Skip to main content

Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu draws a red line on a graphic of a bomb as he addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the UN Headquarters in New York.Lucas Jackson/The Associated Press

If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's timeline is correct, his speech Wednesday to the United Nations General Assembly could be the last time he addresses the organization before Israel attacks Iran.

In a clear, strident 30-minute speech, Mr. Netanyahu hammered home his belief that the need to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program was approaching the point of no return. "The hour is getting late," he said, "very late."

In an attempt to make it clear even to the average citizen in North America and elsewhere, he produced a cardboard diagram of a cartoon-like bomb and pointedly drew a clear red line at the neck of the bomb. This was the point, he explained, at which Iran will be finished its second of three stages of enriching enough uranium to make a bomb.

That point he said, will be reached late next spring or in the summer.

Waiting any longer than that to disarm Iran would be too dangerous, he said. As much respect as he has for Israeli and western intelligence agencies, he would not want to rely on them solely to make a later decision on when exactly was the last minute to attack Iran.

Mr. Netanyahu's reference to western intelligence being able to make a later decision on nuclear viability was a thinly-veiled criticism of U.S. President Barack Obama. The President has committed his country to stopping Iran gaining nuclear weapons but he declines to draw the "clear red line" Mr. Netanyahu demands.

The two men are reportedly going to speak by telephone Friday, after Mr. Obama turned down a request from the Israeli leader for a meeting in person.

Drawing a red line doesn't mean war, Mr. Netanyahu insisted, it can lead to peace, and he cited the example of another U.S. president, John Kennedy, who didn't hesitate to draw a red line during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. (Mr. Kennedy said the U.S. would attack Cuba unless all Soviet nuclear weapons were removed from the island. His threat worked.)

But in calling out Mr. Obama, Mr. Netanyahu is playing with fire.

While the Israeli leader undoubtedly wants to make Iran's weapons an issue in the current U.S. election campaign, polls suggest that Mr. Obama has a better than average chance of winning re-election. In that event, Mr. Netanyahu may find himself going it alone in an early strike on Iran, something the vast majority of Israelis are opposed to.

And while the Israeli may hope to use this UN speech as a prop in his own re-election campaign early next spring, he may find the Obama administration working against him.

Mr. Netanyahu's campaign against Iran has been waged for more than 15 years and has borne fruit. Importantly, it has resulted in Mr. Obama single-handedly imposing the toughest sanctions Iran has ever faced. The Israeli foreign ministry this week acknowledged the sanctions have reduced Iran's oil exports by more than 50 per cent and have resulted in severe economic hardship.

Mr. Netanyahu's words came at a time when the Middle East is processing a new political reality. The Arab Spring is not complete but there already have been dramatic changes, the most important of which has been the democratic election of Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt.

On Wednesday, Mr. Morsi spoke of his respect for the peace treaty with Israel, but insisted that real and broad peace could only come if Israel accepted the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Mr. Netanyahu chose to respond to the Egyptian leader's remarks by seemingly lumping him with fanatical Islamists in the region who, he said, seek to impose medieval values on the people at the expense of modernity.

In doing so, he lost an opportunity to extend a hand to the leader of the Arab world's most important country, one that has had a peace treaty with Israel for more than 30 years. Mr. Morsi is under domestic pressure to end or amend that treaty and Israel needs Egypt's help to maintain peace along the Sinai frontier where militant groups have been active.

Mr. Netanyahu also missed an opportunity to advance the slim prospects for peace that still exist with the Palestinians.

While he did envision "a demilitarized Palestinian state" alongside Israel, Mr. Netanyahu mostly chose to focus on criticisms of Israel levied by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in a speech earlier in the day, describing Mr. Abbas's words as "libelous."

Like it or not, to most Arabs in the region, the path to a complete peace with Israel runs through Jerusalem and a Palestinian state.

By making his remarks almost exclusively an address on Iran, and trying to almost coerce other states to take action, Mr. Netanyahu may have lost an opportunity to build bridges to many of those same countries.