Closed Live: Netanyahu’s speech to Congress

Benjamin Netanyahu is making his third appearance before a joint meeting of the US Congress on Tuesday morning in Washington.

In what is set to be a very controversial speech, he is expected to highlight what the Israeli leader insists are the risks of a nuclear deal with Iran

By Mark Odell and Sam Jones, Defence and Security Editor, and Siona Jenkins, Middle East and Africa news editor

Welcome to the FT’s live coverage of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. The Israeli leader is expected to highlight what he insists are the risks of a nuclear deal with Iran and has been highly critical of the approach taken by President Barack Obama and the Democratic White House. But Netanyahu’s critics, including former senior officials in Israel, claim his policies and statements on Iran are misleading and could even hasten Tehran’s development of a nuclear weapon.

By accepting the invitation to appear from the majority Republican party to criticise the policies of the Democrats in the White House he has caused a rift in the normal bipartisan support for Israel in the US. He also stands accused of using the appearance for his own election campaign back home.

John Reed, the FT’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief, writes:

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is live-streaming the prime minister’s address to Congress on its home page and the Prime Minister’s Facebook account – a move likely to fuel accusations in Israel that the speech is pure politicking.

Geoff Dyer, the FT’s US Diplomatic correspondent writes:

Barack Obama has much better things to do that watch Mr Netanyahu’s speech. The White House announced on Tuesday that the president will take part in a video conference this morning about Ukraine with the leaders of the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Poland. Their call will likely begin while Mr Netanyahu is speaking.

The US networks are tee-ing this up big time – CNN has a countdown clock

Geoff Dyer adds:

More than 50 House and Senate Democrats have said they will not attend the speech by Mr Netanyahu. They include Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who has become the standard-bearer of the progressive wing of the party. Luis Gutierrez, a Democratic House member from Illinois, told CNN that Mr Netanyahu was “a candidate who is facing a tough re-election battle at home”.

John Reed says:

Netanyahu’s address comes two weeks to the day before the prime minister faces voters in an election where recent polls show his Likud party could lose to the centre-left. The timing of the speech – early evening Israeli time – will allow his remarks to be reported as the top story on widely-watched 8pm newscasts.

Likud is already using Netanyahu’s defiance of Washington, which strategists apparently calculate is a right-wing vote-getter, in campaign ads. In one internet spot released at the weekend, the party likened the speech to a decision in 1967 by Levi Eshkol, then prime minister, to launch a preemptive strike on Arab states over the White House’s objections, beginning the Six Day War.

“Would we still be here today if Levi Eshkol had not done the right thing?” the video asked. “Only Likud. Only Netanyahu.”

Here’s a bit more colour from John Reed, the FT’s Jerusalem correspondent:

Israelis are celebrating the festive Jewish holiday of Purim this week, which will coincide with Mr Netanyahu’s speech in Washington, to be transmitted with a five-minute delay on local TV.
Between donning funny costumes and eating sweet cakes – both customs of the season – a large number are likely to tune in to what is being described as the most important speech of the prime minister’s career.
The build-up here has included fierce debate and the release by Mr Netanyahu’s office of solemn pictures of him penning it, as if capturing a turning point in history for posterity.
While there is broad political support in Israel for containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, people have divided views over whether going to Washington was the right thing for Mr Netanyahu to do, and how badly his defiance of the White House hurt the crucial Israel-US relationship.

Lest anyone forget in what terms Mr Netanyahu is seeing his trip to Washington…

Along with his usual rhetorical flourishes, John Reed says pundits expect Mr Netanyahu to use props and gimmicks in his speech, like the bomb cartoon he held up at his 2012 UN speech, to bolster his warnings on a “bad deal”.

Here is a picture of him at the UN back in 2012

John Reed adds that Nethanyahu:

will almost certainly make reference to Purim, a holiday rich in historical resonance that celebrate the foiling of a plan to kill the Jews of ancient Persia, described in the Bible’s Book of Esther.

