Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched an unexpected attack this week on the world’s six major powers led by President Barack Obama over how they were conducting nuclear talks with Iran. The attack underscored the fact that relations between the Israeli and U.S. leaders are as bad as they ever were, just as the presidential election in the United States gets into full swing.
Indeed, indications are that not only is Mr. Netanyahu more comfortable with the views on Iran held by Mitt Romney, the leading Republican candidate who is sure to be Mr. Obama’s opponent in this year’s election, but also with Mr. Romney as a person.
Mr. Netanyahu accuses the world powers of stringing out their talks with Iran over its nuclear program. His criticism came one day after the first meeting between Iran and representatives from the so-called five-plus-one countries: the five members of the United Nations Security Council – Russia, China, France, Great Britain and the United States – plus Germany.
“My initial impression is that Iran has been given a ‘freebie,’” Mr. Netanyahu said, referring to the five-week hiatus before the second round of the talks and complained that the gap will allow Iran “to continue enrichment [of uranium]without any limitation, any inhibition.”
Mr. Netanyahu is among Iran’s harshest critics, arguing unceasingly that the Islamic Republic not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and threatening that if the international community did not prevent this from happening, Israel would.
Few people, however, expected him to launch such an undiplomatic broadside, and so quickly, especially after a recent visit to Washington during which the Israeli and U.S. leaders appeared, finally, to be singing from the same song sheet.
So strident was the Netanyahu attack that Mr. Obama felt compelled to reply while on a visit to Colombia. Iran had gained nothing from the opening round of talks, insisted Mr. Obama, and certainly not a “freebie.”
The Netanyahu government, however, was not appeased. One senior Israeli minister was quoted Wednesday saying that the Obama administration has an interest in dragging the talks out until after November’s election.
There is no doubt that, when it comes to the all important issue of Iran, the Israeli leader prefers the position held by Mr. Romney. Indeed, it was the former Massachusetts governor who last year uttered the line that in his Mideast policies, Mr. Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus.”
The two conservative politicians first got to know each other more than 35 years ago when their early careers overlapped at the Boston Consulting Group. Mr. Netanyahu, then 26, had been at MIT studying management; Mr. Romney, then 29, had just graduated from Harvard. Both had elected to accept offers from the up-and-coming BCG.
They participated in the firm’s famous weekly discussion groups that showed off both men’s verbal skills and analytical acumen.
“He [Mr. Netanyahu]was a strong personality with a distinct point of view,” Mr. Romney told the New York Times, the publication that first reported on this interesting intersection in the two men’s careers. He added: “I aspired to the same kind of perspective.”
Mr. Netanyahu recalls Mr. Romney, three years older and son of a former Michigan governor, as having the much higher profile. He was the one “seen as a winner,” Mr. Netanyahu said, speaking through a senior aide.
To be sure, the period of overlap between the two men was just over a year and was often interrupted by Mr. Netanyahu’s frequent trips to Israel where he established a foundation against terrorism in honour of his late brother, Jonathan, a commando killed during the famous hostage rescue operation at Entebbe, Uganda.
Despite the brevity, both politicians were said to have adopted the BCG style of analysis, giving them a certain comfort zone when dealing with each other.
“We can almost speak in shorthand,” Mr. Romney said. “We share common experiences and have a perspective and underpinning which is similar.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s aide was at pains to emphasize that the newspaper article “overstated” the closeness of the relationship – “they weren’t soul mates or anything,” he said. But it is clear the two men feel comfortable with one another.
Mr. Netanyahu acknowledges that he offered advice to Mr. Romney when the Republican was the governor of Massachusetts on how best to shrink the size of government, and that Mr. Romney advised him to whom he should speak on the subject of corporate divestment from Iran.
The two men had breakfast together in Israel last year, and Mr. Netanyahu called Mr. Romney last month when the Israeli was in Washington.
“There was no formal meeting with Romney,” Mr. Netanyahu’s aide explained, “because, at that point, we’d have had to meet with all the Republican candidates.”
Now the two old colleagues are in a position to help each other.
Mr. Netanyahu can use Mr. Romney and his position on Iran to keep pressure on Mr. Obama in the nuclear talks, and Mr. Romney can demonstrate his politically desirable closeness to Israel, by his frequent references to “my friend Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Mr. Netanyahu is very careful to remain officially neutral in the presidential race, declining to answer any questions that might indicate a preference for Mr. Romney.
“It would be a fatal mistake to inject ourselves in the U.S. race,” said his aide.
What about where the two men stand on Iran? he is asked.
“I would say this,” the aide carefully replied : “The Prime Minister is very concerned with Iran, as you can see by his comments this week.”