WASHINGTON >> Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress on Tuesday that an emerging agreement between Iran and the United States would all but guarantee that Tehran gets nuclear weapons and would be a very bad deal, drawing an extraordinarily blunt rebuttal from President Barack Obama.
In an appearance that has stirred political controversy in two countries, Netanyahu said "Iran has proven time and again that it cannot be trusted," no matter what it says about permitting verification of the terms of any accord designed to prevent it from getting a nuclear bomb.
"The greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons," he said in remarks before a packed House chamber that drew loud applause from Republicans and a more restrained reaction from Democrats.
Obama saw it differently, and said so from the White House. He said that the Israeli leader offered no "viable alternatives" to the nuclear negotiations with Iran and that the prospect of an agreement had already resulted in a freeze and rolling back of Iran’s program.
Netanyahu spoke in English shortly after Secretary of State John Kerry met for more than two hours in Switzerland with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in hopes of completing an international framework agreement later this month to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The Israeli leader’s appeal also came two weeks before tight elections in which he is seeking a new term — and after the invitation to address Congress extended by House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, triggered a political furor in the United States. More than four dozen House and Senate Democrats said in advance they would not attend the event, a highly unusual move given historically close ties between the two allies.
Many of Netanyahu’s comments were greeted by loud applause from U.S. lawmakers, but not everyone was persuaded by his rhetoric.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California conspicuously refrained from applauding on several occasions, and when the Israeli leader called for holding out for a better deal with Iran, she held her hands wide and shook her head in disagreement. Later, she issued a statement saying that she was "near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech – saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States" as part of the international coalition in talks with Tehran.
The White House expressed its displeasure with Netanyahu’s appearance by word and deed, dispatching Vice President Joe Biden on an overseas trip that meant he did not fill his customary seat behind the House rostrum during the speech. Nor did the Israeli leader meet at the White House with Obama on his trip to the United States.
The prime minister was greeted with a roaring welcome as he walked down the same center aisle of the House chamber that presidents tread before their annual State of the Union speeches.
He also sought to smooth over any political unpleasantness, thanking Obama lavishly for the help he has given Israel since he became president. In a grace note, he took a moment to mention Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who is back at work after suffering an eye injury in an accident at home.
At the same time, Netanyahu was unrelenting in his condemnation of the negotiations the administration is conducting with Tehran.
He said that with the concessions the United States was prepared to make Iran would not only gain nuclear weapons, but also eventually would become free of international economic sanctions. As a result, he said, it would be emboldened to finance even more terrorism around the Middle East and the world.
The result for Iran, he said, would be "aggression abroad and prosperity at home."
Instead, he said that if Iran wants to be "treated like a normal country, it ought to behave like a normal country."
"We’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well this is a bad deal, a very bad deal," he said.
He said that the world needs to insist that no restrictions are lifted on Iran’s nuclear program until the country stops aggressive actions against its neighbors in the Mideast, stops supporting terrorism around the world and stops threatening to annihilate Israel.
Later, at the White House, Obama took issue with Netanyahu’s comments as well as the invitation that led to his speech.
"On the core issue, which is how do we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which would make it far more dangerous and would give it scope for even greater action in the region, the prime minister didn’t offer any viable alternatives," he said.
Asked before a meeting with Defense Secretary Ash Carter about Netanyahu speaking before Congress, Obama said the U.S. has a system of government where "foreign policy runs through the executive branch and the president, not through other channels."
At the Capitol, Netanyahu singled out Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel, a world-renowned author.
"I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned," he said in a reference to the Nazis, who killed 6 million Jews.
A few moments later, he added, applause swelling, "The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies are over."
The U.S. and Iranian sides met for two hours on Tuesday morning in the Swiss resort of Montreux, according to U.S. officials.
"We’re working away, productively," Kerry told reporters.
In Israel, Isaac Herzog, who is running against Netanyahu in the March 17 election, said he supported the prime minister’s message on Iran but played down any positive impact from the speech.
"The painful truth is that after the applause, Netanyahu remains alone and Israel remains isolated and the negotiations with Iran will continue without Israel," Herzog said. "It won’t change the (U.S.) government’s position and will only widen the divide with our great friend and our only strategic ally."