Feuding between the US and Israel burst into the open when Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, sharply criticised recent US statements about Iran while the White House said President Barack Obama would not meet Mr Netanyahu in the US this month.
Mr Netanyahu made a stinging attack on Tuesday on Washington’s refusal to establish a “red line” for Iran’s nuclear programme – a point beyond which US military action against Iran would be taken.
Responding to comments by Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, that the US would not set deadlines for negotiations with the Iranian government, the Israeli leader warned that Iran was getting closer and closer to getting a nuclear bomb.
“The world tells Israel: ‘Wait. There’s still time.’ And I say: ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’ 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 said at a press conference.
Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu spoke for an hour on Tuesday night, in what appeared to be an effort to limit the damage from the public disagreements.
The increasingly open spat between the governments comes amid some indications that Mr Netanyahu is isolated at home on the issue of an Iran military strike, but with the Obama re-election campaign scrambling to fend off a strong Republican appeal this year to Jewish voters.
The White House said on Tuesday that Mr Obama would not meet Mr Netanyahu when he travels to the US this month for the UN General Assembly session because the two men would not be in New York on the same day. However, Israeli media reported on Tuesday evening that Mr Netanyahu had offered to travel to Washington for a meeting. This was denied by the White House.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, is an old friend of Mr Netanyahu and has consistently criticised Mr Obama for not taking a harder line with Tehran on its nuclear ambitions. The Republicans hope their candidate’s position on Iran and support for the Israeli government could win him backing from Jewish voters in key states such as Florida and Ohio.
In addition to Mrs Clinton’s comments, US defence secretary Leon Panetta pushed back against Israeli pressure to set “red lines” for military intervention, telling CBS television that the US would have at least a year to take action once Tehran had made a decision to build a nuclear weapon.
“We know generally what they’re up to, and so we keep a close track on them,” he said. “We think we will have the opportunity once we know that they’ve made that decision to take the action necessary to stop Iran.”
The core disagreement between the two governments has been rumbling for some time, with Israel paying close attention to Iran’s “capability” to make a nuclear weapon while the US is more focused on efforts to build an actual weapon.