Benjamin Netanyahu came to the U.S. to challenge what he called a “charm offensive” by Iran. The Israeli prime minister hasn’t found it easy getting his counterattack to resonate in a country preoccupied by domestic concerns and wary of foreign involvement.
Netanyahu used his speech at the United Nations on Oct. 1 to urge the world not to take Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani at face value. He didn’t capture the media attention Rouhani enjoyed for promising swift progress on nuclear talks from the same platform a week earlier. Nor did Netanyahu match the impact of his own UN address last year, when he brandished a drawing of a burning fuse to illustrate what he said was Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons.
Rouhani’s overtures led to a Sept. 27 phone call with President Barack Obama, the highest-level U.S.-Iranian encounter since the Islamic revolution of 1979. Netanyahu’s message to the world body -- that Rouhani is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who can’t be trusted -- jarred with the renewed optimism.
“Americans don’t like a dismissive approach, since the stakes with Iran are so large for everyone,” and they think that the “prospect of a diplomatic opening should be explored,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In his UN speech and a television interview, “Netanyahu himself said he did not oppose diplomacy,” Makovsky said. “But the issue is one of emphasis, since the skepticism was so dominant a part of his speech.”
The Israeli premier’s turn to address the weeklong UN gathering in New York came on the day the U.S. federal government entered a partial shutdown, dominating local news coverage after a political standoff stalled action on a budget. Rouhani’s General Assembly address a week earlier wasn’t as overshadowed by U.S. domestic politics.
Reaction to Netanyahu’s UN address was mixed. Some of the sharpest criticism came in a New York Times editorial that said the premier’s “aggressive speech” made him seem “eager for a fight” rather than a diplomatic solution.
Netanyahu found a more receptive audience at a meeting with the leaders of American Jewish organizations in New York on Oct. 2, where he drew applause as he asked them to help in his campaign to convince the broader public that Iran isn’t to be trusted. Even among that crowd, though, his tone drew some dissent.
“He’s been overplaying his hand, when he should come off as more open to diplomacy” said Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “While he’s right to be skeptical of Iran, Netanyahu’s approach may not resonate with an American public that, after the Syrian escapade, has indicated a desire not to get involved in foreign intervention and military enterprises.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said after the Netanyahu meeting that the Israeli leader was taking the right approach by insisting that Iran must prove itself.
“While the American public is preoccupied right now by the budget crisis, I think they are smart enough not to be fooled by Iran’s charm offensive,” Foxman said.
A CBS/New York Times poll on American views of foreign-policy issues published last week contained ammunition for both arguments. Only 22 percent of Americans expect relations with Iran to improve in the next few years, with 41 percent saying they would stay the same and 32 percent that they would worsen.
On Syria, the survey found evidence Americans are wary of involvement. Obama backed away from military strikes on Syria, to punish the government for an alleged chemical attack, and instead embraced a Russian plan for removing the chemical weapons. More than 80 percent of respondents in the CBS poll backed that plan, even though two-thirds said they didn’t believe Syria would hand over all its illicit arms.
The easing of tensions over Syria and the prospect of a thaw with Iran helped push oil to a three-month low this week.
Netanyahu expanded his message in a series of media appearances during the trip, including his first with the BBC’s Persian-language service. He told Charlie Rose, in an interview broadcast on PBS and Bloomberg Television, that the best approach to Iran’s nuclear program is “distrust, dismantle and verify.”
Iran says the program is for peaceful purposes and it has a right to enrich uranium, while Netanyahu has argued that all enrichment should be halted.
Netanyahu told broadcaster NPR, in an interview aired today, that he’d consider meeting Rouhani if offered an opportunity, and would ask: “Are you prepared to dismantle your program completely? Because you can’t stay with the enrichment.”
Netanyahu’s private discussions with Obama at the White House on Sept. 30 will turn out to be more consequential than his public diplomacy blitz, according to Makovsky.
This week, the Israeli premier has gone “further than ever before in saying explicitly that a partial nuclear deal is a bad deal,” Makovsky said. “The success of the Netanyahu mission to the U.S. is not just based on public attitudes, but to what extent has Netanyahu succeeded in persuading Obama to go for a broader deal.”
The Israeli premier said after returning from the U.S. today that he planned to meet with European leaders next week as he pushes for continued vigilance over Iran.
Netanyahu told Rose that he believed he and Obama could agree on a common approach to Iran. His UN speech spelled out what may happen if they don’t. Netanyahu told the world body that Israel is ready to “stand alone” if it believes Iran is close to attaining nuclear weapons.