Netanyahu Obama 21.5.11
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington, Saturday May 21, 2011. Photo by Avi Ohayon
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"Benjamin Netanyahu has a political status in America that no other foreign leader could ever dream of reaching," said a senior European diplomat to me this week, admiringly. It would certainly be hard to imagine any other politician eliciting such a public smackdown from Barack Obama in the middle of his hectic Colombian visit yesterday.

The motives of both leaders are clear – Netanyahu said that the Iranians have been given a five-week "freebie" because he does not want the Americans or any other members of the P5+1 to pretend that the Istanbul talks with Iran on Saturday achieved a breakthrough of any sort. He has to keep the pressure building, both on Iran and on those who he suspects of "going weak" on the Iranian – Obama top of that list. Obama snapped back at him since cannot allow Netanyahu to portray him as weak, especially with his election campaign intensifying.

But while Netanyahu's actions are generally interpreted as his intervening in the U.S. political arena, he is motivated also by a more oblique Israeli electoral timescale. He needs to present the Israeli public with an achievement on the Iranian issue and he needs it soon. The prime minister hears not only the ticking of the Iranian atomic clock; last summer's clamor from Tel-Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard also echoes in his ears. It was the lowest point of his second term, with his ratings plummeting and Likud ministers talking openly about losing the next elections. He had to swallow an almost unpalatable (for him) prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit, to rebuild his popularity.

Now the plans are being drawn for a second round of mass protests in a few months and Kadima's new leader, Shaul Mofaz is promising to lead them. This time Netanyahu won't be able to play the Shalit card and the protests could be just what the grey and charisma-lacking Mofaz needs to boost his standing as a challenger. The former IDF chief of staff may seem like an unlikely social reformer, but unlike Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, he never left public service to make millions and a Persian-born general, he also has the necessary credentials to challenge the government's policy on Iran. No-one is more aware than Netanyahu of the fickleness of Israeli public opinion and how in the space of a few weeks political fortunes can change.

After making the Iranian threat, the number one issue of his premiership, he is now under great pressure to show some kind of progress. That could come in the shape of a successful American or Israeli strike or Iran publicly and verifiably relinquishing uranium enrichment. His remarks yesterday belittling the Istanbul talks are a sign of his frustration and political pressure he is under. He could have miscalculated though.

Not only has he added to Obama's long list of grievances against him. Netanyahu has also missed the opportunity of presenting the crippling international sanctions against Iran as a successful result of his personal diplomacy. If all his endeavors have achieved are a "freebie" for Iran, maybe ex-Mossad Chief Meir Dagan and his other critics within the defense establishment have a point and he is going about this the wrong way.

Ultimately, five more weeks until talks resume in Baghdad are not going to make a significant difference to the Iranian nuclear program. Netanyahu would have done better by giving Obama a freebie, lauding the sanctions and the Administration's other efforts and taking some of the credit for himself.