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Netanyahu Speech Lives Up to Controversial Expectations (Video)

In January, when Speaker John A. Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before Congress, it caused the type of controversy and media attention normally reserved for a declaration of war, not a speech that’s little more than a glorified press release.

But by the time Netanyahu showed up Tuesday, the furor surrounding his address had eased somewhat, overshadowed by a battle — and capitulation — over funding the Department of Homeland Security and blocking President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration.

While some Democrats said they wouldn’t show up, including the vice president, most members did — so much so that it was standing room only on the House floor. Roughly 20 members didn’t even get seats. Gallery tickets for the address were “hotter than fresh latkes,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told the New York Times.

The night before the speech, another New York Democrat, Steve Israel, told CQ Roll Call that the quarreling over Netanyahu’s joint meeting was “completely blown out of proportion.”

“The relationship between the United States and Israel should not be judged by one botched invitation, to one prime minister, to speak at one session of Congress,” the Democratic Policy and Communications chairman, who is Jewish himself, said.

Protesters gather outside the Cannon House Office building to voice opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Protesters gather outside the Cannon House Office building to voice opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The March 3 Netanyahu joint meeting looked as if it would be like March itself: In like a lion, out like a lamb.

And then it wasn’t.

While the prime minister’s speech will be praised from both sides of the aisle — particularly by Republicans — there were plenty in the room and watching at home who will find much to disagree with. First and foremost on that list? Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi sat through the Netanyahu speech visibly annoyed. She urged her Democratic colleagues to not clap at times, she sat stoically at other moments — all while Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, seated next to her, enthusiastically applauded.

When Netanyahu began to trash an emerging deal between Iran and the United States, the California Democrat became agitated. When the speech concluded, prompting a more than 3-minute standing ovation, Pelosi was one of the first to stop clapping. The applause went on for so long that she eventually joined back in, clapping by pressing her fingertips together. Eventually, there was no part of her hands or fingers meeting. Pelosi was done. She was one of the first to leave the chamber.

Her press release on the Netanyahu address continued the display of discontent.

She said she was “near tears” during the speech “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5 +1 nations, and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”

“We have all said that a bad deal is worse than no deal,” Pelosi continued in her release, “and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons is the bedrock of our foreign policy and national security.”

But that was not Netanyahu’s position at all Tuesday. He said the deal the administration is pursuing won’t block Iran’s path to the bomb. “It paves Iran’s path to the bomb,” he said.

“At a time when many hope that Iran will join the community of nations, Iran is busy gobbling up the nations,” Netanyahu said. “We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror.”

This was not a speech designed to allow congressional leaders to respectfully disagree with the prime minister’s position. This was a speech designed to absolutely sink a deal. And it was probably successful.

Lines that called out the ongoing negotiations got big applause.

— “This deal won’t change Iran for the better, it will change the Middle East for the worse.”

— “This is a bad deal. We’re better off without it.”

— “This deal won’t be a farewell to arms, it would be farewell to arms control.”

After the speech, it wasn’t just Pelosi slamming Netanyahu. Jewish Kentucky Democrat John Yarmuth, who led the Democratic charge to boycott the speech, said during a news conference following the address that the Israeli prime minister’s message was “straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook.”

Vermont Democrat Peter Welch asked why a friend of the United States would act this way toward the president.

Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said the president deserved Congress’ support and didn’t need this today. “John Boehner ought to be ashamed of himself,” he said.

Inside the packed chamber, Republicans far outnumbered Democrats — even more so than would typically be the case given that, obviously, the GOP holds majorities in both chambers.

There were actually so many Democrats opting to boycott the speech on Tuesday that Republicans filled in seats on the minority party’s designated side of the chamber, resulting in what appeared to be unusual sightings of bipartisan applause. Obama’s one-time “antagonist-in-chief” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sat next to Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J. Conservative Mississippi Republican Gregg Harper filled in a free spot next to former representative and staunch progressive Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.

Republicans Michael R. Turner of Ohio and Michael C. Burgess of Texas sat on the Democratic side together and were a frequent pairing standing and clapping in a sea of Democrats who sat and watched.

Other former members filled in the gaps for the dozens of Democrats who skipped, including Florida Republican-turned-MSNBC-host Joe Scarborough, Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich, and Brad Schneider, an Illinois Democrat defeated in 2014 after one term. Ex-House speaker and 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., was there, too, along with the recently retired Minnesota Republican and one-time Tea Party Caucus Chairwoman Michele Bachmann.

Sitting in the House gallery section normally reserved for the first lady during State of the Unions was Holocaust survivor and Jewish activist Elie Wiesel, who sat almost directly below New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

Overall, critics may accuse Netanyahu of exploiting a joint meeting of Congress to deliver what could be perceived as campaign speech — Israeli elections are in two weeks — but Netanyahu’s speech will be remembered for its high-energy applause, whistles and cheers. According to Daily Beast reporter Tim Mak, there were 35 rounds of applause punctuated with a 3 minute and 26 second standing ovation at the end.

Upon conclusion, Netanyahu — with the pages of his remarks printed in an oversized font scattered beside him — looked like he was enjoying himself from the dais, soaking up the affection, waving from left to right and up into the viewing galleries like a politician at the conclusion of a stump speech.

Emma Dumain and Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.


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