JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s impassioned speech Tuesday in the US Congress impressed many Israelis in Jerusalem but drew criticism from others who said he was interfering in American affairs.
Netanyahu delivered with gusto an address in which he chided Israel’s arch-foe Iran and charged that a deal between the Islamic republic and world powers would allow it to develop nuclear weapons.
Israelis crowded into cafes and shops in Jerusalem, watching the speech on TV screens and hanging on every word of their leader, who is running for a fourth term in March 17 elections.
“Look at how much they respect him,” said David Elmaliakh, 50, as he watched congressmen repeatedly interrupted the prime minister’s speech with rapturous applause.
Elmaliakh said Netanyahu was right to ignore the torrent of criticism that emerged when Republican lawmakers invited him to address the congress and go ahead with the visit.
“That’s the place where the whole world can hear us,” he said, as he sat in a downtown Jerusalem cafe where the speech was beamed on television.
Netanyahu was invited to Washington by House Speaker John Boehner without consulting the White House or Democratic congressional leaders, triggering criticism from the US administration.
His speech was boycotted by President Barack Obama and some 50 Democrats, and took place as Secretary of State John Kerry held talks in Switzerland with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Netanyahu, who was welcomed with a standing ovation, admitted that his speech “has been the subject of much controversy.”
But he insisted a deal between Tehran and world powers “would not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”
“It paves Iran’s path to the bomb,” he said. Tehran has repeatedly insisted its nuclear program is purely peaceful.
Shoa Horowitz, a shopkeeper watching in Jerusalem, agreed with Netanyahu that there should be no nuclear negotiations with Iran.
“Netanyahu really cares, and knows what he’s talking about. It’s important he make the world understand the situation. All these negotiations are distorted,” he said.
Elmaliakh added: “Iran is not to be trusted. We all know what Iran is,” without elaborating.
‘Needless and arrogant’
Netanyahu has been accused of using the nuclear stand-off as a platform for electioneering, ahead of Israeli polls that could threaten his ruling coalition.
While many Israelis said Netanyahu was right to address Congress, others said his decision to do so would further damage an already tense relationship with the US administration.
“Obviously, this address is controversial among Israelis, because of its timing with the elections coming up,” said Boris Dolin, who also watched the speech at a Jerusalem cafe.
Avi Marziano agreed.
“To interfere in this manner in American politics seems needless and arrogant,” he said.
“Barack Obama is probably sitting at home now watching this. We will pay the price.”
The US president dismissed Netanyahu’s speech as having “nothing new” to say about Iran and pointed out the premier’s failure to provide “any viable alternative.”
A campaign video released Tuesday by Netanyahu’s main rivals from the center-left Zionist Union slammed the damage Netanyahu’s speech was causing to US-Israeli relations.
After invoking historical Israeli successes against hostile external actors, it said: “March 3, 2015: Bombarding the US Congress with words, Netanyahu obliterates US-Israeli friendly ties.”
Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud is almost neck-and-neck with the Zionist Union in opinion polls. They are expected to win 21 and 24 seats, respectively, in the 120-member Knesset.