Oct. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advised President Barack Obama last month to back off, saying the U.S. had “no moral right” to stop Israel from attacking Iran in a bid to cripple its nuclear program.
In turn, Obama decided not to meet the Israeli leader on his next visit to the U.S. The president compounded the snub when he said in a “60 Minutes” interview that he would “block out the noise” if Netanyahu kept pushing for military action.
What a difference a month makes when both Obama and Netanyahu are fighting for re-election. Heeding advisers who said the nasty exchanges were hurting them both, Netanyahu pushed his horizon for an assault against Iranian nuclear facilities from October to next spring while speaking at the United Nations Sept. 27. Obama issued a press release the next day saying the two chatted by phone and were in “full agreement” on Iran, easing the confrontation between them.
“There’s a great feeling of relief that Netanyahu switched gears,” David Makovsky, an Israel-watcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a telephone interview. “The only people who win when the U.S. and Israel are squabbling are the Iranians.”
Israel is the world’s biggest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, collecting more than $3 billion a year. While 78 percent of American Jews voted for Obama in 2008, Israelis are less enthusiastic. A poll released June 15 showed 38 percent had a positive attitude toward the U.S. leader, the same number were neutral and 23 percent had negative views.
Support for Attack
If diplomatic efforts fail, two-thirds of the Israelis said they would support a military strike against Iran. The survey of 540 Israeli Jews, sponsored by Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv and the Anti-Defamation League, had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Obama, a Democrat, and Republican Mitt Romney competed at last night’s presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida, to show who was the bigger supporter of Israel.
Romney faulted the president for failing to visit the Jewish state during his term in office, saying Obama would “create daylight between ourselves and Israel.” Obama said his administration has developed “unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation” with Netanyahu’s government, noting that he visited Israel in 2008 during his campaign for president.
With both nations eager again to play up their alliance, the Pentagon announced that the U.S. and Israel will begin the largest joint air and missile defense exercise, which started this week. The war-games -- billed as “another milestone in the strategic relationship” by Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro -- involve some 3,500 U.S. personnel performing exercises on mock battlefields and at sea with 1,000 Israeli soldiers.
The two countries also signed an agreement last week tearing down a trade barrier between them on quality testing for the sale of telecommunications equipment, according to the office of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.
The Obama administration has publicly disagreed with Netanyahu on how to halt Iran’s nuclear capability and the timing of any military strikes. Iran’s leaders say the nuclear program is just for civilian purposes.
Netanyahu has called for setting “red lines” for military action if Iran continues to enrich uranium. Obama responded that setting deadlines would only limit his options, saying pressure should be applied through economic sanctions.
“For several weeks, there was weekly, almost daily criticism from the Israeli government as to how the U.S. administration is handling Iran,” Isaac Herzog, a parliamentary representative from the opposition Labor party, said in an interview today at Bloomberg’s Tel Aviv office. “The most sensitive matters should be dealt with in intimate close quarters between the Oval Office and Jerusalem.”
The policy disagreement on Iran follows earlier clashes with Netanyahu over settlement construction in the West Bank and the collapse of U.S.-backed peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Tensions were on clear display when Netanyahu was unceremoniously ushered from the White House in March 2010 without joint press statements, photo sessions or the usual trappings of such visits.
“The personal dislike of Obama for Netanyahu is almost an established fact,” Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said in a phone interview. “We know the background, we can read the body language.”
Developing a close relationship between U.S. and Israeli leaders is not necessary to working together on sensitive diplomatic issues, former President Jimmy Carter said.
“I didn’t have a particularly warm relationship with” former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, “but we managed to work together,” Carter said yesterday at a press conference in east Jerusalem after speaking with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Carter brokered the 1978 Camp David Accords that led Begin and former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to sign a peace treaty six months later, the first between Israel and an Arab state.
The strains between Netanyahu and Obama only increased during the U.S. presidential campaign when Romney came to Jerusalem, met with the prime minister, and raised $1 million during a breakfast with contributors.
A month later at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, he accused Obama of having “thrown Israel under the bus.” Romney was accompanied to Jerusalem by his biggest contributor, casino owner Sheldon Adelson, chairman of Las Vegas Sands Corp. and publisher of a pro-Netanyahu daily newspaper in Israel, Yisrael Hayom.
Obama campaign officials condemned an anti-Obama campaign commercial produced last month by the “Secure America Now” super-PAC that features a Netanyahu speech calling for united action against Iran. Netanyahu aides said permission to use the speech was never requested and pointed to Obama’s own campaign video that features a tribute from the prime minister, which he also didn’t authorize.
Netanyahu may also have decided to bury the hatchet with Obama because he was “persuaded that the Iran issue is real but maybe it’s not as urgent as he made it out to be,” said Mark Heller, principal research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
That may have included “new intelligence information or political advice that he can afford to wait,” Heller said.
Netanyahu and Romney said during the Republican candidate’s trip that they have known each other since 1976 when both worked for the Boston Consulting Group as corporate advisers.
Tensions between the U.S. and Israel have repeatedly surfaced since the Jewish state was founded six decades ago, without ending the alliance. Netanyahu’s military commanders and Defense Minister Ehud Barak played a part in smoothing the latest fracas, emphasizing the close security ties between the two nations, Makovsky said.
“Each side has lowered its tone,” he said. “They’re trying to find quiet ways to work things out.”
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