Only two foreign leaders have addressed Congress three times: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (in 1941, 1943, and 1952) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, 2011, and 2015. This month marks the eighth anniversary of what was, by far, the most controversial of those speeches.
On March 3, 2015, speaking at the invitation of the speaker of the House over the opposition of the president, Netanyahu told Congress that the Obama administration’s emerging “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (the “JCPOA” or “Iran Deal”) was a “very bad deal.”
In his recent memoir, Bibi: My Story, Netanyahu writes that accepting the invitation required a “monumental decision”—whether to challenge a U.S. president, before the nation’s assembled representatives, on the president’s central foreign-policy goal, risking Israel’s relationship with its essential ally. Many people advised him not to do it, among them a senior cabinet minister, a previous Israeli U.S. ambassador, various others in the Israeli government, some prominent pro-Israel American friends, and most of his own staff.
But by 2015, blocking Iran’s nuclear program had been Netanyahu’s central goal for more than a decade. In 2006, while out of office, Netanyahu addressed 3,000 people at the United Jewish Communities of North America and argued that history was repeating itself: “It is 1938; Iran is Germany; and it is racing to acquire nuclear weapons.” He quoted Churchill’s 1935 statement that there was “nothing new in the story” of Britain’s passivity regarding German rearmament. It reflected, Churchill said, “the confirmed unteachability of mankind”:
Want of foresight, the unwillingness to act when action will be simple and effective, the lack of clear thinking, the confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.
Netanyahu considered the Iranian nuclear challenge a “hinge of history.” In 2009, after becoming prime minister again, he made Iran the focus of his first UN address, saying, “I speak here today in the hope that Churchill’s assessment of the ‘unteachability of mankind’ is for once proven wrong.”
Four years later, as the U.S. and Iran adopted an initial “Joint Plan of Action” (JPOA) to negotiate a “comprehensive” (but time-limited) agreement, which would lift sanctions and ratify an Iranian nuclear program with only temporary restrictions, Netanyahu believed that Churchill’s old story was happening again.
The JPOA and JCPOA resulted in significant part from the fear that, as Iran’s nuclear program proceeded during the first four years of the Obama administration and Iran refused to negotiate, Israel was preparing to attack. There was ample precedent for such a strike: Israel had destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, and it had destroyed Syria’s in 2007.
At the end of 2006, Joshua Muravchik, a respected foreign-policy analyst, had published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times titled “Bomb Iran.” In 2007, John Bolton, who had been under secretary of state for arms control and international security, said he saw no alternative to a preemptive attack; the same year, Senator John McCain said that the only thing worse than bombing Iran was Iran with a bomb. In 2008, Norman Podhoretz, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, advocated a military strike; and by 2008 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had repeatedly urged the U. S. to “cut off the head of the snake.”
Former prime minister Ehud Barak, serving as Netanyahu’s defense minister, warned in 2011 that Israel might have to strike soon. In January 2012, Ronen Bergman, the well-informed military reporter for one of Israel’s largest newspapers, predicted in the New York Times that Israel would strike later that year.
In his memoir, Netanyahu writes that “Obama waged a relentless campaign against the possibility of an independent Israeli attack.” Netanyahu relays that Obama “assured me he was building a military capacity and that it should be given a chance to work.” Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta later said that one of his most important jobs in 2011–13 had been keeping Israel from attacking. He did so in significant part by assuring Netanyahu and Barak that President Obama was serious about taking military action, if it proved necessary. Netanyahu repeatedly postponed a plan to strike, unable to secure approval of his security cabinet given both the numerous risks and the American assurances.
In 2012, the U.S. began secret negotiations with Iran without informing Israel. When Israel discovered them, the Obama administration promised that: (i) any sanctions relief would be phased in; (ii) sanctions would be dismantled only when Iran’s nuclear program was dismantled; (iii) there would be “anytime, anywhere” inspections; and (iv) Iran would have to answer the long-standing questions of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about its nuclear program.
In early 2013, the United States and its negotiating partners (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) offered Iran a deal—one that incorporated none of the assurances to Israel. In exchange for a partial and temporary suspension of Iran’s nuclear program, with automatic “sunsets” on the restrictions, the nuclear sanctions would end. Iran’s facilities would remain largely intact, with Iranian concessions eminently reversible once the deal ended.
