Netanyahu's Congress Speech Helped Iran Deal Gain Support, Democratic Congresswoman Says

Israeli prime minister's move backfired, Janice Schakowsky says, and made agreement into a bi-partisan issue that helped rally Democrats and civil society

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. In a speech that stirred political intrigue in two countries, Netanyahu told Congress that negotiations underway between Iran and the U.S. would "all but guarantee" that Tehran will get nuclear weapons, a step that the world must avoid at all costs.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. In a speech that stirred political intrigue in two countries,Credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been boasting recently about the controversial speech he gave to the U.S. Congress against the Iran nuclear deal two and a half years ago, claiming it is what led U.S. President Donald Trump to announce he would withdraw America from the agreement.

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But Janice Schakowsky of Illinois, an influential senior Democratic congresswoman, said that what Netanyahu’s speech actually did at the time was to help the White House and Democrats to gain support in Congress for the landmark deal.

Representative Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois and ranking member of the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee, makes an opening statement during a hearing on the Equifax Inc.Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

In an interview with Haaretz, Schakowsky, the Democrats' chief deputy whip in the House, said Netanyahu’s speech and the political drama it created, actually unified the Democrats in congress behind then U.S. President Barack Obama and the Iran deal.

It also encouraged liberal civil society organizations to join forces and lobby lawmakers, influence the press and public opinion to support the deal with Iran, she added.

“It was a big mistake for Netanyahu to come to Congress. Both in terms of the issue of the deal and of offending many Democrats. But in retrospect, I think it helped us," she said.  

"People thought it would be AIPAC's summer but it was not, because there was an organized effort. People actually read and studied the deal and thought what the consequences might be,” said Schakowsky referring to the summer of 2015 when the agreement was saved by Democrats in Congress.

Schakowsky, who was one of a handful of Jewish members of Congress who boycotted Netanyahu’s speech in March 2015, said efforts are now being made in Congress and outside it to ensure Trump does not abandon the Iranian nuclear deal and that Congress does not reinstitute sanctions on Iran, which would lead to the end of the deal. 

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“We are not just going to sit around and wait. There will be a lot of opposition [to the United States leaving the agreement]. I am very proud of the role I played for the Iran deal and the majority of Jews in Congress voting for the Iran deal – not loving it, but thinking that this is the best thing we are going to get. I still think that,” she said.  

A number of Republican senators and congress members have come out against ending the deal with Iran, and some have even objected to re-imposing sanctions without a clear Iranian violation of the agreement.

But Schakowsky said she fears that even those Republicans who understand the dangers of leaving the agreement will support re-imposing sanctions to avoid confronting Trump and suffering political damage in the 2018 midterm elections.

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"I met Republicans who told me: ‘The president might try and put this between us and his base and I am not going to let him do that and I will vote to re-impose sanctions.’  I think with the politics of this and the midterm elections Republicans in Congress might think, 'Am I better off sticking with Trump never mind what the worldwide dangers might be?' We will try and change that calculation the same way we tried to do it on the Iran deal,” said Schakowsky.

Other Democrats on Capitol Hill agree with Schakowsky that Netanyahu’s speech helped Obama gain the support he needed for the Iran deal within the Democratic Party.

Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia, one of the few Democratic senators to vote against the deal, said at the time that Netanyahu’s speech had made the debate on the Iran deal extremely political and had polarized the two parties about the agreement. Because Obama only needed the votes of Democratic senators to prevent the Senate from voting down the deal, this polarization played into the hands of his administration.

Similar comments were made at the time behind closed doors by members of the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby, who were not informed about the speech in advance. 

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AIPAC made great efforts to defeat the Iran nuclear agreement, but they failed to recruit enough Democratic opponents to the deal. Some senior members of AIPAC felt that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress harmed these efforts against the agreement because it made the Iranian deal a partisan political issue and made it much more difficult for Democratic senators to come out against Obama.

At the time, AIPAC’s spokesman strongly denied such reports, saying they did not represent the official position of the organization.

Since 2015, Democratic support for the Iran deal has only grown. Over the past few weeks, a number of Democrats who voted against the agreement in 2015 have called on the Trump administration not to cancel the deal. The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin from Maryland, has warned that the cancellation of the agreement would be a victory for Iran.  

Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee,  has said leaving the Iran deal in place serves the national interests of the United States for now.

“The fact that [Cardin and Engel], who voted against the agreement, are now calling for Trump to preserve it shows that even the most pro-Israel politicians in the Democratic Party understand that the mood in the party is changing,” an adviser to a leading Democratic senator told Haaretz who spoke on condition of anonymity.

When Netanyahu spoke to Congress in 2015 a few dozen Democrats boycotted the speech, but in the 2016 elections not a single one of them paid for it by losing their seats, he added.

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