It is no secret that relations between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have been strained in recent months. Netanyahu has been so open in his support for Obama’s rival in the presidential election, Mitt Romney, that members of the Israeli government have felt the need to intervene. The deputy foreign minister stated that Israel does not seek to interfere in another country’s elections, while Israel’s US ambassador has reportedly urged Netanyahu to tone it down. The decision by Obama not to hold a face to face meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister at the annual UN General Meeting was widely seen as a snub.
But, signalling a truce, the two men spoke on the phone during his visit. According to the White House, they expressed solidarity on the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Indeed, each left the UN meeting with assurances they did not previously have. In a softening of his approach, Netanyahu has indicated that he will not take unilateral action against Iran before the US presidential election on 6 November. For his part, Obama has committed to doing whatever it takes to prevent Iran from producing a nuclear warhead.
Although both countries had always shared the same aim – dealing with Iran’s nuclear programme – tensions had been high. Netanyahu had criticised Obama for not making it clear what it would take for western powers to attack Tehran. His obvious displeasure with the president was exploited by Romney, who has hammered his rival for being too soft on Iran and too harsh on Israel. Conversely, Obama’s aides were furious that Netanyahu was pressuring the president in the midst of an election campaign, refusing to cede ground on the issue despite the risk of alienating pro-Israel voters in swing states such as Florida and Ohio.
An end to the tension between the two men is mutually beneficial. The trend in recent US opinion polls has been a widening of Obama’s lead over Romney (although this was dented a little by the first presidential debate). If Netanyahu keeps up his pro-Romney campaign and Obama wins a second term – as looks likely – he could be in serious trouble. America is Israel’s most reliable ally, supporting the country to the tune of $3bn a year. On the other hand, accusations from Israel that the president was letting the state down were an electoral risk for Obama.
While the importance of this development should not be overstated, it indicates a truce in what has been an unusually public dispute between the two leaders. Netanyahu’s wish for a ceasefire was also evident in his praise for Obama’s UN speech. The president warned Iran that America would “do what we must”, but still stopped short of offering a specific ultimatum, as Netanyahu has been pushing for.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Prime Minister also spoke to Romney, who told reporters that he had not agreed “red lines” with Netanyahu either. It appears that finally, Netanyahu has decided to start being diplomatic in his approach to the US election.
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