Analysis: It's the elections, stupid

There is a hotly contested election just around the corner that is impacting on everything to do with Iran.

US President Obama with PM Netanyahu at White House 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
US President Obama with PM Netanyahu at White House 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
Here is why all the talk about Iran has the mind reeling: Yediot Aharonot led its front page Monday with a story claiming the United States sent secret messages – through the Europeans – to the Iranians saying that it would not stand behind Israel if Jerusalem attacks.
The report quoted unnamed Israeli officials as saying that the relationship between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was at an unprecedented ebb. It also said the thrust of the message was that the US did not intend to get dragged into a war if Israel attacked, and that it expected Iran not to lash out at strategic American targets in the Persian Gulf in case of a war.
Across the ocean, The New York Times ran a story on its front page saying that the Obama administration was moving ahead with “a range of steps short of war that it hopes will forestall an Israeli attack, while forcing the Iranians to take more seriously negotiations that are all but stalemated.”
The report said Obama was considering new declarations regarding what might bring about American military action – the “red lines” Netanyahu is pushing for – “as well as covert activities that have been previously considered and rejected.”
So what is it? Appeasement of the Iranians, as the Yediot Aharonot report indicated, or a more forceful approach, as The New York Times story suggested? The only thing we know for sure is that today is September 4, just 63 days to the US elections. Those elections, at least as far as clearing the air with regard to Iran, cannot come soon enough.
Click here for full Jpost coverage of the Iranian threat
Click here for full Jpost coverage of the Iranian threat
The New York Times report was filed from Washington, meaning the reporters’ sources were probably from inside the administration. And just two months before the elections, with Republican candidate Mitt Romney blasting Obama for indecisiveness on Iran, and a battle for the Jewish and pro-Israel vote at fever pitch in a very close election, those sources most probably have a strong interest in presenting the picture of an Obama who is increasingly assertive on Iran.
The Yediot Aharonot story was filed from Israel. The reporter quoted Israeli sources as saying that the ties are at the lowest level they have been for years. The picture painted by the report is of an appeasement-happy administration just trying to make sure it does not get hit – an image those who want to see Obama defeated have an interest in getting across.
Which information fed to the journalists is agenda-driven – that given to the Times or that given to Yediot? What is the overall agenda of the papers? The Times, we know, strongly backs Obama. Yediot is constantly grinding an axe with Netanyahu.
And in the meantime, the Iranians have to be smiling.
Back in March 2010, after the dust-up with the US over the announcement of a new project in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood while Vice President Joe Biden was in town, Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren was quoted as having said that this was the worst period in US-Israel relations for some 35 years.
Oren denied ever having made the comment. Nevertheless, it was clear to all that the period – the Biden visit, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s dressing down of Netanyahu afterward, Netanyahu’s shabby treatment at the White House – was a particularly rough patch.
It was also a patch that was marked by megaphone diplomacy.
The differences between the two countries were not ironed out quietly or diplomatically in back rooms.
Rather, they were out there for all to see.
At a certain point in the summer of 2010, not long before the US congressional elections, the tone changed.
Obama went on a “charm offensive” to the Jewish community, and the way problems between the countries were dealt with changed significantly.
No longer was there megaphone diplomacy – rather, the differences were worked out behind closed doors.
Oddly, the megaphone diplomacy has returned precisely now, and to the detriment of both sides.
At a time when Israel and the US need to be completely coordinated – if not in complete agreement – on Iran, daylight is continuously exposed. Daylight between Israel and the US must give the Iranians more confidence that they will not come under attack out of the assumption that Israel will be unlikely to move without American support – and right now there is no American support.
When US Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in late July at a press conference with US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that Israel could delay, but not knock out, Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu responded that even delaying was good, since who knows what can happen during an interim of one, two or three years.
When Dempsey, using megaphone diplomacy, said last week – to the great chagrin of many in Jerusalem – that he did not want to be “complicit” in an Israeli attack, Israeli government sources didn’t let it slide. The sources did not play down the comment or say that in the end Dempsey – the ultimate US military man – would do what the political echelon told him to, or that it wasn’t even clear what he meant.
No, senior government sources termed the statement “strange” and said it cast doubt on the White House’s insistence that security and intelligence cooperation with Israel was now closer than it had ever been.
That response, however, was no less “strange” than Dempsey’s words. What interest does it serve to go toe-to-toe at this sensitive time with America’s senior general? Unless, of course, someone is using Dempsey’s badly chosen words to make a point just prior to the US elections.
That there are disagreements between Israel and the US on the Iran timeline is no secret.
But is there a crisis in ties? No.
What there is, however, is a hotly contested election just around the corner that is impacting on everything to such a degree that on the same day, two major newspapers in two different countries carry two stories with messages that are polar opposites.