Isaac Herzog, the opposition leader, who has denounced Mr Netanyahu’s speech as a “mistake”

By way of background to the current state of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, here is what the negotiating position between Iran and the P5+1 (which Mr Netanyahu is so concerned about) is said to be:

The P5+1 are looking to allow Iran to operate c. 6,000 IR-1 first generation centrifuges from the onset of the deal. But there will be some kind of technical modification to these which US scientists have come up with that would curb their efficiency. Eventually the deal would see Iran able to operate as many as 9,000 centrifuges, which is about as many as it has fully functioning at the moment.

In return though Iran would have to agree to some very strict monitoring conditions, it would have to ship all of its stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia, it would have to fully dismantle any existing unused centrifuge cascades that are under construction and it would have to give some pretty cast-iron guarantees on research into new more efficient centrifuges.

It is unclear how much political capital Netanyahu will gain from the speech back home in Israel. A poll published today showed a slight drop in the number of seats his Likud party is expected to win in the election later this month

From Geoff Dyer:

For John Boehner, the House speaker, the Netanyahu visit is a good time to bury bad news. Shortly before the speech, he announced that the House would vote later today on a bill to finance the Department of Homeland Security without any language blocking the White House’s executive order on immigration. The announcement is an effective admission of defeat by the Speaker that will outrage some of the more conservative members of his caucus.

More Churchillian references from Governor Mike Huckabee

CNN is reporting speech is expected to last 40 to 45 minutes. Here comes Netanyahu now to a rousing ovation as he walks into the chamber. He has kept Congress waiting for 7 minutes and is taking his time as he walks down the aisle, shaking hands and exchanging a few words. I think I heard a few whoops

Fun fact: Netanyahu’s speech is going to be beamed to Israel on a five minute delay – so that networks will have an opportunity to remove any content which is too domestically politically sensitive because of the upcoming elections there.

Netanyahu is now introduced to Congress and another spontaneous ovation breaks out from the floor, can’t see too many empty seats . . .

He is easing into a speech by thanking everyone but starts off by saying he “regrets” that some people believe this speech is political. He gets a standing ovation as he tells Congress that he knows “you stand with Israel” and the “relationship between America and Israel must always stand above politics”

Geoff Dyer reports:

Mr Netanyahu starts with an olive branch to Democrats, calling out the party’s leader in the Senate who underwent eye surgery last month. “You cannot keep a good man down. ” He adds: “The alliance between the US and Israel must always be above politics.”

And now some carefully calibrated faint praise from Mr Netanyahu for US president Barack Obama…

Praise for help with Iron Dome missile defence system.

A “Persian potentate” is trying to destroy Israel says Mr Netanyahu – one of the “oldest hatreds” using some of “the most modern technology”.

John Reed writes:

Netanyahu opened with what might be called a non-apology apology for the ruckus his speech created:

“My speech has been the subject of much controversy. I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention.

He received his first standing ovation from Congresspeople when he thanked Democrats and Republicans for their support for Israel “year after year, decade after decade”

During his last speech in 2011, he received 29 standing ovations.

Netanyahu is now outlining Iran’s regime views of Isreal and its stated aim to destroy it. He is also running through the various groups Iran sponsors throughout the Middle East and is now running through Iran’s attacks on US troops going back to the Beirut bombing on the US embassy in 1981 through to Afghanistan and Iraq.

John Reed adds:

As expected, Netanyahu made a reference to the Jewish feast of Purim, which begins on Wednesday evening. The holiday commemorates the attempt by Haman, the Persian viceroy “to destroy the Jewish people”, in Netanyahu’s telling, until he was vanquished by the wily Jewish Queen Esther.

Netanyahu says:

“Today the Jewish people face the threat from another persian potentate to destroy us.”

Brookings has a new analysis on how Iran might behave after a nuclear deal

Ed Luce, the FT’s chief US commentator, Tweets:

Certain elements of the deal are now known to the world says Netanyahu – sidestepping potential criticism of him exposing sensitive negotiating positions between the P5+1 and Iran.

