Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on two Sunday morning talk shows, and most political observers in the US and abroad are wondering why. Is he trying to get the US to stop Iran's nuclear weapons programs by attacking it, or is he lending aid to his old buddy Mitt Romney? Or perhaps it's both.
Netanyahu has a history with the Republican presidential candidate. They worked for the same Boston consulting firm in the 1970s. Romney has accused President Barack Obama of "throwing Israel under the bus". By attacking Obama's record on Israel, he hopes to peel away as much of the Jewish vote as he can, especially in Florida, the ultimate swing state. Pleas for action by the Israeli PM go a long way to delivering the Sunshine State.
Defenders of Netanyahu are saying he has to push now, because after Election Day, if Obama wins, he's not going to get attention from him. The Iranian threat is higher than anyone thinks, Netanyahu says, so the international community, led by the US, must draw a "red line" around Iran so that any violation of that warning must result in military action. Netanyahu insisted that he wasn't doing any favors for Romney. His only concern, he said on NBC's Meet the Press and CNN's State of the Union, was security in the Middle East from a nuclear Iran even though Romney has repeatedly accused the president of not being sufficiently pro-Israel.
I'm not really buying this, and neither are many others. There is almost no chance Obama would order strikes on Iran less than two months before November's election. Netanyahu knows this. Sure, he's going to get more attention now than after the election, but if it's true, as he said, that Israeli security is a bipartisan issue, then turning the heat up on the president now seems partisan. The Obama administration has said the threat isn't nearly as bad as Netanyahu says. Renewed sanctions against Iran need time to work.
Even George Will, the conservative columnist, said on ABC's Sunday talk show This Week:
"I really do not think it's fair to fault the president for 'throwing Israel under the bus,' as they say. Granted, he has a bad relationship with my good friend Netanyahu, but the relationships between the U.S. military and the Israeli military, which is 98 percent of the point of this relationship, are quite good."
That relationship didn't sour because of disagreements over Iran - the disagreement was over Palestine. Obama, following George W Bush, wants to see Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu, that most hawkish of hawks? Not so much. His Likud Party opposes statehood. It supports settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. But many in the international community, including the UN, have been describing the Israeli-Palestinian situation as "apartheid". The situation could become politically untenable unless there's a shift in focus. What better way to change the subject than war?
By putting pressure on Obama now, and sowing the seeds of suspicion and doubt - especially with those many Americans who wrongly think that Obama is a secret Muslim - Netanyahu is helping Romney, and by helping Romney, Netanyahu appears to be helping himself at home. No one agrees on how to foment the change needed for a two-state policy, but if enough hysteria over Iran is raised, perhaps a consensus for war can be reached.
And if Romney is elected, war could be on the horizon. His foreign policy advisers are neoconservatives who still, despite the blinding evidence of Iraq, believe that freedom and democracy can be spread at the tip of a gun. The conservative base at home, meanwhile, keeps prodding him to show more muscle. What better way to satisfy both factions than war?