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.