- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
Last week, I pointed out that Republicans and Democrats were both invoking Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements to argue that the Israeli prime minister was on their side, even though Netanyahu himself has not explicitly expressed support for either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in this year’s election. That may still be true, but Netanyahu nevertheless issued a stinging criticism today of the Obama administration’s refusal to set so-called "red lines" for Iran’s nuclear program — one that has major implications for the presidential race.
"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," the Israeli leader declared, in a clear reference to the United States. Here’s the New York Times account of the comments:
Addressing reporters here in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu unequivocally rejected those comments and slapped back at the United States. Speaking in English, he 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."
In his remarks, made at a joint news conference with the visiting prime minister of Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov, Mr. Netanyahu also said: "Now if 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, toward obtaining nuclear weapons capability and from there, nuclear bombs."
He criticized the litany of economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and the European Union as ineffective in stopping the enrichment program. "The fact is that every day that passes, Iran gets closer and closer to nuclear bombs," Mr. Netanyahu said.
Some in Israel are interpreting Netanyahu’s rhetoric as an implicit endorsement of Romney, who argued on Sunday that Obama’s biggest foreign-policy mistake was failing to halt Iran’s nuclear program. "It’s not every day that the prime minister of an isolated Israel issues what amounts to an ultimatum to his most dependable, most indispensible ally," Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston wrote today. "It’s not every day that an Israeli prime minister who by geopolitical necessity must be scrupulously neutral in an American presidential race, tailors his moves to the campaign of one party at the expense of the other." Burston continues:
In recent days, however, there’s been a certain air of desperation in the ways Netanyahu has continued to pursue this policy. The desperation has grown in the face of the opposition of growing and already large numbers of respected current and former Israeli security, nuclear, diplomatic and intelligence experts to any attack on Iran at this time, and more pointedly, against a unilateral Israeli offensive.
And, in particular, when Barack Obama’s campaign appears to be surging.
If immediate red lines are in order, Benjamin Netanyahu would be well advised to set them for himself, and the malice and abuse and disrespect he has heaped on the president….
If for no other reason than Netanyahu’s preference for public pronouncements rather than back-channel cooperation with Washington, plays directly into the hands of Iran, and increases the potential dangers to Israel.
Or, if for no other reason, than the fact that Israeli officials are beginning to discuss the specifics of a threat that the prime minister’s office has only discussed in vague whispers until now: Payback.
Simply put, what price will Netanyahu be made to pay, should Barack Obama win on November 6?
At a conference in Israel on Tuesday, Shaul Mofaz, the leader of Israel’s Kadima Party, argued that Netanyahu wouldn’t let U.S.-Israeli relations deteriorate to that point.
"We won’t see military action against Iran in 2012; there’s still time," he asserted. "There is no need for us to sacrifice the most important strategic partnership we have over the Iranian issue. It’s up to Netanyahu to defeat [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, not Obama." Haaretz is already reporting, however, that the White House has declined Netanyahu’s request to meet with Obama at a U.N. conference in New York at the end of September (Netanyahu will meet with other U.S. officials). That’s not a good sign for the bilateral relationship.
I’ve noted before that an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities could swiftly swing an election that, barring a major world event, should revolve around the economy. Watch this space.