Absent to dramatic change any deal with Iran will include 2 big concessions to Tehran, Netanyahu says – centrifuges will remain in place, most of the programme will remain in tact. He says the break-out time for Iran, ie the amount of time needed to build a nuclear device, will be a year. He says the use of inspectors is the second problem. They document problems, they don’t stop them. He uses the example of North Korea, which built a bomb after kicking inspectors out of the country and is now close to having a 100 devices he says

According to the deal not a single nuclear facility would be demolished and thousands of centrifuges would be left spinning, says Bibi. This is true, but of course the devil is in the detail.

From Israel’s point of view, letting Iran have 4,500 centrifuges (the P5+1s last previous position) is too much, let alone 6000 (the current alleged position).

Here is a cut-out-and-keep graph from arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis that explains all you need to know about the relationship between the number of centrifuges, and the size of iran’s enriched uranium stockpile, and how this relates to the crucial breakout time

Netanyahu’s main point here seems to be that 12 months is not a sufficient breakout time. This is a rather moot point, because 12 months is what everyone in the P5+1 is signed up to.

John Reed writes:

The Israeli leader here, before he launches into details of Israel’s case against Iran, is preempting stern warnings from the Obama administration made this week that Israel must not part with classified inside information it has gleaned on the talks.

“Certain elements of any potential deal are now a matter of public record,” Netanyahu says. “You don’t need intelligence agencies or secret information to know this – you can Google it.”

Netanyahu insists Iran cannot be trusted and that it could violate any deal and “get to the bomb” that way. He suggests even if it was slowed down by the deal it could get there in a decade. Iran could build many, many nuclear bombs within a matter of weeks once it has made the decision to build up its arsenal

Here’s a map of Iran’s nuclear facilities:

“[Iran] could be weeks away” from a bomb says Bibi – repeating one of his favourite tropes, and one that appeared most famously in his 2012 UN speech. The fact of the matter is, though, that the current negotiations have so far actually increased the breakout time for Iran, which has diluted most of its uranium stockpile enriched to 20%

He says the deal “paves Iran’s path to the bomb” and asks “so why would anyone make this deal.” He rejects hopes it would lead to the Iranian regime to change for the better – “it will only change the Middle East for the worst”

Iran has also frozen the installation and operation of centrifuges under the current negotiations, as this graph from the Arms Control Association shows

A short note lands in my inbox from Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group and a long-time Iran watcher

He’s among the best speakers out there. This broadside against Iran will set a great context to go after the nuclear program.

Gideon Rachman, the FT’s Chief Foreign Affairs Commentator, Tweets:

Netanyahu says Iran should “act like a normal country” if it wants to be “treated like a normal country” – he say no deal should be made until Tehran commits to change its behaviour

There is an alternative to the current diplomatic negotiations says Netanyahu: “nuclear know-how without nuclear infrastructure doesn’t get you very much”. The programme can be rolled back well beyond the current proposal by increasing economic sanctions on Tehran: “They need the deal a lot more than you do”

He calls for sanctions to be maintained and says the regime is much weaker now given the recent plunge in the price of oil. He says this is a “very bad deal and we’re better off without it”

By way of economic context, the current climate in Iran is certainly tough: the fall in the price of oil alone is costing Tehran $2bn a month in lost revenues. Iran is now writing a budget based on oil at $53 and that budget entails big cuts.

In a direct criticism of Obama, Netanyahu says:

Now we are being told the only alternative to this deal is war, that is not true the only alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal

The BBC’s Middle East editor on Bibi’s speech:

From John Reed:

Susan Rice said on Monday that “sound bites won’t stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon”, but this hasn’t stopped Netanyahu, a master of memorable if often overbaked turns of phrase, from trying.

So far the Israeli leader has rolled out several of his trademark rhetorical flourishes, speaking alliteratively of Iran’s “goons in Gaza, lackeys in Lebanon”. He also described Iran’s handling of weapons inspectors as a game of “hide and cheat”.

What Mr Netanyahu wants is not possible to achieve, Robert Einhorn, the US State Department’s former assistant secretary for non proliferation wrote last week:

Banning enrichment and dismantling Iran’s existing enrichment facilities would indeed be the best negotiated outcome. But such an agreement is not attainable. Iran’s leaders have convinced the Iranian people that a ban on enrichment would deprive them of an inalienable right to pursue civil nuclear power as they see fit and impede their scientific advancement. Iranians across the political spectrum would prefer to forgo an agreement and muddle through under existing sanctions rather than accept what they would regard as a national humiliation.

