Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu appear to have landed in a place neither wanted to be: squabbling about Iran, in public, ahead of a U.S. presidential election.
For the Democratic U.S. president, the dispute risks alienating supporters of Israel in a campaign in which Republican nominee Mitt Romney is eager to drive a wedge between Obama and Jewish voters, and to portray the president as weak.
For Netanyahu, who prides himself on his grasp of U.S. politics, it may further underline the disconnect with his nation’s ally over the imminence of the threat from a nuclear-armed Iran and the advisability of an Israeli strike to prevent it.
The U.S.-Israeli rift, among the deepest in recent decades, has bubbled barely below the surface for over a year, but broke into the open on Tuesday.
In recent weeks, Netanyahu had begun demanding that Obama set “red lines” that Iran must not cross in its suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons. Washington has made clear, in not so subtle diplomatic code, that it is not ready to take such a step - and did not appreciate the advice.
Then on Tuesday, Netanyahu went a diplomatic step further, suggesting the United States had no right to try to stop Israel from using force against Iran.
“The world tells Israel ‘Wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’” Netanyahu, speaking in English, told a news conference in Jerusalem.
“Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,” he added.
Hours later, an Israeli official said Obama had rejected Netanyahu’s request for a meeting in the United States later this month - a fact sure to be read as a snub in Israel. The White House disputed that version of events, saying Netanyahu never sought a meeting in Washington and it never rejected one.