5 reasons Netanyahu is challenging Obama over Iran

The Israeli premier slams the White House for being weak on Iran, thrusting himself into one of the most controversial foreign policy debates of the 2012 race

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Obama on March 5.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the Obama administration to task for refusing to set "red lines" on Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, arguing that the U.S. had forsaken its "moral right to place a red light before Israel" if it chooses to attack Iran. Netanyahu's tough words came after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. was "not setting deadlines" for a possible military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, angering an Israeli government that has grown impatient with Obama's strategy of allowing tough sanctions and international isolation to take their toll on the Iranian regime. While Netanyahu has long advocated a tougher approach to Iran, his attacks on the U.S.'s government's supposed moral laxity were seen as unusually vicious. Here, five reasons Netanyahu is challenging Obama:

1. He knows the election puts Obama in a tough spot

Netanyahu's blistering remarks "suggested that he is willing to use the pressure of the presidential election to try to force Mr. Obama to attack Iran," say David E. Sanger and Isabel Kershner at The New York Times. Netanyahu is "highly attuned to American politics," and knows that Mitt Romney has accused Obama of being soft on Iran and a bad friend to Israel. In demanding that Obama "effectively issue an ultimatum to Iran," Netanyahu is "making maximum use of his political leverage." Indeed, says Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, "Netanyahu knows that his leverage... grows each day the U.S. gets closer to election day. The day after election day it drops precipitously."

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2. He is essentially endorsing Mitt Romney

Many see "Netanyahu's rhetoric as an implicit endorsement of Romney," who has argued that "Obama's biggest foreign-policy mistake was failing to halt Iran's nuclear program," says Uri Friedman at Foreign Policy. During the recent Republican and Democratic conventions, both sides used Netanyahu's previous "statements to argue that the Israeli prime minister was on their side." To come out so forcefully with a GOP-friendly line is a clear pushback against the Democrats.

3. He's getting desperate

In 2010, when Republicans swept the midterm elections, there was no end to Netanyahu "hectoring, lecturing, and loudly, if indirectly, ridiculing the Obama administration for being soft on Iran," says Bradley Burston at Israel's Haaretz. But Obama's "campaign appears to be surging," giving Netanyahu's latest over-the-top denouncement a whiff of desperation. "After all, it's not every day that the prime minister of an isolated Israel issues what amounts to an ultimatum to his most dependable, most indispensable ally."

4. He wants to distract attention from domestic issues

"You don't have to be a political strategist to realize that Benjamin Netanyahu can take advantage of the Iranian nuclear threat to divert attention from his failure to provide solutions for the economic troubles of his citizens," says Ron Ben-Yishai at Ynetnews. Instead of addressing Israel's high poverty rate and wide income gap, he is hoping that the Israeli public will "be distracted" and "focus on the looming Iranian threat."

5. Obama is too soft on Iran

Netanyahu's "specific anxiety is not unreasonable," says Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic. The Obama administration has pledged to "keep Iran from possessing a nuclear bomb," but hasn't specified what it considers a step too far. What if Iran is technically non-nuclear, but needs only "a month to put together a nuclear bomb?" Shouldn't that be a clear red line? Obama, disturbingly, hasn't answered that question.

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