Under the proposed deal, Iran could therefore continue a program that had no plausible purpose other than developing nuclear weapons, and it would be allowed (even during the term of the deal) to develop highly advanced centrifuges and ballistic missiles.
The financial benefits for Iran were extraordinary. It would immediately receive about $150 billion—which represented for Iran what $8 trillion would represent for the American economy. The money would finance not only Iran’s continuing nuclear program, but its proxy armies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza.
Finally, even if Iran strictly observed the deal, it would end up with a completely legal, industrial-sized nuclear-enrichment program, internationally approved, capable of producing numerous nuclear weapons, with a breakout time that, Obama publicly acknowledged, would be “almost down to zero.” Iran would also have missiles that could reach not only Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries, but Europe as well—and perhaps beyond.
On October 28, 2014, as the parties approached a final deal, the editor of the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, reported on his interview with “a senior Obama administration official,” who called Netanyahu a “chickenshit.” Another “senior official,” Goldberg reported, agreed with that characterization. The official attributed Netanyahu’s failure to strike to “a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic.” And “now,” the official gloated, “it’s too late.”
Israel’s prior U.S. ambassador, Michael Oren, noted caustically in 2015 that the “prime minister whom Obama once thanked for granting him time and space to negotiate with Tehran” was “now branded ‘chickenshit’ for showing restraint.” Oren recounted that he “spent the next day on Israeli television trying to translate chickenshit into Hebrew” and trying to “explain how America’s president could show more respect to Putin and Khamenei than he did to Netanyahu.”
In February 2015, when Netanyahu received the invitation to address Congress, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, told him that no Israeli prime minister—given the opportunity to speak on such an issue—could remain silent.
“If you don’t do the speech,” Dermer said to him, “what’s the point of [you sitting in the prime minister’s chair]?” Dermer’s rhetorical question sealed Netanyahu’s decision to proceed. In the weeks before the speech, the two met every morning, working for hours on drafts. “Every syllable,” Netanyahu writes in his memoir, was “planned.”
Fifty-eight Democrats boycotted Netanyahu’s speech, but he was escorted into the chamber by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and received a warm reception, interrupted by applause and ovations 26 times. The Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, attended the speech but made her displeasure known with repeated facial expressions and headshakes. She issued a statement calling it an “insult to the intelligence of the United States.”
Netanyahu told Congress that the Iranian regime was “not merely a Jewish problem, any more than the Nazi regime was merely a Jewish problem.” He cited two fundamental problems with the prospective deal: “one, leaving Iran with a vast nuclear program; and two, lifting the restrictions on that program in about a decade.” The deal thus would not “block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”
In a key portion of the speech, Netanyahu noted that Iran had already conquered four countries, and that the anticipated Iranian moderation had not materialized: “In the Middle East, Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana. . . . Two years ago, we were told to give [Iranian] President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif a chance to bring change and moderation to Iran. Some change! Some moderation!”
This was an all-but-direct reference to Winston Churchill’s December 1941 “Some Chicken” speech to Canada’s parliament, in which the British prime minister famously told a story about the French reaction to his warning in 1940 that Britain would fight on alone if France sought a concord with Nazi Germany: “Their generals told their Prime Minister, and his divided Cabinet, ‘In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.’ Some chicken! Some neck!”
Netanyahu ended by telling Congress that “the days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over.”
We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves. This is why, as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.
Netanyahu had worked a stunning twist on the ad hominem “chickenshit” attack by the Obama administration’s “senior officials” by invoking a previous time when a pusillanimous and insulting set of government officials had likened stalwart opposition to irredentist tyranny to helpless poultry. Netanyahu was asking Congress, in so many (Churchillian) words, to resist the Obama administration’s push for a separate peace with Iran—one opposed by the countries in the region who would be directly affected by it: not only Israel but America’s Arab allies as well.
