s appearance on the Hill: It was salient, but it didn’t change our minds.
“The [Prime Minister] has doubts about Iran, and I have doubts about Iran. I did going in, I still do. That is a valid starting point. We don't want Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we want the United States to be a strong ally of Israel,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has also supported negotiations. “But reaching the goal of stopping nuclear weapons is clearly what's at issue here. The [Prime Minister] is dismissive of the president's efforts. I think at some parts of his speech, he may have mischaracterized some of things that are being said.”
Lawmakers on the other side seemed equally unaffected on Tuesday, just hours before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that Republicans will next week bring to a vote a recently proposed bill that would require congressional approval for any potential deal between Tehran and the six countries -- the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China -- that are working to limit the Iranian nuclear program. The bill would not introduce additional sanctions on Iran, the action Netanyahu called for this morning. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), one of the Senate’s chief proponents of additional sanctions, reaffirmed to The Huffington Post today that he and other legislators would stand by their promise to the administration not to vote on new sanctions until at least March 24.
“I don't think so,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), when asked if he thought Netanyahu's speech would derail the ongoing talks, which resumed on Monday. “I've been supportive of negotiations, supportive of a good deal... If there's a good deal to be made, it should be made. It was a great speech and it was information people need to know if they haven't heard it. So I'm glad he gave it.”
But Netanyahu’s gloomy speech did prompt new expressions of paranoia about Iran from several of Flake’s fellow Republicans, who have long criticized the Obama administration for attempting to engage with Iran to peacefully resolve concerns about its nuclear activity.
“There is one threat and one threat only with the potential to once again annihilate 6 million Jews,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). “A nuclear Iran poses an existential threat to the nation of Israel, that's what Prime Minister Netanyahu tell us. And it is worth underscoring that the word 'existential' does not mean a Frenchman in a black beret chain-smoking. It means going to the very existence of the nation of Israel.”
And while Bibi may not have changed lawmakers’ minds about negotiations, he did manage to unite both supporters and skeptics of diplomacy around his larger assertion that a deal would not simply be about a nuclear weapon. Rather, he suggested, a deal could enable an even more worrying development by bolstering Tehran’s growing regional power.
“Iran's goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its Revolutionary Guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror,” Netanyahu told Congress. “Backed by Iran, [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Backed by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Backed by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea. Along with the Straits of Hormuz, that would give Iran a second chokepoint on the world's oil supply... We must all stand together to stop Iran's march of conquest, subjugation and terror.”
This argument -- that Iran is a bad actor in the region and cannot be embraced -- seemed to make a bigger impact on lawmakers Tuesday than Netanyahu’s warnings against diplomacy. The administration has indicated that regional politics are not on the table in the negotiations, though skeptics point out that Iran is a de facto partner for the U.S. against the Islamic State in Iraq and has not been directly confronted by Washington in Syria or Yemen.
“I think the world would be a lot better place if Iran would give up terror, give up its support of Hezbollah, Hamas,” Feinstein said, referring to Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Palestine.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) went as far as to compare Netanyahu to another politician who once stood in the face of an expanding regional power.
Netanyahu, Kirk told The Huffington Post, is “the Winston Churchill of our time.”
Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Sen. Robert Menendez's party. He is a Democrat.