x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Obama in snub to 'meddling' Netanyahu

Mr Obama is angry over an increasing bid by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier, to intervene in November's US elections by using the Iran issue to boost support for Mitt Romney, analysts say.

TEL AVIV // Ties between Israel and the US, its closest ally, appear to have plunged into a new crisis after Barack Obama, the US president, rebuffed a meeting request from the Israeli premier amid tensions on how to handle Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Analysts said yesterday that the unusual snub by Mr Obama signified more than the White House's growing frustration over a possible Israeli plan to attack Iran's nuclear sites instead of giving diplomacy and sanctions more time.

The brush-off, they said, also reflected Mr Obama's anger over an increasing bid by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier, to intervene in November's US elections by using the Iran issue to boost support for Mitt Romney, Mr Obama's Republican challenger.

Mr Romney has repeatedly charged that Mr Obama is too soft on Iran and too tough on Israel.

"The two sides have had their disagreements in the past on issues like Iran, but Netanyahu's intervention in the American elections is by far worse for US-Israeli relations," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst.

Israel said this week that Mr Netanyahu's office had requested that a meeting be held with Mr Obama when the two attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month.

On Tuesday, a White House spokesman declined to directly say the request had been spurned, merely stating that the two will not hold talks as they will be taking part in the event on different days.

Still, since Mr Netanyahu became premier in 2009, he has met Mr Obama every single time he had travelled to the US except once in 2010 when Mr Obama was abroad.

"It's clear Obama does not want to meet him," said Mr Alpher. He added that the rebuff indicates Mr Obama feels confident enough in his re-election chances to snub Mr Netanyahu and possibly risk losing Jewish or pro-Israel votes by alienating some members of the powerful US pro-Israel lobby.

Mr Obama's confidence may also be rooted in the fact that his opposition to an Israeli strike on Iran has the support of Israel's European allies, prominent Israeli security establishment figures and - according to polls - most of the Israeli public, Mr Alpher said.

The renewed tensions between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu - who have had strained relations over the expansion of Jewish settlements - came as Mr Netanyahu pressed the US to give Iran an ultimatum on its nuclear programme.

The Israeli premier considers Iran's nuclear ambitions as the biggest existential threat to Israel, although that view has been disputed by several top Israeli security figures.

On Monday, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said Washington will not set any deadlines to Iran on its nuclear programme and will give diplomacy more time to work. The next day, Mr Netanyahu issued an unusually harsh condemnation of the US, stating that "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 world tells Israel, 'wait, there's still time,' and I say, 'wait for what? Wait until when?" Mr Netanyahu said.

Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli political scientist, said Mr Netanyahu's demand for so-called "red lines" to be set for Iran is a bid to save face domestically by still appearing to have forced tough international action on Iran as allies reject any mention of a strike.

"Obama is in no mood to help Netanyahu politically after Netanyahu has done everything he can to hurt him politically and hug Romney," he said.

Yesterday, Mr Netanyahu drew attacks at home for his statements on the US. "Who is our biggest enemy, the US or Iran," lashed out Shaul Mofaz, the head of the opposition Kadima party that quit Mr Netanyahu's ruling coalition, in July.

As the latest indication of European resistance to an attack, the UK's Daily Mail newspaper reported yesterday that the head of Britain's MI6 secret intelligence service, Sir John Sawers, visited Israel a few weeks ago with a message from David Cameron, the prime minister, to urge Mr Netanyahu to opt for diplomacy right now.

While they line up in opposition of a strike, Israel's allies are also applying pressure on Iran to curb its programme. The International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to vote this week on a joint resolution by six world powers - the US, France, China, Russia, Germany and Britain - that would rebuke Iran over its nuclear activities.