By Michael Jacobs

mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

Screen grab from www.speaker.gov/live – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and House Speaker John Boehner shake hands after Netanyahu’s speech March 3.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found a warm if less-than-capacity reception March 3 for a message of standing tough against Iran.

It is wrong to think the United States and other Western powers negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program face a choice between what he considers a bad deal and war, Netanyahu said. Instead, he urged tougher negotiating to get a deal that Israel and other Middle East nations can live with.

Netanyahu’s appearance before a joint session of Congress came at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner without the involvement of the White House, which refused to participate in the speech or meet with the prime minister. President Barack Obama criticized giving Netanyahu an official American platform only two weeks before Israel’s elections.

Netanyahu apologized for the controversy and praised Obama for his support of Israel, including little-known and secret things the president has done to help the Jewish state.

Nonetheless, some 50 Democratic members of the House and Senate, including Atlanta Rep. John Lewis, skipped the speech.

Those who were there greeted Netanyahu with applause and handshakes for at least four minutes as he entered the House chambers and interrupted him with standing ovations throughout his 40-minute speech.

“No matter on which side of the aisle you sit, you stand with Israel,” Netanyahu told Congress, adding that the alliance between the United States and Israel always has been and always should be above politics.

By contrast, he said Iran is “clutching Israel with three tentacles of terrorism.”

But he emphasized that Iran is no more Israel’s problem than the Nazis were a Jewish problem. He listed the many ways in which Iran has attacked the United States and other nations since its Islamic revolution in 1979, which he said hijacked a talented people and a great civilization.

“We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror,” he said, adding that the current regime will always be an enemy of the United States. While Iran is fighting Islamic State terrorists, the battle is over who will reign over a militant Islamic empire. In this case, he said, “the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”

Netanyahu accused Iran of seizing control of four neighboring Arab capitals, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Sana‘a, and warned that Tehran will become more aggressive if it wins a nuclear agreement that frees it of economic sanctions.

He criticized the reported parameters of the pending deal between the United States and Iran, which faces a deadline at the end of March. He said the first problem is that the deal would allow Iran to run thousands of centrifuges for refining uranium while keeping thousands of others intact, providing a breakout period to achieve a nuclear weapon of less than a year.

Even in the unlikely event that Iran obeyed the terms of such a deal, Netanyahu said, the agreement would expire in a decade and allow Iran to resume its march toward nuclear weapons without U.S. opposition.

Instead of blocking Iran’s path, Netanyahu said, the proposed deal would pave the path to nuclear weapons. He rejected the idea that a lenient deal would encourage change in Iran and argued that it instead would give Iran prosperity at home to go with its aggression abroad.

The result would be a nuclear arms race in the volatile Middle East, he said.

No deal is better than a bad deal, Netanyahu said. “This is a bad deal, a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.”

Netanyahu’s proposed solution is to take a tougher line with Iran by insisting that it stop its aggression against its neighbors, stop supporting global terrorism and stop threatening to annihilate Israel before signing any deal. He said the United States should call Iran’s bluff if it threatens to walk away over tougher terms because Tehran is desperate for a deal to lift the sanctions.

Despite criticizing any deal that would allow Iran to keep its centrifuges and other infrastructure of its nuclear program, Netanyahu hinted that Israel could live with that part of the deal on one condition: The restrictions on that program must remain in place until Iran changes its behavior, however long that takes.

Netanyahu called attention to Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel in the audience while citing the lesson of the Holocaust that the Jewish people never again will be passive in the face of threatened genocide.

“Even if Israel must stand alone,” the prime minister said, “Israel will stand.”