Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu left New York for Israel Saturday night with aides expressing satisfaction that the key objectives of his trip – clearly defining red lines on Iran and clearing the air with Washington – were achieved.
“The first thing that he succeeded in doing was sharpening the message on Iran,” one source in Netanyahu’s entourage said of the prime minister’s speech Thursday to the UN. “We were more specific about what we think should be the red lines, and that is important in framing the parameters of the debate.”
The official said that the visit, which included a phone conversation Friday with US President Barack Obama and a meeting Thursday with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “strengthened and enhanced our dialogue with the US administration over these issues.”
In addition, the official noted, Netanyahu’s UN speech and his red line on a rudimentary sketch of a bomb received “almost unprecedented coverage internationally” and succeeded in putting the Iranian nuclear program “at the very center of the international political agenda.”
It is more clear than in the past what Israel means when it talks about red lines, the official said.
Netanyahu, in an interview with Channel 1, said he believed that placing a red line in front of Iran reduced the chances Tehran would cross it. He defined that line in his speech as the point before Iran had stockpiled enough low-grade and medium-grade uranium to begin working on high-grade uranium and a nuclear detonator.
Defining where the red line is, he said, gave “a great deal of legitimization” to those who might want to act if Iran crossed it.
The prime minister, in a Channel 2 interview, said he did not discuss an Israeli attack in his speech – only that the red line had to be at a point before Iran completed the second stage of enrichment needed for a bomb. Regarding his comment that the Iranians could reach that stage by springtime, Netanyahu said this would happen only if they continued enriching at their current pace.
“But lets see if they continue,” he said. “I think that placing a red line is the best guarantor to prevent the need for military action.”
Netanyahu clarified that in saying Iran would not cross the line until at least spring, he “never gave up for even a minute Israel’s right to defend itself at any time. I think that right is clear and understood by everyone.”
He added that it was important to make clear to the international community that Iran was continuing to move forward on its nuclear program, and that if it wanted to stop the program it had to do so “before the finishing of the enrichment process.”
Washington’s refusal to articulate its red line has been a source of public tension in recent weeks between Israel and the US. Netanyahu, however, said that teams from both countries were working at the highest levels to try to translate into practical terms the joint objective of preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon.
The White House stressed on Friday, following the Obama-Netanyahu phone conversation, that the US and Israel were “in full agreement” on preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The two men discussed the coordination of their efforts and cooperation in dealing with Iran, according to a statement by White House press secretary Jay Carney.
While the statement did not say how long the conversation lasted, Netanyahu said it was a “prolonged” discussion.
“The two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” the statement said.
The conversation was their second in three weeks, an unusually short stretch of time for two publicly announced calls. It comes after criticism of Obama for declining a meeting with Netanyahu while the premier was in the US for the UN General Assembly, and amidst discord between the two countries on how best to thwart the threat from Tehran.
Netanyahu’s comments to the UN Thursday and his comments that Iran would not cross his red line until at least spring suggested the timeline for any Israel action would not come until well into next year, after the US elections in November, reducing some of the immediate tension between the two countries.
“The temperature is lower than it had been,” an Obama aide said after the call.
The White House readout also noted that Netanyahu “welcomed President Obama’s commitment at the UN to do what we must to achieve that goal.”
Netanyahu also spoke by phone Friday with Obama challenger Mitt Romney.
Romney, speaking to reporters on his campaign plane, said he and Netanyahu agreed that Iran must be denied nuclear capabilities but did not agree on specific red lines to confront Tehran.
“I do not believe in the final analysis we will have to use military action,” Romney said. “I certainly hope we don’t have to. I can’t take that action off the table.”
Friday’s White House phone call followed a meeting between Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York Thursday night. The meeting lasted one hour and 15 minutes and was entirely one-on-one, according to the State Department.
The pair held a lengthy discussion on Iran, and also discussed developments in the broader region and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“It was an open, wide-ranging constructive conversation,” the State Department statement said. The Prime Minister’s Office released no information about that meeting.
Netanyahu also met Friday with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and praised Harper again for Canada’s recent decision to cut ties with Iran.
“I think that what you did, severing ties with Iran, was not only an act of statesmanship, but an act of moral clarity,” he said to the Canadian leader before the meeting.
Harper said Canada wanted to see a peaceful resolution to the Iranian crisis, “and we work closely with our allies to try and alert the world to the danger this presents and the necessity of dealing with it.”
Later in the day, at the Appeal of Conscience Foundation’s annual dinner in New York, Harper said “the appeal of our conscience requires us to speak out against what the Iranian regime stands for. Likewise, it requires us to speak in support of the country that its hatred most immediately threatens, the State of Israel.”
Harper said that while Ottawa does not sanction every policy Israel pursues, “neither its existence nor its policies are responsible for the pathologies present in that part of the world.”
He was also mindful, Harper said, “of a lesson of history, that those who single out the Jewish people as a target of racial and religious bigotry will inevitably be a threat to all of us. Indeed, those who so target Israel today are, by their own words and deeds, also a threat to all free and democratic societies.”