Benjamin Natanyahu offered an unlikely endorsement of President Barack Obama’s strategy on Iran in a speech on Thursday before the U.N. General Assembly. “Two days ago President Obama reiterated that the threat of a nuclear Iran cannot be contained,” Netanyahu said. “We thank and support President Obama for his position. I believe Democrats and Republicans alike share his position, and it is shared by leaders around the world … Israel is in discussions with the United States on this issue, and I am confident that we can chart a path forward together.”
In both tone and words, it was a departure from recent statements by the Prime Minister, who is said to have an icy relationship with Obama. At a Sept. 11 press conference, Netanyahu angrily declared: “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 redlines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”
That came after Netanyahu reportedly dressed down U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro over America’s Iran policy in front of visiting members of Congress — and then leaked the episode days before the Democratic National Convention. And in the lead-up to the U.N. General Assembly, Netanyahu’s administration leaked word that Obama had declined to meet with the Israeli Prime Minister in New York — an allegation the Obama Administration denied, saying the two men weren’t even scheduled to be in the city at the same time.
Obama’s rival, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, an old friend of Netanyahu from their days working at a consulting firm in Boston, latched on to each of these episodes to pound Obama for not being tougher on Iran. “Every American is less secure today because [Obama] has failed to slow Iran’s nuclear threat,” Romney said in his Tampa speech accepting the GOP nomination. “President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus.”
Israeli officials have become increasingly alarmed at Iran’s rate of uranium refinement, arguing that the window to resolve the conflict diplomatically is closing. In his U.N. speech on Thursday, Netanyahu alleged that Iran would acquire enough uranium for a bomb by next spring and that the time to act is between now and then. He called on the U.S. and other world countries to draw a “redline” on the level of Iran’s uranium production. And, in case his audience didn’t get the message, he held up a Tom-and-Jerry-like cartoon of a bomb and drew a thick red line across the top of it.
But Netanyahu also conceded that unprecedented sanctions levied by the Obama Administration are, for the first time, taking a toll on Iran’s economy. “But we have to face a truth: [sanctions have] not had an effect on Iran’s nuclear program,” he said, citing an International Atomic Energy Agency report that Iran has doubled refinement in the past year at its near-bomb-proof Fordow facility.
Obama argues that the harshest sanctions just took effect this summer and more are on the way. “Let me be clear: America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited,” Obama said at the U.N. on Tuesday. “The United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he added.
Most countries — including Russia, China and those in Europe — support the U.S. position that more time is needed for diplomacy and that the threat isn’t as imminent as Netanyahu says. Indeed, the timing of his criticism has led some Democrats and Israelis to criticize the Prime Minister for trying to involve himself in another country’s democratic process. “It’s very simple, and it’s no great secret: Netanyahu wants to see Obama defeated on Nov. 6. He wants Romney elected,” Haaretz newspaper’s editorial board wrote on Sept. 13. “But even if Netanyahu can foresee the future and even if Romney would comply with orders coming from Jerusalem, the outcome Netanyahu wants would be catastrophic. Israel would be accused of meddling in domestic American politics, perhaps even of trying to overthrow the President. And just so that the Prime Minister can beat the drums of war. Acquiring that kind of reputation, which would never be erased, would exact a much more painful price from Israel than would even the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.”
Netanyahu’s speech on Thursday didn’t leave much for Romney to put in a press release. So, what changed in the past week that led Netanyahu to back off of Obama? Perhaps he got a look at recent polls showing Obama pulling ahead in key swing states and increasing his lead nationally. It’s one thing to put a finger on the scale when a race is close and quite another to flat out provoke the man he’s likely going to have to spend the next four years working with. Especially when Israel is due to hold elections next year. As the scripture says and Netanyahu well knows: “An eye for an eye.”