Netanyahu's fighting words
Nancy Pelosi looked as if she might charge the well of the House and confront Benjamin Netanyahu personally.
When the Israeli prime minister, in his controversial address to Congress on Tuesday, suggested that the deal the Obama administration is negotiating with Iran only seeks to "delay the inevitable" of a nuclear-armed Iran, the House Democratic leader shook her index finger, balled her hand into a fist and spoke angrily to her neighbor, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer.
Netanyahu declared that the still-incomplete framework is "a very bad deal. We are better off without it." Pelosi held out her hands, palms up, and muttered. She looked over her shoulder to see which Democrats had applauded.
When Bibi went on to say that the alternative to this deal is not war but "a much better deal," Pelosi sat forward in her seat, licking her lips. And when Netanyahu said abandoning the nuclear talks, though "the difficult path," will "make all the difference for the future of my country," Pelosi appeared to be struggling to contain herself.
"I was near tears throughout the prime minister's speech," she said in a statement later, "saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States ... and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran."
Her agitation was not difficult to comprehend. It's a rare thing for Congress to declare war — and rarer still to do it at the request of a foreign leader.
It wasn't literally a war declaration, of course, just symbolic applause from Republicans, and several Democrats, for Netanyahu's bid to scuttle U.S. negotiations with Iran. But if Netanyahu were to succeed in ending talks, and if Iran weren't to return to the negotiating table as Netanyahu predicts it will, the actions will have obligated the United States to go to war.
Netanyahu is a brilliant speaker, and his call to arms was a tour de force — managing to enlist both Elie Wiesel and Moses in his bid to sabotage negotiations.
"My friends, standing up to Iran is not easy. Standing up to dark and murderous regimes never is," he said. "With us today is Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Elie, your life and work inspires to give meaning to the words, 'never again.' And I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned."
Netanyahu later mentioned a bas-relief of the prophet Moses above the gallery, saying "Moses gave us a message that has steeled our resolve for thousands of years. ... 'Be strong and resolute, neither fear nor dread them.' "
Netanyahu basked in the lengthy applause as he took his time shaking hands while walking down the center aisle. His speech, printed in about 48-point font on an inch-thick stack of paper, was poetic ("millions of Israelis were protected from thousands of Hamas rockets because this Capitol Dome helped build our Iron Dome") and was packed with applause lines.
But for all his oratorical skill, Netanyahu could not paper over the partisan divide worsened by his visit, which had been arranged without consultation with the White House. According to a count by the Hill newspaper, at least 56 Democrats skipped the speech in protest. And though there weren't empty seats (Republican Reps. Darrell Issa, John L. Mica, Michael C. Burgess and Thomas Massie, among others, sat on the Democratic side), several Democrats who did attend (Emanuel Cleaver II, Gerald E. Connolly, Henry Cuellar, Frank Pallone Jr. and others) sat out most of the ovations.
"I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political," Netanyahu told the lawmakers — a version of the "I'm sorry you feel that way" non-apology.
Netanyahu briefly made Republicans squirm, as when he told the legislators he would "always be grateful to President Obama" for the many secret ways in which the American president has helped Israel. Democrats leaped to applaud, and after a long delay about a dozen Republicans grudgingly joined them.
But he quickly turned his fire on Obama, saying the deal his administration was negotiating would "all but guarantee" that Iran gets nuclear weapons. The prime minister demanded more favorable terms. "If Iran threatens to walk away from the table — and this often happens in a Persian bazaar — call their bluff," he counseled. "They'll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do."
And if Bibi is wrong? No problem for him: The Israeli leader will have committed the United States to war with Iran.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.