Obama and Netanyahu meeting in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office, March 5, 2012. Photo by AP
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Barack Obama seems to believe that Israel will not be attacking Iran soon, or else his people would not be so eager to deny reports on a rift between him and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Twice in the space of 48 hours senior American officials have taken the trouble to categorically deny reports in an Israeli newspaper. But what was most surprising is that in both cases the Obama administration was insisting it has a great relationship with the Netanyahu government.

On Sunday night it was ambassador in Israel, Dan Shapiro, who summoned Channel Two’s chief anchor, Yonit Levi, for an exclusive interview which can be summarized by just one of his sentences –

“What we have are very close and generally quite private conversations between the most senior members of our governments focused on the common threat, the common strategy the common understanding of how we can achieve it and the means with which to achieve.”

In other words, don’t believe what you read in the newspapers, ties between the U.S. and Israel have never been better and even the relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu “is just what it needs to be.” And why was Shapiro doing what no diplomat normally would do, refer on camera to the personal rapport between his president and the leader of another country?

The ambassador’s television appearance was a direct result of the front-page story on Friday’s Yediot Ahronot where Shimon Schieffer broke the story of an angry exchange between Shapiro and Netanyahu. In the presence of Congressman Mike Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Netanyahu was reported to have accused Obama of pressuring Israel not to attack Iran instead of putting the same kind of pressure on Iran to stop developing nuclear weapons. Shapiro, according to the report could not accept such a charge and in a departure from diplomatic protocol, said that the prime minister had misrepresented his president’s position, leaving no mistake that he believed Netanyahu was doing so willfully.

In effect, Shapiro went on television to insist that Yediot’s report was

“a very silly story… the published account of that meeting did not reflect what actually occurred in the meeting.”

Yediot is not a paper to take such an insult lying down and on Monday Schieffer responded with a stinging rebuke to Shapiro writing that his denial “bordered on absurd,” insisting that his story was based on “a senior political source” and that he wouldn’t “confirm or deny a conversation between me and Shapiro before the report’s publication. We both know the truth.”

This wasn’t enough though – Schieffer had a new revelation, which if true had resounding diplomatic implications. The new Yediot headine was that the Obama Administration had informally notified the Iranian regime, through two European governments, that should Israel attack Iran, the U.S. would have no connection to the action and they were requesting that Iran not retaliated against American bases in the region. An explosive story, if true.

This time, the denial came straight from the White House, press secretary Jay Carney rushing to quash the report saying to Reuters -

"It's incorrect. Completely incorrect. The report is false, and we don't talk about hypotheticals."

This morning Yediot was much more conciliatory with a headline – “Reducing the tension.”

So what have we seen here? One Israeli newspaper insisting that Netanyahu’s relationship with the administration is so bad that the Americans are actually going to Tehran behind Israel’s back. And Obama’s representatives insisting that relations were never stronger. All this comes after a week in which the Joint Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey went so far as to say that if Israel goes ahead and attacks Iran, "I don't want to be complicit if they choose to do it."

Why is the administration suddenly rushing to convince us that it is on the same page with Israel on Iran? It can’t mean that Obama has changed his mind and is prepared to countenance an attack on Iran. On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden went as far as to bring Iran into the presidential election campaign when he attacked the Republican candidate Mitt Romney for being “ready to go to war in Syria and Iran.”

Obama’s attempts are a rear-guard damage limitation action aimed at smoothing over Netanyahu’s ruffled feathers and they seem to reflect a feeling in Washington that the battle has been won. The intense pressure on Bibi has yielded the necessary, grudging assurance that Israel won’t spring any surprises before the elections and any plans for an attack on Iran have been shelved, at least until after the elections. Now it’s back to politics as normal and an incumbent president, intent on re-election needs to remind voters that Israel has his back. That’s why the New York Times reported on Monday that Obama is considering new steps “short of war” to apply pressure on Iran.