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Israel's Netanyahu, in a risky strategy, presses U.S. on Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has forcefully pushed President Obama to take a tougher stance on Iran. Critics say he risks alienating an ally.

March 05, 2012|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama meet in the Oval Office of the White House. "Netanyahu has managed to take over Obamas agenda with the Iranian issue and erase almost completely the Palestinian issue," an Israeli columnist wrote.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama meet in… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais,…)

Reporting from Jerusalem —  

At a previous high-profile summit between a U.S. president and an Israeli prime minister, an exasperated Bill Clinton marveled at what he viewed as his counterpart's arrogance in schooling him about the Mideast conflict. According to one aide, Clinton asked after the meeting: Just who is the superpower?

The Israeli leader at the time was — and again is — Benjamin Netanyahu.

At home, Netanyahu is seen as politically cautious, risk-averse and "squeezable" when it comes to his positions. Yet the Likud Party chief has established a track record for standing tall against U.S. leaders with a vigor some critics say borders on ingratitude and disrespect.

Netanyahu last year rebuffed President Obama's pressure to halt West Bank settlement construction as a way to restart peace talks with the Palestinians. During a particularly frosty White House visit, he lectured a steely-faced Obama about the peace process in front of television cameras. And some say his style veers too close to partisan politics, appearing to align himself with Obama's Republican opponents who share mutual political donors.

At a much anticipated meeting Monday, Netanyahu expressed his appreciation for Obama's pledge to haltIran'ssuspected nuclear arms program. But Netanyahu's aides and supporters let it be known that they didn't think the White House was doing enough.

Some say Netanyahu's approach is working. With its threat of a military strike against Iran's nuclear program, Israel has focused U.S. attention on Iran like never before and drawn out the most explicit threat yet by Obama to use force against Iran if necessary. Few are talking about Palestinians or settlement construction anymore.

"Netanyahu has managed to take over Obama's agenda with the Iranian issue and erase almost completely the Palestinian issue," columnist Sima Kadmon wrote Monday in Israel's leading newspaper, Yediot Aharonot. "He has succeeded in pulling the entire American political establishment to the right. In his talks with the Republican senators who have been making urgent visits to Israel, he succeeded in conveying to them his frustration with the American position."

But others say Netanyahu is playing a dangerous game with the U.S., possibly applying too much pressure. It's not the first time Israel has been perceived as the tail wagging the dog. But the strategy could backfire this time if Israel is seen as drawing the U.S. into another war or putting American lives at risk.

"Relations with the U.S. have become politicized under Netanyahu," said opposition leader Tzipi Livni. "He has made Israel an issue in American primaries, and this is a mistake."

She said that as great as the Iranian threat is to Israel, gambling with the U.S.-Israel relationship is also "an existential matter. Our deterrence, our ability to take military action, all these depend on relations with the U.S."

In general, Netanyahu appears far closer to Republicans, though he tries to maintain a nonpartisan public position, as Israeli leaders usually do. One of his richest backers, pro-Israel U.S. businessman Sheldon Adelson, gave more than $10 million to a political action committee backing Republican challenger Newt Gingrich and has vowed to spend much more on the eventual Republican nominee.

Yet Netanyahu's supporters say his strategy is paying off.

"Is Israel pushing too much?" asked Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. "Frankly, I don't think so. All in all this has been an extraordinary diplomatic success for Netanyahu."

Shoval said Netanyahu's push to get the U.S. to take a stronger line against Iran stems from Israel's deep fears about the ramifications of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons.

"He feels the fate of the state and the Jewish people could be determined by whether Iranians get the bomb," Shoval said. "It's a historical decision that gives him the energy to confront even an American president."

But others worry that Israel is overplaying its hand and warn of a U.S. backlash if the tiny nation is perceived as trying to manipulate its primary benefactor.

"Netanyahu's Israel has dictated the global agenda as no small state has ever done before, just as its international standing is at its nadir and its dependence on the United States at a zenith," wrote Haaretz newspaper columnist Gideon Levy. "But one day the rope could snap and the whole thing could blow up in the face of power-drunk Israel: Israel doesn't know when to stop, and it could pay dearly as a result."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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