Ellie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, is in Congress and Netanyahu acknowledges the survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp as a reminder why world leaders should not repeat mistakes of the past

Netanyahu wraps up his speech to a standing ovation. Thunderous applause.

Khaled Elgindy, fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution:

Netanyahu finishes off by quoting the words of Moses: “Be strong and resolute neither fear nor dread them”, adding “may Israel and America stand together”. He signs off to a standing ovation that has now been going on for at least a minute

Upsum: not much new in terms of substance, but plenty for US lawmakers to consider in terms of powerful rhetoric. On first hearing, Netanyahu’s speech has certainly gone down a lot better than many expected it to.

Netanyahu has now left the chamber to continued applause, backslaps and handshakes. The two houses are now parting company after the joint meeting of the US Congress is dissolved

CNN is quoting a White House Official as slamming down Mr Netanyahu’s speech switfly and firmly:

All style and no substance. Not one new idea.

John Reed on Netanyahu channeling Moses:

Name-dropping doesn’t get higher-level than this: Netanyahu closes the speech by invoking the words of Moses. “Be strong and resolute, neither fear nor dread them,” he said. “May God bless the state of Israel and may God bless the United States of America.”

John Reed has an applause count courtesy of Jerusalem Post editor Steve Linde who has Tweeted:

Perhaps not such a bad speech for the White House to cope with afterall, tweets Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations:

Steve Linde of the Jerusalem Post on the 5 minute broadcast delay by Isreali TV

John Reed says Netanyahu’s decision to draw Ellie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, into his speech, could prove controversial:

Netanyahu has invoked the Holocaust and “genocidal enemies” in the context of the Iranian nuclear threat, a context that has been criticized by some in Israel in the past as a misuse of history.

Introducing Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, sitting in the gallery alongside his wife Sara, he said “never again”.

“I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history had been learned,” he said. “I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

10 years is not a long time. 15 or 20 years is a long time

That’s Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the senate intelligence committee speaking to CNN right now coming out of the chamber… basically saying she disagrees with the current US-backed P5+1 negotiating position. Perhaps Mr Netanyahu’s speech has already begun to have its effect. Two days ago Ms Feinstein was publicly calling Mr Netanyahu “arrogant”.

Initial reaction by commentators to Nethanyahu’s speech seems positive although it would be fair to say it is very much winning plaudits for its style rather than its substance

Ed Luce, the FT’s chief US commentator, says Obama has to reply:

Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group has been in touch with the FT with his initial thoughts on Mr Netanyahu’s speech:

Netanyahu just gave a great speech, one that will make Obama’s task of selling any deal more difficult. Bibi’s words will lead the right to dig in – a deal is a bad deal, no matter what it says. It will make undecided members on Congress more dubious. And the president’s supporters better respond forcefully and quickly. Netanyahu was especially forceful and effective in laying out a “better deal,” one where under the pressure of more sanctions Iran has to stop its aggressive foreign policy behavior to get sanctions relief.

But it’s far from over. In coming weeks and likely months (if we get a framework agreement), the Obama Administration will forcefully push back with hard-nosed arguments. A deal would leave Iran with a truncated nuclear weapons program. Breakout time of 10 plus years is a very long time. The deal will be back-loaded with inspection measures – they’ll go on way past 10 years. On the latter issue, Bibi blew it; Iran is hardly off to the races in 10 years.

I think we’ll get a framework agreement by the end of March, but then we’ll get a real food fight before any deal takes effect.

Gideon Rachman, , the FT’s Chief Foreign Affairs Commentator, relays the thoughts of David Axelrod, a former Obama advisor:

And here’s the view of Republican senator John McCain who had been highly critical of Obama’s approach to Iran

We are going to wrap up our live coverage of Netanyahu’s address to Congress. Although it started off with a nod to the White House and faint praise for Obama, it did not take long for the Israeli leader’s gloves to come off. He was scathing of the deal that the Obama administration is trying to broker with Iran. But as many commentators point out there was no substance and certainly no alternative proposal for a deal with Tehran