The New York Times has been enjoying the confusion it sowed in Washington, Jerusalem and Tehran when it published a story last weekend about an agreement between the United States and Iran to have bilateral nuclear talks after the presidential election. The White House and the Iranians denied it while the Israelis didn’t seem sure what to believe. But whatever the truth of the account, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying hard to avoid sending mixed signals about the possibility of a new round of Iran talks. In a story published in today’s Times, the paper’s Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren reports the Israeli government sent out an email on Monday to every one of the country’s embassies and consulates saying that they had no knowledge of the proposed talks and admonishing their diplomats to keep their mouths shut about the issue.
As Rudoren pointed out in her piece, despite the White House denials, the president contradicted himself in the foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney on Monday night since he said at one point that the Times story was “not true” and then said his policy was to encourage “bilateral discussions with the Iranians.” That seemed to signal that the Times was operating with correct information. That poses a dilemma for Israel. Netanyahu knows that it makes no sense for him to have yet another public brawl with President Obama on the eve of his re-election fight. Yet he also understands the danger of the U.S. being drawn into yet another pointless round of talks that will only serve to buy the Iranians more time to achieve their nuclear ambition. Thus, while there’s no doubt that Israel has good reason to be concerned about whether more U.S. diplomacy will let Iran off the hook, Netanyahu has decided to play this hand very close to his chest.
Rudoren’s piece is, in part, a portrayal of the difficulty that any Israeli government has in speaking with one voice even on the most crucial national security issues. Members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet, as is the case with any Israeli coalition, are inclined to shoot their mouths off about any issue even if they know nothing about it. Israel’s foreign service officers are also often blabbermouths and have been known to undermine the prime minister if they disagree with his politics, as many do with Netanyahu.
But the problem here is not so much the fractious nature of Israel’s political class as it is one of the government trying to navigate between the imperative of upholding the country’s interests on Iran and the necessity of trying to keep as little daylight as possible between the Jewish state and the Americans.
Netanyahu was widely lambasted last month for having the temerity to ask for a meeting with President Obama at which he could make his case for setting down “red lines” about the Iranian nuclear threat. Obama turned down both the “red lines” and the meeting, but rather than the president taking heat for his position, it was Netanyahu who was attacked for making the disagreement public. That was interpreted as a crude attempt to intervene in the U.S. election on behalf of Romney. But the truth is that throughout the last four years, Netanyahu has tried hard to avoid public disputes with the president. Though he has a well-earned reputation as a prickly customer, a fair reading of the situation shows that each dispute between the two nations has been the result of the president picking the fight rather than the prime minister. Whether the issue was settlements, borders or the status of Jerusalem, President Obama has staked out positions and rebuked the Israelis whenever he got the chance, though often it has been Netanyahu’s ripostes than drew the attention of the press.
Israel’s official position is that any talks must be predicated on ending the nuclear threat rather than merely extracting promises from Iran that can easily be broken. But Netanyahu has to know that a second Obama term is likely to begin with yet another attempt at outreach to Iran that doesn’t bode well for Israel’s hopes of tightening the pressure on the Islamist regime. Though the president seemed to alter his stand on the issue during the last debate to one that would demand an end to Iran’s nuclear program rather than merely stop its enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade level, the Israelis are rightly suspicious that a more lenient stance is likely to come out of any discussion with the Iranians. Yet Netanyahu understands that having already stuck his head out on the “red lines” issue, he’s in no position to take the bait and involve himself in another losing fight with Obama.
The president is sticking to his denials about post-election Iran talks in order to enhance his chances of holding onto wavering Jewish voters in swing states. But Netanyahu probably isn’t under any illusions about what will follow if the president wins. And no one else should be either.