Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stinging rebuke of the Obama administration Tuesday regarding its policy towards Iran was seen by many observers as correct but impolitic — especially in the midst of an election campaign.
“Substantively he may be right, but politically he’s dead wrong,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. “This is too sensitive and important an issue to be reduced to statements in the media. It should be dealt with in discreet negotiations.”
Aaron David Miller, an adviser on Arab-Israel affairs to six U.S. secretaries of state, said that although negotiations and sanctions have failed to stop Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, “Israel is making matters worse by allowing differences with the U.S. to spill out into the open. It’s not necessary and [it’s] counterproductive.”
Pinkas said, “The friction is more between Netanyahu and President [Barack] Obama than between their countries.”
An announcement late Tuesday appeared to confirm that. It was announced that Obama had declined Netanyahu’s request for a meeting later this month when Netanyahu flies here to address the United Nations General Assembly. An Israeli official was quoted as saying that Netanyahu was prepared to fly to Washington for the meeting but was told Obama’s schedule was too full.
Eytan Gilboa, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University who studies Israeli-U.S. relations, said Netanyahu’s “message may be right, but the way he delivers it might not be right. It is counterproductive. If you want to cooperate with the U.S., you have to tone down private statements. The only party to benefit from it was Iran.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said subjects like Iran should be discussed frankly but behind closed doors (an echo of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s statements during his recent visit to Jerusalem that were seen as a dig at Obama).
Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz expressed concern that the prime minister was “sacrificing relations with Israel’s closest strategic allies in the U.S. and Europe on the altar of stopping the Iranian nuclear program.”
Netanyahu’s on-the-record reproach of the U.S. recalled several open clashes with Obama from earlier in the president’s term, but Israeli analysts said they could not recall a time when an Israeli prime minister attacked a president on such a politically sensitive issue in the heat of a re-election campaign. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz termed Netanyahu’s comments an “unprecedented verbal attack on the U.S. government.”
The comments came during a joint news conference in Jerusalem with the visiting prime minister of Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov. At one point, Netanyahu began speaking in English about Iran in response to the comments Sunday of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She had told Bloomberg Radio that the U.S. would not agree to Netanyahu’s request that it set clear red lines or deadlines for Iran in order for it to avoid a military attack from the international community.
The U.S. and Israel believe Iran is intent on building a nuclear weapon; Iran denies it.
In his comments Tuesday, Netanyahu said: “The world tells Israel ‘wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’ Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel. …
“So far we can say with certainty that diplomacy and sanctions haven’t worked. The sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy, but they haven’t stopped the Iranian nuclear program. That’s a fact. And the fact is that every day that passes Iran gets closer and closer to nuclear bombs. Now Iran knows that there is no red line. If Iran knows that there is no deadline, what will it do? Exactly what it’s doing. It’s continuing, without any interference, towards obtaining nuclear weapons capability and from there, nuclear bombs.”
Israeli political analysts could only speculate about the motives behind Netanyahu’s remarks. Gilboa suggested that Netanyahu’s preachy tone was trying to appeal to America’s tendency toward backing morally driven foreign policy goals.
“He is trying to play a game by using American moral rhetoric to influence American leaders,” he said, noting the prime minister’s frequent comparison of Iran to Nazi Germany. “Netanyahu feels very strongly that a strong stand against Iran is a moral issue. Sixty years after the Holocaust you don’t stand down … and whoever isn’t ready to stand up, is taking an immoral position.’’
There were some Israelis who suggested that Netanyahu was interfering in the American election.
Mofaz, the opposition leader, accused Netanyahu of sticking his hand “too deep into the U.S. ballot box.”
Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, said that had this not been an election year the U.S. “might have taken a different approach. The U.S. at this juncture does not want to create new turmoil in the Middle East. … Netanyahu is raising these questions specifically because of the election campaign.”
“He is not stupid,” he said, noting that Netanyahu is trying to win commitments from Obama now that he will have to fulfill should he be re-elected.
Ben-Meir added that Romney “has applied more pressure” to Obama by “saying the U.S. is being timid in dealing with Iran.”
Others pointed out that Danny Danon, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party and deputy speaker of the Knesset, is now in the United States promoting his book, “Israel: The Will to Prevail,” which is critical of Obama for his Middle East policy.
Danon told The Jewish Week Tuesday morning that Obama “failed to understand the complex mentality of the Middle East” and that he began his presidency by presenting a “wishful peace plan on the Middle East. That was the reason he failed. It takes more than a nice speech like he gave in Cairo … to make a change.”
He said Netanyahu intended to meet with Obama later this month in the U.S. “to talk of this delicate issue [red lines and deadlines for Iran]. The prime minister understands the importance of such a meeting. But before the meeting could even take place, the administration announced there would be no change in its policy of sitting idly by and ignoring the reality in the Middle East. …
“Instead of dealing with delicate issues in closed rooms, we in Israel read about the policy of the U.S. in the headlines of newspapers. … There is a big gap between what we hope to see from the great and strong U.S., which is supposed to lead the rest of society against the Iranian nuclear race.”
Danon added that the “feeling in Israel is that the people in Washington decided not to decide. … I don’t believe American forces [now positioned near Iran] will engage Iran [if Israel attacks Iran].”
One Israeli official involved in ties between the two allies rejected the suggestion that Netanyahu deliberately entered the playing field of the U.S. campaign. The diplomat bemoaned that the overlap of the showdown over Iran and the final weeks of the election is “distorting” the U.S.-Israel discourse on how to deal with the problem.
“Our clock and Iran’s clock seem to be coinciding with these damn elections,” the official said. “Now there’s a perception of intervention in the elections, which isn’t the case.”
Seeking to dispel the notion that the Israeli government seeks a Romney victory, the official said there are many in the Israeli government who believe that Obama will be better positioned as a second-term president to order an attack against Iran earlier.
Another explanation for Netanyahu’s exhortation was that he believes he has no tools left with which to deter Iran and prod the international community into tougher action, except continued saber rattling. Others suggested he is just trying to lay down an argument in preparation for a unilateral attack.
“He’s continuing the policy of signaling to the U.S. and Europe that unless they act, Israel will be forced to act alone, and [the U.S. and Europe] will pay the price of the spike in oil prices,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
Joshua Mitnick is an Israel correspondent; Stewart Ain is a staff writer.