Neil Macdonald: Netanyahu's American campaign

The Israeli prime minister has injected himself into the U.S. presidential election by the way he has pressed his case against Iran, Neil Macdonald writes. President Obama is clearly not amused.

In the midst of the presidential election, the Israeli prime minister presses his case against Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu portrays himself as an old friend, offering America’s president some public advice —some help, really, during a critical election phase.

Iran, he tells American viewers in a carefully scheduled series of TV interviews, "is very different. They put their zealotry above their survival. They have suicide bombers all over the place. I wouldn’t rely on their rationality."

Among other things, Netanyahu is a master of timing. His emphasis on irrationality coincides with the annual burst of anti-Israel, anti-U.S. malevolence, delivered from the podum of the United Nations by Iran’s bombastic and somewhat clownish president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Sanctions won’t work, Netanyahu is telling Obama.

Yes, America’s vast foreign service and intelligence organs may disagree with that assessment. And some of Israel’s most senior intelligence figures regard Iran as dangerous, but rational.

But in Netanyahu’s view, diplomacy has had its moment. It’s time for talk of yet another war.   

The subtext is about as subtle: Any friend of Israel in America will understand that the Obama administration is, by its timidity at this juncture, threatening the Jewish homeland. Cast your votes accordingly.

Making the rounds

Of course, Netanyahu, or Bibi, as he is known back home, protests that he is above partisan American mud-wrestling.

Asked by U.S. television interviewers in recent days to comment on Mitt Romney's assertion that Barack Obama has "thrown Israel under the bus," a bemused Netanyahu replied "There is no bus."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Jerusalem in July 2012. (Associated Press)

"You're trying to get me into the American election," he complained, "and I'm not going to do that."

Of course not.

He was merely making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, following up on a performance he'd delivered in Jerusalem a few days earlier — one so potent a pro-Romney Super Pac is now employing it, with dramatic editing effects added, as the centerpiece of a TV attack ad in the swing state of Florida.

Looking straight into the camera, speaking in perfect American English rather than Hebrew, Netanyahu in essence accused Obama in that speech of appeasing and enabling the mullahs in Tehran.

"The fact is that every day that passes, Iran gets closer and closer to nuclear bombs," he said. "If Iran knows that there are no red lines, if Iran knows that there are no deadlines, what will it do? Exactly what it is doing."

He then followed his uppercut with "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."

The new pro-Romney ad uses a good chunk of these remarks before a narrator concludes: "The world needs American strength. Not apologies."

The 'best of allies'

The ad doesn't directly mention Obama, but it picks up on a now well-worn Republican trope — that Obama runs around the world "apologizing for America." In other words, time to ditch the wimp and show the world who's boss again.

Of course, Netanyahu himself never mentioned Obama in his Jerusalem speech, either. That would be poor form, and Netanyahu has been in the game far too long to not mince his words just a bit.

Netanyahu with Obama in the Oval Office in March 2012. (Associated Press)

For the Israeli leader, it is "the world" that's enabling Iran. And it's "those in the international community" who are restraining Israel from … well, again, Netanyahu doesn't say explicitly, but one assumes he is talking about undertaking a pre-emptive attack on Iran's developing nuclear facilities.

Never mind that all sorts of experts, including some prominent Israeli hawks (and a big chunk of the Israeli public itself, according to reports there), think that would be lunacy, not to mention militarily unrealistic.

Shaul Mofaz, a former Israeli chief of defence staff and leader of the centrist Kadima party, posed these questions in the Israeli Knesset: "Prime minister, tell me, who is our biggest enemy, the U.S. or Iran? Who do you want replaced, Ahmadinejad or Obama? How low are you prepared to drag relations with our closest ally?"

Barack Obama, if he were to be frank, might ask the same thing. Of course, Netanyahu stresses that no one should take any of his words to mean there's any animus between him and President Obama: "We're the best of allies," the Israeli leader says.

Well, yes, actually. One for both, and both for one, and all that, and woe betide the American president who doesn't understand that dynamic.

Ask George H.W. Bush, who tangled with then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir over Israel settlements in the run-up to the 1992 election and paid a political price, his supporters would say later.

Obama appeared to learn that lesson early. He too tried to restrain settlement-building, but that talk dissipated quickly. As did his publicly expressed notion that the pre-1967 borders should be the basis for a peace agreement.

He even made a political ad in which he appeared with Bibi in the White House.

But Netanyahu's subsequent decision to greet Obama's challenger Mitt Romney in Israel back in July "as though he was on a state visit" (as the New York Times put it), has dulled the president's enthusiasm for his friend in Jerusalem.

Obama has clearly concluded Netanyahu prefers his opponent, Mitt Romney, who, behind closed doors, told wealthy Florida donors recently that the Palestinians don't want peace, and that "there’s just no way" to the prospect of a Palestinian state (an official goal of the U.S. government) in the foreseeable future.

He is also no doubt aware that both Netanyahu and Romney are bankrolled to a large extent by Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, under whose sponsorship Newt Gingrich once called Palestinians "invented" people and "terrorists."

So, suddenly, Obama simply cannot find time to meet Netanyahu in New York this week. This is a president who gets coldly angry and it’s easy to find new chill in his words.

On the TV news show 60 Minutes, Obama shrugged off Netanyahu’s demand for a "red line" on Iran, saying the only "pressure that I feel is simply to do what's right for the American people. And I am going to block out any noise that's out there."

Note the phrasing: "noise."

"If Gov. Romney is suggesting that we should start another war," snapped the president, "he should say so." (And so, by implication, should Bibi.)

Obama allowed that he does routinely consult with the Israelis, "because this affects them deeply. They're one of our closest allies in the region."

Again, note the phrasing: "one of our closest allies in the region." Not, as Netanyahu put it on NBC, "the one reliable ally of the United States in the Middle East."

Obama is clearly feeling less than magnanimous at the moment. But Netanyahu will move on and meet this week in New York with another of America's, and Israel's, close allies.

He is to sit down with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose recent cutting of diplomatic ties with Tehran was publicly praised by the Israeli prime minister as a "moral and brave decision against Iran."

If Harper allows questions, some reporter might want to ask him whether he agrees that "the world" is conspiring to enable Iran and endanger Israel.

Or whether Canada thinks a point-of-no-return red line should be established for war. It's a question that has thus far elicited silence in Ottawa.