Netanyahu Raises With ‘Red Line’; Obama Still Keeping Cards Close

BY Margaret Warner  September 27, 2012 at 5:49 PM EDT

Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Magic Marker line — drawn with dramatic flourish today across the throat of a cartoon gunpowder bomb — was meant to set a “red line” for Iran, the point beyond which the Iranians cannot go in their uranium-enrichment program without triggering a certain military response.

But the Israeli leader’s U.N. speech can also be seen as issuing another kind of “red line” to the United States. That is, Israel won’t try to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities before the presidential election here, but if Iran’s uranium program proceeds at the current pace for another nine months and the United States doesn’t strike, Israel will.

It’s the speech Netanyahu had wanted President Obama to give — backed up by the threat of U.S. military action. But in an hour-long phone conversation between the leaders two weeks ago, President Obama made it clear he wasn’t going to do it.

He and his advisers saw too many downsides. Setting a red line would commit the U.S. to military action down the line, at a time of the adversary’s choosing. What’s more, said one official, “wherever you set the line, you’re telling the other side they can go right up to it without any risk at all.”

At the same time, the President is committed to preventing, not containing, a nuclear-armed Iran. And his advisers share the Israelis’ concern that protracted negotiations can provide cover for a country to achieve nuclear weapons status right under the nose of the international community. North Korea is the classic example. “We’ve seen this before. It’s ‘wait, wait … oops!’” said one Israeli diplomat.

None of the players — Americans, Europeans, Israelis or Iranians — expect anything to happen on the negotiating front before the presidential election here. Tehran is awaiting the Nov. 6 outcome, too. But soon after, expect to see the U.S. and its negotiating partners — the four other members of the Security Council, plus Germany — table or revive another proposal designed to test the Iranians’ seriousness, backed up by tougher sanctions if Russia and China can be persuaded. Then, if that doesn’t work, Netanyahu’s timetable to military action may well unfold.

There are a couple of ironies here. Despite Mitt Romney’s more bellicose talk about backing Israel and confronting Iran, the Israelis believe it would take longer for a President Romney to take military action than it would President Obama. Any new president wants his team to do their own review and reassessment of policy and plans, after all, before committing the U.S. to such a fateful military course.

Another irony: Netanyahu faced push-back from the Israeli public and military establishment last month when he publicly flirted with the idea of Israel taking to the skies over Iran in defiance of Washington. If the next President doesn’t hew to his timetable next year, Netanyahu would have to carry out the threat he made today… or very publicly back down.