WASHINGTON (AP) — House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi politely stood and clapped when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered the House chamber for his long-awaited, and highly controversial, speech to Congress. The longer he spoke, the less enthusiastic she got.
At one point, when Netanyahu suggested his nation's relationship with the United States should be above politics, Pelosi looked at her lap and shook her head. When he declared that, "if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand," Pelosi threw her hands up in exasperation. More than once, she turned to her deputy, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and appeared to vent. And even before Netanyahu had begun his ascent up the center aisle toward the exit, Pelosi pivoted and headed out a different door and into the Democratic cloakroom.
"I was near tears throughout the prime minister's speech — saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States," she fumed in a statement afterward, adding that she didn't appreciate "the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation."
Pelosi's was the highest-profile sign that Netanyahu had inflamed his relationship with some congressional Democrats with his address to Congress, a 39-minute warning that Obama's negotiations on limiting Iran's nuclear capability would all but guarantee that Tehran gets nuclear weapons. Even as he spoke, the Obama administration pressed on with those talks, and the president dismissed Netanyahu's speech by noting that "foreign policy runs through the executive branch and the president, not through other channels."
More than four dozen Democrats skipped the speech altogether, offended by an array of developments before they even got to the policy substance of the speech itself.
House Speaker John Boehner's invitation to Netanyahu, without first notifying Obama, was one. The speech coming so soon ahead of election day in Israel was another.
Then there was this sight: Netanyahu standing at the podium where the president delivers the State of the Union speech, framed by two Republicans seated behind him — Boehner and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the president pro tempore of the Senate.
By custom, the vice president sits with the speaker, but Vice President Joe Biden was out of town and didn't attend. Hatch is next in line.
"It was putting Netanyahu on an equal level with the president of the United States," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. "And that was wrong."
Most Democrats, though, attended, because the real issue is how to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. One pushed back against Pelosi and other Democrats who shared her frustration.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech was not condescending," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who was one of the lawmakers who escorted Netanyahu into the House chamber. "Every speech contains passages which remind the audience of facts they already know, and conclusions with which they already agree. That is not condescension; that is oratory."
But Cohen and 11 other House Democrats later expounded on their multiple frustrations with the speech, including the substance. His statement about Israel standing alone particularly chafed.
"I think that's delusional," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who skipped the speech. "The notion somehow that he thinks that Israel can just bull through this on their own against the world ... Israelis don't believe that."
"What I heard today felt to me like an effort to stampede the United States into war once again," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who also skipped the speech.
Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said the speech was "straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook — fearmongering at its worst."
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.