WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, in an impassioned speech Tuesday on Capitol Hill, accused the Obama administration of negotiating a “bad deal’’ with Iran that virtually guarantees that country will eventually develop a nuclear bomb.
It was a highly unusual spectacle: the leader of a close foreign ally standing before a joint meeting of the House and Senate in the Capitol and publicly rebuking an American president’s foreign policy.
President Obama quickly dismissed the speech as containing nothing new, devoid of alternatives to the current negotiations. But the speech, with references to the longstanding relationship between the United States and Israel, brought lawmakers to their feet numerous times — and increased political pressure on the administration to reconsider its strategy with Iran.
Netanyahu faulted key elements of the potential nuclear pact between the United States and Iran, saying Iran would be permitted to maintain bomb-making materials and equipment that could be used to quickly produce nuclear weapons once the agreement expires in a decade.
“That’s why this deal is so bad,” he said. “It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”
He framed his argument in the context of the Holocaust, and emotionally described the threat posed to Israel by an Iranian regime that is bent on the Jewish state’s annihilation.
The much-anticipated and highly controversial appearance, arranged by Republican House Speaker John Boehner without consent of the White House, was a high-profile attempt by the Israeli leader and the Republicans to force the Obama administration to reexamine its approach in negotiations with Iran. At times it took on the partisan tone of a State of the Union speech, with Democrats remaining seated as Republicans applauded Netanyahu’s blistering critique.
The framework of the emerging deal with Iran — backed by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who was in Geneva Tuesday negotiating again with Iranian officials — would freeze Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium or develop plutonium for a decade. But Netanyahu said that is an insufficient demand on a dangerous and aggressive foe.
It was in the nuts and bolts of his analysis that Netanyahu presented to Congress a rationale for opposing the efforts by Obama and Kerry to reach an accord.
“According to the deal, not a single nuclear facility would be demolished. It leaves Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure,” Netanyahu said. “Iran could get to the bomb by violating the deal. Iran could get to the bomb by keeping the deal.”
Obama, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office after reading a transcript of the speech, said, “the prime minister didn’t offer any viable alternatives.”
“If we are successful in negotiating, then in fact this will be the best deal possible to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he later added. “Nothing else comes close. Sanctions won’t do it. Military action would not be as successful as the deal that we have put forward.”
Other leading Democrats were also critical. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California said afterward that she felt the speech was disrespectful of the United States and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, which are participating in the nuclear talks.
“I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech — saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States . . . and by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation,” Pelosi said in a statement.
Some 50 Democratic House and Senate members skipped the speech, noting that Netanyahu faces reelection in two weeks and that the event was politically motivated to boost his support back home.
Senator Elizabeth Warren was among those who did not attend the speech. An aide said the Massachusetts Democrat did not watch it, either, but did read Netanyahu’s remarks. Warren declined requests for an interview, and an aide did not respond to requests for Warren’s response.
Some lawmakers predicted the speech will build support for taking tougher action against Iran, including a bipartisan bill in the Senate proposed by Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican of Illinois, and Robert Menendez, a Democrat of New Jersey, calling for additional sanctions.
Tuesday’s address was the third time that Netanyahu has appeared before a joint session of Congress, but the only time he appeared without being invited by the White House, an unusual breach of protocol. He said other countries in the region that also see Iran as a threat could be forced to develop nuclear weapons of their own, risking the establishment of a “nuclear tinderbox” in the Middle East.
Netanyahu recalled another dark period involving Iran in Jewish history: the foiled plot to exterminate the Jews in Persia by a viceroy named Haman 2,500 years ago — coincidentally commemorated this week as the Jewish holiday of Purim.
In singling out Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Hosseini Khamenei, Netanyahu warned of “another Persian potentate.”
“He tweets that Israel must be annihilated,” the Israeli leader said of Khamenei.
He also read off a list of terrorist attacks around the world attributed to Iran and its proxies, such as the Lebanese group Hezbollah, including attacks on US and Jewish targets.
Netanyahu then recalled the Holocaust in recognizing survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, who looked on from the gallery as a guest of Boehner.
“The days of the Jewish people remaining passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over!” Netanyahu said to rousing applause.
But he played down any partisan rancor surrounding his appearance.
Netanyahu said he never intended for his appearance to stoke such controversy and thanked both parties for their support of Israel “decade after decade” and “from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.”
He said the US-Israel relationship “must always remain above politics.”
A number of close observers said the speech was likely to be highly effective in shifting the debate in Washington over the Iran issue.
“I think this changes a lot,” said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank. “You can see why the administration didn’t want him to speak.”