If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu really didn't want his speech on Tuesday to look political, he chose a strange place to deliver it: the U.S. House of Representatives, one of the most politicized places on Earth.
The room was permeated with politics; you could smell it from the galleries. Israel is two weeks from an election; the hero's welcome Netanyahu received, with mega-donor Sheldon Adelson and other supporters cheering him on from the guest seats, was broadcast there in prime time.
American political polarization was on painful view too. Republicans leapt to their feet for one standing ovation after another, eager to show their support for Israel's hard line against a nuclear compromise with Iran. But Democrats were divided, some applauding enthusiastically, others sitting stone-faced with hands in their laps — while as many as 60 stayed away in an unusual boycott.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) spent most of the speech looking angry. “I was near tears throughout the prime minister's speech, saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States,” she said later.
That's not what normally happens when the leader of a friendly country speaks before a joint session of Congress. Usually such speeches are bipartisan lovefests.
Not this one. Netanyahu and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) decided to make the Israeli leader a formal participant in the U.S. debate over the nuclear deal Obama is trying to conclude. And they did so in a decidedly partisan way by arranging the speech without informing the White House.
So it was Netanyahu, speaking for the opposition. The Israeli leader tried to soften that impression by saying he was grateful for Obama's steadfast support for Israel, but that didn't fool anyone. On those lines, Democrats leapt to their feet; Republicans hesitated and looked at their laps.
The substance of the speech was political too: the high politics of framing the terms of debate over a nuclear deal, even before it's concluded. Netanyahu said, accurately, that the basic shape of the potential agreement with Iran was already clear — and insisted that Israel could not accept it.
“This is a bad deal. It's a very bad deal. We're better off without it,” he said. “It doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb; it paves Iran's way to the bomb.”
He said the proposed deal would allow Iran to continue enriching some uranium at low levels. (Administration officials say a total ban is unachievable, and argue that a deal would impose limits that would prevent Iran from building a weapon.)
And he complained that the deal would “sunset” after about 10 years, leaving Iran free to increase uranium enrichment. (Administration officials say Iran would still be prohibited from developing nuclear weapons and would still be subject to international inspections.)
The main problem with Netanyahu's speech, though, was that he didn't offer a clear alternative. He argued that the United States could simply increase economic sanctions until Iran agrees to dismantle all its nuclear facilities — “a much better deal,” he said. But he didn't suggest a way there, aside from hoping that Iran would walk away from the negotiating table.
That boils down to: Maybe we'll get lucky and the Iranians will blow up the talks. But what if they don't? The U.S. doesn't have the option of abandoning the negotiations because that would probably cause the international coalition that has imposed sanctions to collapse — leaving Iran less encumbered, not more.
Netanyahu insisted that he wasn't suggesting a course that would lead to war. But he did take the opportunity to rebut one of the main arguments against military action — the argument that attacking Iran's facilities won't eliminate Iran's nuclear know-how.
"Nuclear know-how without nuclear infrastructure doesn't get you very much,” he said. “A race car driver without a car can't drive. A pilot without a plane can't fly. Without thousands of centrifuges, tons of enrichment or heavy water facilities, Iran can't make nuclear weapons.”
It was a powerful, well-crafted speech, but did it change minds? Not in Congress, where Netanyahu's arguments are already familiar.
Members who said they were undecided remained mostly undecided. “I'm going to look at the deal once it's made,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks). “And the important question will be: Compared to what?”
Netanyahu's protestations aside, the debate over an Iran deal was already partisan and divisive. He and Boehner just made it more so. In effect, Netanyahu argued that members of Congress must choose between Israel and the president. That's an easy choice for most Republicans, a painful and unwanted one for most Democrats.
If U.S. and Iranian negotiators conclude a deal, and Netanyahu is reelected in two weeks, Americans are in for a bitter and divisive fight — and it's way too late to hope that it won't turn political.