Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama, we had maybe the nastiest blow-up in this War of the Roses relationship.
This has been building for some time, and the issue, of course, is Iran’s nuclear program.
A couple of weeks ago, Netanyahu gave US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro a dressing down in front of visiting House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers.
Rogers said Netanyahu “thinks that from the moment the Iranians decide to do so, it would only take four to eight weeks until they manufacture the first nuclear bomb,” according to the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Netanyahu has been pressing the US to tighten sanctions and publicly lay out the “red lines” it would not allow Iran to cross before launching military action to take out its nuclear program. The US has declined to specify those “red lines,” although the president did say this at an AIPAC conference in March:
I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon…I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.
But on September 11th, the day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said we should give more time for sanctions to work, Netanyahu had a public meltdown:
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.
That was a thinly veiled attack on the Obama Administration, and shortly thereafter the president refused to meet Netanyahu during his US visit next week, his most public snub yet of Netanyahu. The US denied it had happened and the president tried to smooth things over by calling Netanyahu overnight, but the damage was done.
Who’s to blame for all this? Well, it takes two to tango. Netanyahu presides over a badly divided Israel. His own cabinet isn’t even completely on board for a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran, with strong opposition from some military leaders.
Even his closest ally on Iran, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, had some cautionary words:
Despite the differences and importance of maintaining Israel’s independence of action, we must remember the importance of partnership with the United States and try as much as possible not to hurt that.
And US presidents and Israeli prime ministers have had dicey relations in the past. President Eisenhower ordered Israel, France and the UK to get out of Suez in 1956. President Reagan condemned Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. And George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, had many problems with PM Yitzhak Shamir.
But this is far worse than anything I can remember. Yes, Netanyahu can be impossible to deal with, but his concerns about Israel’s security are justified as Iran’s nuclear program continues to advance and Iran’s leaders make ever-more strident warnings about wiping Israel off the map.
I think President Obama has handled this critical relationship badly, failing to reassure Netanyahu that he really does “have your back” and engaging in wishful thinking about the chance of real democracy in Arab countries. That may make it more difficult for the two long-time allies to mount a strategic, coordinated response to what’s clearly becoming a serious threat to both.