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U.S., Israel Divided Over 'Red Line' For Iran

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The Obama administration often talks about its strong bonds with Israel, but relations between the two leaders don't look that way at all.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration openly clashed over Iran this week. The White House also announced that President Obama would not have time to meet Netanyahu when the Israeli prime minister is in the U.S. later this month.

The two men did have a lengthy phone conversation, but some say what they really need is a marriage counselor.

As a former State Department official, Aaron David Miller was up close to many U.S. presidents in their dealings with Israeli leaders.

"I've watched this relationship between Israeli prime ministers and American presidents for a long time, since [Menachem] Begin and [Jimmy] Carter," Miller says. "I have to say, this is probably the most dysfunctional pair that I've seen."

Miller, who is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says the issue of Iran and its suspected nuclear program should bring Obama and Netanyahu together. Iran needs to see a united front. But, he says, the two leaders just can't help themselves.

"The last thing you want to do is to be having this discussion among two close allies, and they are close allies, publicly now," he says.

The latest dispute started when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Bloomberg reporter that the U.S. isn't setting deadlines with Iran. Netanyahu quickly fired back.

"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. "I think Iran must understand that there's a red line so they stop advancing on their program to produce atomic bombs."

White House spokesman Jay Carney is now trying to put this public dispute back in the box.

"The president's red line has been clear. The president has made clear that he is committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," Carney said Friday during a White House press briefing. "We are completely in sync with Israel on that matter. There is no daylight between the United States and Israel when it comes to the absolute commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon."

American lawmakers on both side of the aisle were uncomfortable with the public spat.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee issued a statement complaining about President Obama's "lack of clarity." Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, wrote to Netanyahu, saying she was stunned by his remarks — adding that it appears he has injected politics into a profound security challenge.

Miller says if that's the case, Netanyahu isn't doing himself any favors.

"Because the last thing he needs or wants may be a re-elected Barack Obama," Miller says. "But he certainly doesn't want an angry, re-elected Barack Obama."

Netanyahu told an Israeli newspaper that he's not guided by the U.S. election but by the centrifuges in Iran. But his talk about red lines has some Israelis nervous, too, including a former Israeli defense forces chief who likes to quote Clint Eastwood.

"When you have to shoot, shoot," Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz said Wednesday at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., "don't talk."

He said that the U.S. and Israel should be able to coordinate their positions privately, and he's frustrated by all this talk about red lines, which he says hasn't worked for Israel in the past.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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