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After Weeks Of Controversy, Netanyahu Takes The Podium Before Congress


This morning, members of Congress gathered on Capitol Hill for a major speech.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister of Israel...


GREENE: Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is addressing a joint meeting of the House and Senate, though several Democrats are protesting the speech. That's because House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu without telling the White House. Netanyahu's using this appearance to argue against negotiations led by the Obama administrations with Iran over its nuclear program. NPR's Michele Kelemen has been following the speech and joins me now in the studio. Michele, good morning.


GREENE: So what have you heard from Benjamin Netanyahu so far this morning?

KELEMEN: Well, I mean, really he used this speech to make clear why Israel and why he thinks the world should see Iran as a threat. He described Iran's support for terrorism. He says the fact that Iran is battling ISIS doesn't turn Iran into a friend. To quote Netanyahu, he said, "the enemy of your enemy is your enemy."


PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire - first on the region and then on the entire world. They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire.

KELEMEN: Of course, as we see, like on the battlefield in Iraq, the U.S. and Iran do share some of the same goals.

GREENE: We have reporting this morning. I mean, the city of Tikrit - the Iraqi military, with help from Iran, is really trying to think that back from ISIS, which, in many ways, seems to at least look like Iran and the U.S. are working together.

KELEMEN: That's right. Of course, the U.S. says it's not coordinating with Iran.

GREENE: What about the nuclear talk? What did Netanyahu have to say about that?

KELEMEN: Well, he basically says that the U.S. and its negotiating partners are making too many concessions in these talks. He says the deal that's emerging would leave Iran with, as he put it, a vast nuclear infrastructure. And he says that inspectors may be able to watch, but they can't really stop it.


NETANYAHU: It doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb. It paves Iran's path to the bomb. So why would anyone make this deal? Because they hope that Iran will change for the better in the coming years, or they believe that the alternative to this deal is worse. Well, I disagree. I don't believe that Iran's radical regime will change for the better after this deal.

KELEMEN: And he really argues that this deal that's being negotiated is going to allow Iran to reconstitute its nuclear program very easily.

GREENE: OK. Well, the Obama administration, of course, is working on this deal. What would their response to that?

KELEMEN: Well, I think, you know, what we've been hearing is - one big question is what's the alternative, really? I mean, Susan Rice, the national security adviser, spoke to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC last night. And she said that, you know, the U.S. won't accept a bad deal, but that it wants to resolve this through negotiations. And she believes that this is going to be the best way to prevent Iran from having a nuclear program. She says the goal right now is to have a one-year breakout. That means that it would take Iran one year to have enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb and also that this deal should last at least 10 years.

GREENE: And just briefly, Michele - I mean, President Obama said he would not meet with Netanyahu. I mean, he said because Israeli elections were just two weeks away. I mean, what is Netanyahu seeing here in terms of an opportunity politically for how this might play back at home with voters?

KELEMEN: Well, he really wants the elections in Israel to be about security, and coming here and speaking about the Iranian threats may play well at home. That's remains to be seen. But he's come here to show that he's firm. And whether or not it - you know, has - he has problems with this Obama White House, the U.S.-Israeli relations are bipartisan.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Michele Kelemen speaking to us in the studios. Netanyahu addresses a joint session of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.