President Barack Obama publicly opposed Netanyahu’s visit, and he had previously declined a meeting because of approaching Israeli elections and potential progress in nuclear talks between Iran and the U.S.
Netanyahu’s speech was coordinated by House Speaker John Boehner, who invited the Prime Minister in the interest of “bipartisan leadership” through a Jan. 21 letter. Boehner’s perceived slight toward Obama created a partisan element to the affair and caused a number of politicians, including Obama, to boycott the appearance.
Naomi Dann, a spokeswoman for Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization promoting international human rights, said it led a campaign demanding that nearly 60 members of Congress skip the speech.
Dann said the organization has long objected to Netanyahu’s claim that he speaks for all Jews.
But Frank Pray, vice president of UNC’s Christians United for Israel group, said Netanyahu had a justified and moral obligation to speak in front of Congress.
Netanyahu appealed to his audience through comparisons between action against Iran and those against the Nazis.
“My friend, standing up to Iran is not easy,” Netanyahu said. “Standing up to dark and murderous regimes never is.”
Despite the severity of such an emotional reference, Pray said he believes the prime minister carefully considered the statement.
“I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu knows what he’s doing,” Pray said.
Still, Dann said she thinks such a broad comparison to the Holocaust was inappropriate.
Omid Safi, director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, said Netanyahu’s speech was motivated by Israel’s desire to establish geopolitical power and defy international law.
“This perspective revives the ‘dark and savage’ discourse of the 19th-century colonialism about white, civilized people schooling allegedly ‘primitive’ dark savages,” Safi said in an email.
Obama issued a response to Netanyahu’s speech in a news conference Tuesday, noting that such invitations are supposed to run through the executive branch and not Congress — and questioning Netanyahu’s alternatives to U.S. negotiations.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has not offered any kind of viable alternative that would achieve the same verifiable mechanism to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” Obama said.
Obama refuted the claim that stricter economic sanctions would discourage future Iranian nuclear development, citing decades of failed attempts.
Obama’s remarks come after talks with Iran dating back to 2013, when the P5 + 1 — the negotiating team of the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Russia and China — established its objectives. These included allowing only a peaceful nuclear program in Iran and gradually scaling back the supply of centrifuges and nuclear equipment.
But Obama assured that this policy difference between America and Israel would not endanger the nations’ alliance.
Pray said the UNC organization disagrees with proposed U.S. plans for decreasing nuclear capability but believes Netanyahu’s speech will not cause any permanent divisions between the U.S. and Israel.
“We both believe in freedom, individual liberty. That’s something that many other nations don’t have, and that’s forever forced a bond between us.”