US elections

In third debate, will Romney offer the clarity on Iran that Israel has sought from Obama?

Analysis: The challenger has yet to set out a clear vision that differentiates him from the president on the most immediate, significant threat to Israel and world security: a nuclear-armed Iran

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, left, and US President Barack Obama wave to the audience before the first presidential debate at the University of Denver earlier this month (photo credit: AP/Charlie Neibergall)
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, left, and US President Barack Obama wave to the audience before the first presidential debate at the University of Denver earlier this month (photo credit: AP/Charlie Neibergall)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spent much of the past two months calling President Barack Obama to task over his lack of clarity and “trust me” attitude (at least from the Israeli perspective) on Iran.

True, Obama has said repeatedly that Iran must be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that the prospect of a nuclear Iran would be taken with utmost seriousness in a second Obama term.

“I very much appreciate the president’s position, as does everyone in my country,” Netanyahu told the United Nations last month.

But Israel’s fear is not that Obama doesn’t comprehend the danger — the possibility of Iran using the bomb if it gets one, its capacity to remake the regional balance of power, a Middle East nuclear arms race, a potential nuclear-armed Hezbollah… — but that Washington is too wary of war and too trusting in imperfect intelligence to act before it’s too late.

Obama will not order a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu hinted at the UN, until Iran has produced enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb, and then actually begins construction on that bomb. For its part, the administration has said that US intelligence agencies will detect that construction work in time to stop it militarily.

This was exactly the view expressed by Vice President Joe Biden at the vice-presidential debate on October 11, when he told moderator Martha Raddatz that “both the Israelis and we will know if [the Iranians] start the process of building a weapon.”

But American and Israeli intelligence agencies are nowhere near that good, Netanyahu pointed out. “For over two years, our intelligence agencies didn’t know that Iran was building a huge nuclear enrichment plant under a mountain” near the Iranian city of Qom. Indeed, they didn’t know Libya had a nuclear program until Muammar Gaddafi came clean, or that Syria was building a reactor until shortly before Israel bombed it.

The Obama-Netanyahu face-off, made public by Netanyahu, has led many angry Democrats to accuse Israel’s prime minister of meddling in the American elections. Israeli officials, meanwhile, say Netanyahu spoke out only because the American administration would not heed his concerns when they were made in private.

“They think they’re big and we’re small, so what worries us doesn’t have to worry them,” a senior Israeli official said of the US administration in a conversation with the Times of Israel this week. “And they don’t feel they have to change their policy just because we’re worried,” added the official, who is familiar with Israel’s intelligence and plans on Iran.

There are hints that Netanyahu’s publicity stunts have worked. The White House seems to be taking more seriously Netanyahu’s concerns about imperfect intelligence and the timing for preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. For one thing, Netanyahu’s public campaign on the issue seems to have abated. For another, insiders suggested Obama and Netanyahu have spoken a great deal in recent weeks, and Israeli and American intelligence officials have begun to reexamine and deepen coordination on the issue.

Enter Mr. Romney

Well over 100,000 US voters are thought to live in Israel, many of them voting absentee in battleground states such as Florida. And many more Americans, Jews and Christians alike, see their voting choice as influenced at least partly by their belief in an American foreign policy that supports Israel’s security.

Perhaps for this reason, Romney has positioned himself as a close political ally of Netanyahu. He made a show of speaking aggressively about Iran while visiting Israel in July, and has vowed to prevent the Iranian regime from acquiring not only nuclear weapons, but even a “nuclear weapons capability.”

Many observers have taken “capability” to mean something similar to what Netanyahu is calling for, suggesting Romney plans to stop Iran before it has enriched enough uranium to build a bomb.

But unlike Netanyahu and Obama, Romney has not said clearly what “capability” might mean or where he would draw the red line.

It is not enough to offer bravado and harsh rhetoric, Israeli officials say privately, or to ask Israelis for their trust when it comes to their national survival. America’s record is too checkered for a small nation such as Israel to trust its fate to election-season promises. Just ask Kurdish survivors of Saddam’s 1992 assaults what they think of American leadership and promises.

Since he raised the issue as a point of distinction between himself and the president, many Israelis feel Romney owes them, and those voters he is trying to court on the basis of his Israel policies, the same clarity and specificity Netanyahu has demanded from Obama.

If Israelis could ask a question in Monday’s presidential debate — the final debate, focused on foreign policy —  it might be: Will a Romney administration follow in Obama’s footsteps in asking Israelis to relinquish control of their fate and trust their very survival to the accuracy of American intelligence and the reliability of Washington politics? Or will he go beyond campaign bluster to offer a clear, specific alternative for dealing with the world’s most immediate and profound security threat?

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