Red lines and deadlines
With so much on his plate, Obama still found time to call Netanyahu in an effort to smooth his ruffled feathers.
There is certain predictability in Washington life. Once in a while, a colleague will call or pop up in a web chat with: "Did you hear the rumor about Sabbath?" No, what is it? "Israel will attack Iran this Saturday!" Another Sabbath passes, and the Qom nuclear facility is still there.
Far more predictable than the winter snowfall in Washington, DC are the seasonal crises in Israel-U.S. relations. This week - as if Democrats didn't have enough of Israel with the omission and subsequent embarrassing reinstatement of "Jerusalem capital of Israel" in the Democratic Party platform, to the loud booing of National Convention delegates in Charlotte, North Carolina - there was the indirect but tense exchange between Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. administration officials with regard to the "red line" on Iran.
Netanyahu insisted that without a clear ultimatum the ayatollahs can race on toward the bomb as they please; the Obama administration stressed they don't see any use in announcing red lines. The administration's approach received support from former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who said he doesn't believe in "red line policies, because when you're stating something at time one, it might not be the same at time two," at a J Street lobby briefing in Washington this week. "When you are saying red line, you're claiming you can draw a line based on what the other side is doing... when it comes to the decision, someone will come up with an excuse." Halutz also said he believes the sanctions imposed on the Iranian regime "are working" and that he doesn't think "anyone in Israel thinks we should attack immediately in spite of all the recent rhetoric.
White House and State Department spokespersons stressed that they see public discussions of this sort as being largely unhelpful (especially given the fact that communications with Tehran, in the absence of diplomatic relations, are tenuous anyway, with ample room for misinterpretation ).
Tuesday was supposed to be one of those days when campaigns pull the negative ads and politicking is put aside so the nation can grieve with families of the 9/11 victims. But Israel apparently can't be put aside, even when the U.S. embassy in Cairo is attacked by protesters and a U.S. ambassador and three staff members are killed following a mob attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
What does the U.S. president do on this day, after observing an early morning minute of silence at the White House, laying a wreath at the Pentagon memorial and visiting wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center? He calls the Israeli prime minister to control the damage caused by reports that the White House had rejected Netanyahu's request to meet Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly due to convene in New York later this month.
According to a summary provided by the White House, the two discussed the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program and "the close cooperation between the U.S. and Israel on security issues, including that of Tehran." They "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." The statement stressed that "the discussion was part of the two leaders' ongoing consultations," and denied that a request for a meeting was "ever made or denied." Nor did the statement mention that any meeting is scheduled to take place.
Initially, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor claimed technical problems as the reason why a meeting won't take place: "The President arrives in New York for the UN on Monday, September 24th and departs on Tuesday, September 25th. The Prime Minister doesn't arrive in New York until later in the week. They're simply not in the city at the same time. But the President and PM are in frequent contact and the PM will meet with other senior officials, including Secretary Clinton, during his visit."
Later on, he said there was no request for a meeting in Washington on a different day. Asked by Haaretz about the possibility of meeting at the White House, he responded that he doesn't have the "full president's schedule" for that week.
A disengaged spectator who has not followed the love-hate relationship unraveling over the past three and a half years, would have a hard time grasping recent events. Why in the world would the political party of any given country have to affirm the capital city of a different country in its platform? Why would a candidate facing imminent elections have to accommodate a request for a meeting by a foreign leader whom he has already met more than any other foreign leader? And why does the White House have to make a statement on this snub or non-snub, when there are obviously bigger challenges facing the US in the Middle East than Netanyahu's scratched ego?
A game of chess for the Jewish vote
In this chess game over the American Jewish vote, Netanyahu is not necessarily the king. This week in Pennsylvania, I met with some Republican Jewish Coalition activists engaged in a door-to-door campaign, trying to persuade Jewish voters disappointed with Obama that they have every reason to vote for Mitt Romney (or, more precisely, against Obama ). There were T-shirts and banners ("Oi vey, Obama. Had enough?" ), "Mitt-zvah" buttons, leaflets dropped at thousands of Jewish household doors, systematic phone banking, and less than a few people who could propose any reasonable alternative to the policies being pursued by the current administration.
After the usual 'Obama is not a friend of Israel' tirade, mentioning that the President is "not in love" with Israel, and his strained relationship with the Israeli leader; dismissing his administration's support for the "Iron Dome" anti-missile batteries ("It's the Congress, not Obama" ), and his administration's vetoing or voting against anti-Israeli resolutions at the UN ("If it was up to Obama, he would surely vote for it" ) - I asked one of the activists for his solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was hesitant. "I know what is NOT an answer - pressure on Israel!" he finally said. Fine, I said, no pressure, but what is a viable option, other than the two-state solution based on 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps? One state? Palestinian bantustans? The answer was sort of "the Israeli leader knows better." Now, does he?