Obama, Netanyahu appear united on Iran

Reuters and AFP

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented a show of unity on Friday on preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, seeking to tone down the acrimony between the two leaders that has become an issue in the final stretch of the U.S. presidential race. Obama, widely seen as having snubbed Netanyahu by not meeting face to face with him during his U.S. visit, spoke instead by phone to the Israeli prime minister amid signs of movement toward a truce in their war of words over how to confront Tehran. Netanyahu used his U.N. speech a day earlier to keep pressure on Washington to set a “red line” for Tehran, something Obama has refused to do. But in a softening of his approach, the hawkish Israeli premier signaled that no attack on Iran was imminent before the Nov. 6 U.S. presidential election. Netanyahu’s strident complaints about U.S. policy on Iran in mid-September plunged U.S.-Israeli relations into crisis, but also spurred a backlash at home and in the U.S. media for seeming to meddle in American politics. In recent days, the Israelis have sought to dial down the rhetoric, culminating in Netanyahu’s speech to the General Assembly, which was seen as sending a message that Israel would not blindside Washington with a unilateral attack on Iran any time soon. “The two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” the White House said in a summary of their 20-minute phone conversation. They “took note of the close cooperation and coordination” between the United States and Israel on “the threat posed by Iran” and agreed to continue regular consultations, the statement added. The White House said the two agreed to continue their cooperation, b ut it stopped short of saying Obama had given any ground on his resistance to issuing an ultimatum to Tehran, as Netanyahu has repeatedly demanded. “I had a very good conversation with President Obama,” Netanyahu told Israel television. “Our teams are talking.” An Obama aide went further, saying, “The temperature is lower than it had been.”

Toning Down Differences Netanyahu dramatically ramped up pressure on Obama earlier this month when he insisted the United States did not have a “moral right” to hold Israel back from taking action against Iran because Washington had not set its own limits on Tehran. That was followed by word that Obama would not meet Netanyahu during the Israeli leader’s visit to address the United Nations. Obama later said pointedly that he would ignore the “noise that’s out there” on the Iran issue. At the same time, Israeli officials — mindful of the danger of antagonizing the Jewish state’s main ally and of poisoning relations with the man who could occupy the White House for another four years — moved into damage-control mode. Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States, flew back to Jerusalem last weekend, during which he urged Netanyahu to tone down public statements that could be construed as interfering in the U.S. election or supporting Romney, according to sources in the Jewish community in Washington. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited Chicago and met privately on Sept. 20 with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former close Obama aide, raising speculation that Emanuel might be used as a back-channel conduit to mend ties with the president.