There was another historical echo in Netanyahu’s address, reflected not in its words but in its setting. A few days before the speech, Dermer met with the Jewish leadership in Washington, most of whom questioned the wisdom of challenging the Obama administration so directly. He responded by recounting Golda Meir’s experience at the 1938 Conference in Evian, France, when 32 nations gathered to consider the desperate situation of the Jews in Germany and Austria but allowed no Jewish representatives to publicly address the conference, which had ended up doing nothing. Dermer said:
I told [the pro-Israel group] … the future prime minister of Israel, on the eve of the destruction of European Jewry, was not allowed to speak. I said that, faced with a regime that is openly calling for the destruction of the one and only Jewish state, the current prime minister of Israel will speak…. We were a voiceless people; now we have a voice.
Dermer later related that the Czech ambassador had asked him, “What’s the story with this controversy [over the speech]?”:
I said, I have… two questions: if the British Parliament would have invited the Czech Prime Minister in 1938 to come and speak before Parliament and the British nation about why you oppose the Munich agreement, against the wishes of Chamberlain … would your Prime Minister have come? And second, if your Prime Minister refused to come, would your country have ever forgiven him? And he said, “I understand your point.”
Dermer said the environment changed dramatically once Israel’s arguments had been made publicly by the prime minister to Congress. Several senators switched their positions; only 42 eventually supported the Iran Deal; and the Arab states took notice—increasing their ties with Israel after seeing it stand up for itself as America was preparing to stand down. Dermer said that Netanyahu’s speech “gave [the Arabs] a great deal of confidence that Israel was willing to be a reliable actor, independent of what U.S. policy would be in the region.” He went on: “And I can tell you that one of the leaders who made peace [in the 2020 Abraham Accords] contacted the prime minister right after that speech.” Dermer said of the speech that it “accelerated the ties that were happening beneath the surface between Israel and the Arab states…. I think it changed the trajectory.”
President Obama made the Iran Deal an “executive agreement,” avoiding the constitutional requirement of a two-thirds Senate vote for a treaty but enabling President Trump to withdraw from it at will. Trump did so after Israel, in a daring operation, extracted a massive tranche of Iranian nuclear files—55,000 pages of documents and 183 CDs hidden in a dilapidated warehouse in Tehran—and provided them to the United States. The files demonstrated that Iran had a long-standing plan to develop nuclear weapons even while denying it and had hidden nuclear facilities from IAEA inspections.
As a candidate, Joe Biden pledged to reenter the Iran Deal, as a “platform” to negotiate a “longer and stronger agreement”—an implicit admission that the JCPOA was too short and too weak. When Biden became president, Iran rejected any longer or stronger provisions, raised significant new issues, insisted on additional sanctions relief, limited IAEA inspections further, used long hiatuses to extend the negotiations, and twice rejected fully negotiated texts—first in March 2022 and again in September 2022. In the meantime, Iran was enriching uranium well beyond the JCPOA limits—doing what it would be able to do, in any event, after the “sunsets” in the JCPOA.
In December 2021, a “senior State Department official” had told reporters that Iran’s plan was “to use the talks as a cover, as a front, for continued buildup of their nuclear program.” At the beginning of 2022, the chief deputy to the chief American negotiator resigned, reportedly to protest excessive concessions that the administration was offering Iran to secure a new deal.
At the end of 2022, with no new deal despite two years of negotiations (in which Iran refused to meet directly with U.S. negotiators despite American requests to do so), and with a widespread citizen revolt in Iran and an expanding Iranian military alliance with Russia, the U.S. finally called a halt. The U.S. chief negotiator said, “We can’t sort of keep going back and then being played.”
President Biden said the negotiations were “dead,” but that he could not announce the fact—perhaps because the administration still hoped to conclude a deal eventually, or perhaps because it would be evident after such an announcement that it had no Plan B.
In December 2022, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) issued an authoritative analysis, titled “Iran Building Nuclear Weapons.” It concluded that “a revived [JCPOA] deal” would “at first complicate Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons…but by allowing a buildup to a large enrichment capacity and ultimately no caps on enrichment level, Iran would again be able to quickly breakout and build nuclear weapons.” It effectively confirmed what Netanyahu had told Congress in 2015 was the essence of the impending JCPOA.
As he prepared to become prime minister again, Netanyahu was asked by Jewish Insider in December 2022 what he would convey to Congress if he could give a fourth address. He answered that his message would be “peace through strength, prosperity through free markets, and the alliance of the like-minded states to assure our place and our permanence, to the extent anybody could do that, in history. That’s really something that unites us across nations, across oceans, and across time.”
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