At UN, Netanyahu Needs to Repair His Own Power of Deterrence

While pressing the case against Iran, the Israeli PM needs to step back from his confrontation with Obama and his perceived support for Romney, who increasingly seems like a candidate whose political future is behind him.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will speak to the General Assembly of the United Nations on Thursday, but his address will be aimed at just one audience: the American one.

Netanyahu will stand out favorably against the likes of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who denies not only the Holocaust but also Osama Bin Laden’s responsibility for the September 11 attacks, or Egyptian President Morsi, who apparently cannot bring himself to utter the world “Israel” in public. But the prime minister nonetheless has his work cut out for him if he wants to repair some of the self-inflicted damage that he has caused in the past few weeks alone.

Netanyahu’s standing, of course, is far from free-falling at the pace that his friend Mitt Romney is plummeting in the polls, but his position is also far what it was only a few short months ago: Jewish leaders are bewildered, the media has grown harsh, Democratic congressmen are suddenly criticizing him in public and it’s clear to most observers that in his latest showdown with President Obama, it was Netanyahu who was forced to blink first.

In upbraiding the U.S. administration for failing to adopt “red lines “ on Iran, Netanyahu crossed a few red lines himself: his tone was excessively and inappropriately harsh, he was seen as trying to drag America to a new war against its will and he was perceived as throwing caution to the wind in his support for Republican candidate Romney.

The latest polls, which show Obama opening a commanding lead over Romney in swing states, especially Ohio, only add insult to injury: Not only did Netanyahu breach etiquette by taking sides in the U.S. elections, he apparently bet on the wrong horse which, as things seem now, may have a hard time just making it to the finish line.

In overplaying his hand, Netanyahu lost much of the deterrent power that had served him so well throughout most of Obama’s tenure. First, because the president failed to back down in the confrontation over red lines and tete-a-tete meetings; second, because the flare-up removed Democratic lawmakers’ previous inhibitions about criticizing Netanyahu in public; third, because despite the flood of negative Republican ads about Obama’s attitude towards Israel – in which Netanyahu himself stars – the Jews still prefer him over his gaffe-addicted rival; and fourth, because Obama’s significant lead diminishes the importance of the Jewish vote altogether and further erodes any remaining perceptions of Netanyahu’s influence over it.

In any case, the link between Obama’s foreign policy performance and his standing in the polls remains to be proven. Support for him has spiked in the past week or two, despite the fact that approval of his handling of foreign policy has dropped in the wake of the recent riots in the Middle East and notwithstanding his truly bizarre decision to refrain from meeting any foreign leaders during the current General Assembly.

Some Jews, for whom suspicion and mistrust of Obama know no bounds, are convinced that Obama cancelled all his meetings just to avoid the need to see Netanyahu, his least favored foreign leader, in person.

They exaggerate, of course, but the problem remains, and Netanyahu now has a chance to make some amends. He needs to carefully expound on the dangers of nuclear Iran and press for ever-tougher international sanctions - without diluting his message, as he has done before, by raising suspicions that the severity of his tone is linked to his support for Obama’s Republican rival. This should have been the case before, of course, but it is doubly pertinent the more that Romney seems like a candidate whose political future is behind him.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

A passerby looks at portraits of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Benjamin Netanyahu in Cologne, Germany, Sept. 19, 2012. Credit: AP

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