In addition to the tragic situation in Libya, another international incident simmered last night, on the subject of Israel and Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a speech claiming that the US had “no moral right” to intervene in a potential Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, unless they too set a “red line” for the nuclear program.
In a blistering response to a Sunday statement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the United States is “not setting deadlines” for Iran to abandon its alleged weapons program, Netanyahu said that if no “red line” is established, Iran will continue to pursue an atomic bomb.
“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,” Netanyahu told reporters in Jerusalem.
This is an issue freighted with domestic politics. Netanyahu has made little secret out of wanting to attack. What we can definitely say about the Obama Administration is that they want no part of this in the 50 days or so between now and the election. They have foregrounded the notion that time must be given for sanctions to work, and behind the scenes there have been indications that they have lobbied against an Israeli strike.
There are local Israeli politics at issue as well. Ehud Barak, the Defense Minister, reportedly turned against an attack in the past several weeks. There are elections next year, and Barak could be setting himself up for a break with the Likuds and a return to the opposition. Netanyahu’s window is short not just because of US politics, but because of politics in his own country.
The tensions between the US and Israel continued, when Netanyahu reportedly sought a meeting with President Obama at the opening of the UN General Assembly at the end of the month. The White House refused, citing scheduling issues. Then the two leaders had a long talk via phone last night. The readout tries to downplay the tensions, but there wasn’t really a need for the discussion without them.
President Obama spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu for an hour tonight as a part of their ongoing consultations. The two leaders discussed the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, and our close cooperation on Iran and other security issues. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu reaffirmed that they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and agreed to continue their close consultations going forward. Contrary to reports in the press, there was never a request for Prime Minister Netanyahu to meet with President Obama in Washington, nor was a request for a meeting ever denied.
Kevin Drum reads this as Netanyahu trying to create an international incident because he’s playing for Team Republican. I’m not sure of this – he simply thinks, wrongly, that his country’s security depends on him striking Iran, and he is using whatever channels he can to remove barriers to that attack. Plus he believes, perhaps rightly (I don’t have a good grasp on this), that an attack will boost his profile in Israel before their elections. This meets with everything Netanyahu has said in public. It’s apocalyptic, but it reflects his true intentions. And that’s what makes the situation in the Middle East right now so terrifying.