Israel-US spat: A help to Iran?

A public row between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration is distracting the two allies from presenting a united front against Iran's nuclear program.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
US President Barack Obama (r.) meets Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York in this file photo taken in September 2011. The White House denied on Tuesday that President Obama refused a request from Nentayahu to meet in the United States this month but said no meeting would take place, citing conflicts in the leaders' schedules.

A day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unusually caustic criticism of the US, Israel’s most important ally, tensions between the two nations have risen as the feud spilled into the media.

The Israeli leader chastised the US for not setting a "clear red line” for when it would take military action to strike Iran’s nuclear program. He added that the US had no “moral right” to stop Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear program.

Meanwhile, the White House has denied reports that President Barack Obama turned down Mr. Netanyahu’s request for a meeting.

The row may indicate that different opinions on the immediacy of the threat posed by Iran have pushed Mr. Obama and Netanyahu apart, and the Israeli prime minister is now seeking to pressure the US by dragging the issue into the public forum as the US presidential elections near.

“[T]here is a suspicion that Netanyahu is seeking to use the US election to bounce Obama into committing to early military action against Iran or is trying to influence Jewish American votes in favour of the more hawkish Republican candidate, Mitt Romney by suggesting the president is jeopardising Israel's security,” writes the Guardian’s Chris McGreal.

This strategy may backfire, however, and work to the benefit of Iran, reports The Los Angeles Times. Despite the recent rhetoric, Israel and the US have most of the same beliefs. If diplomatic feuds keep them at odds, it may make the situation easier for Iran by weakening the alliance of those who oppose it.

“Both the US and Israel are seeing an escalatory pattern to statements from the other, and interpreting the worst to the other side's political intentions, even if there is a case to be made that both sides actually have a preference to be on the same page,” said David Makovsky, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in an article by The LA Times. “This is tragic and the only winner is Iran.”

Following comments in the media from Israeli officials that Obama had turned down requests for a meeting in the US during a United Nations conference later this month, Obama phoned Netanyahu last night to reassure Israel of his commitment to working together on the Iran issue, The Jerusalem Post reports.

“President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu reaffirmed that they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” said the White House in a statement. “There was never a request for Prime Minister Netanyahu to meet with President Obama in Washington, nor was a request for a meeting ever denied."

Within Israel, some politicians are now questioning the prime minister’s conduct with Washington. In unusually sharp remarks yesterday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said his nation’s alliance with the US is too important to risk compromising in a bout of political gamesmanship.

“The United States is Israel's principal ally and despite the differences on [Iran] and the importance of keeping Israel's ability to operation independently, we must also keep in mind the strategic importance of the partnership with the United States, and refrain from hurting it,” he said in an article by YNetNews.

Other Israeli political figures have also questioned the wisdom of embracing a “red line” policy with Israel. Most recently former Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Dan Halutz spoke out against Netanyahu’s position during remarks in Washington DC this week, reports Haaretz.

I don’t believe in red line policies, because when you’re stating something at time one, it might not be the same at time two,” he said. “When you are saying red line, you’re claiming you can draw a line based on what the other side is doing... when it comes to the decision, someone will come up with an excuse."

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