WASHINGTON -- In a rousing speech before Congress punctuated by more than 40 bursts of applause, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assailed the Obama administration's nuclear negotiations with Iran, asserting the United States was on the verge of making "a bad deal."
Though he said he was "grateful" for all President Barack Obama has done for Israel, Netanyahu went on to excoriate the administration for failing to insist on terms tough or enduring enough to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
"It doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb; it paves Iran's path to the bomb," Netanyahu said Tuesday.
The speech before a joint meeting of Congress gave the Israeli prime minister a rare platform for confronting a president with whom he has shared mostly animosity and for trying to stop or radically alter negotiations that are reaching a critical juncture. Obama has said that if Iran does not agree to the outline of an agreement by the end of this month, then further talks would be pointless.
Aware of the danger that Congress would be persuaded to try to scuttle a deal with Iran, the White House quickly responded to Netanyahu.
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Speaking in the Oval Office, Obama said while he agrees that Iran is a dangerous regime that has repeatedly threatened Israel and that "no one can dispute" that Iran has used anti-Semitic language against Israelis, Netanyahu didn't offer any "viable alternative" to the negotiations.
A senior administration official said, "Simply demanding that Iran completely capitulate is not a plan."
Netanyahu's speech capped six weeks of controversy that began when he accepted an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to address Congress; Boehner sidestepped the usual protocol of consulting with the president and Democrats in Congress.
At home, Netanyahu's address is especially important as a close race in the March 17 general election approaches.
Netanyahu painted Iran as a sponsor of terrorism that is aggressively marching across the Middle East and determined to realize its nuclear ambitions. Netanyahu said the country poses a "grave threat" to Israel and the world.
"This is a bad deal. A very bad deal. We are better off without it," he said. "Why should Iran's radical regime change for the better when it can enjoy the best of both worlds? Aggression abroad, prosperity at home?"
Netanyahu said that demands should be tougher and that "if Iran threatens to walk away from the table, call their bluff."
Leaks and a Reuters interview with Obama on Monday have provided some general outlines of the agreement being negotiated by the United States and five other world powers. As a condition for the talks, Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of highly enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon.
The deal would set a time limit -- possibly around 10 years -- after which Iran would still have to comply with guidelines, say people familiar with the deal. Iran would still have to comply with international oversight, but limits on centrifuges, which can be used to enrich uranium, could end.
Netanyahu cited threats by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to "annihilate" Israel, and the role of Iran's "tentacles of terror" around the world. He said, "If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country."
Nearly a quarter of congressional Democrats did not attend the speech, citing the politicization of the address and the disrespect they felt Netanyahu and Boehner had shown the president. Others attended reluctantly.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who left the chamber as Netanyahu was saying goodbyes, said in a statement she 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."
Republicans lauded the speech, which they said could boost their call for a stronger congressional role in the talks.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said, "It crystallized a lot of thinking."