Netanyahu’s Challenge: Keeping Iran on Boil Until November

Does Netanyahu’s outburst this morning mean that all the reports and assessments we have been making and reading and hearing over the last couple of weeks have to be revised now?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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After a few days of gradually lowering the tone regarding Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu decided Tuesday morning that it was time to ratchet up the rhetoric once again, saying that “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.”

His angry words, during a morning news conference in Jerusalem, were a clear response to Hillary Clinton’s interview on Sunday, in which she refused to set a clear deadline for Iran and said that diplomacy is still “by far the best approach.” Clinton’s refusal to accept the need for red lines abruptly ended a brief period during which Israeli and American leaders tried to put their differences behind them. For a short while,it seemed that the United States had been assured that Israel would not launch an attack on Iran before the presidential elections.

Administration sources had leaked to The New York Times that President Barack Obama was considering further measures against Iran, perhaps setting down red lines. Senior military commanders, including Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James Winnefeld, briefed their Israeli counterparts on U.S. military plans regarding Iran. On Friday, Netanyahu was buoyed by the Canadian government’s announcement that it was severing all its ties with Iran.

Then on Sunday, along came Clinton and made it clear to Netanyahu that Washington is not Ottawa.

Does Netanyahu’s outburst this morning mean that all the reports and assessments we have been making and reading and hearing over the last couple of weeks of a receding chance of an imminent attack (even Iran’s Fars News Agency reported on Tuesday that “Israel Drops Empty Talk of War”) have to be revised now? I think not.

Netanyahu seems to have grudgingly accepted that an Iranian attack is not in the cards for the next couple of months. Indications of such acceptance include his belated rapprochement with Shimon Peres yesterday, over a month after the Israeli president publicly spoke against a unilateral Israeli strike, as well as Ehud Barak’s speech last week in which he signaled that Israel is relying on America for the time being. On the other hand, Netanyahu is anxious to keep Iran at the top of the international agenda.

Netanyahu fears a creeping acceptance of a nuclear Iran within the Obama administration. The prime minister’s advisers could not have failed to notice (and probably brought to his attention) Monday’s op-ed column in the New York Times by former executive editor Bill Keller, who wrote that “after immersing myself in the expert thinking on both sides, I think that, forced to choose, I would swallow hard and take the risks of a nuclear Iran over the gamble of a preemptive war.”

The Prime Minister’s Office sees the NYT as a reliable indication of administration thinking, and is clearly concerned that if Obama wins in November, official policy may gravitate toward such views. Netanyahu is certainly eager to make Iran a big issue in the campaign and reinforce the claim made by Republican candidate Mitt Romney on Sunday that Obama’s “biggest failure relates to the greatest threat that America faces and the world faces, which is a nuclear Iran.”

Strategically, it makes sense for Israel not to allow the Iranian issue to disappear from the headlines. That way there will be more pressure on both the U.S. and the European Union to consider further sanctions against Iran. But as November 6 grows closer, the international community will be focused increasingly on the elections, making it much harder for Netanyahu to keep the Iranian kettle boiling without it spilling over.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Nir Kafri