Israel’s Netanyahu Tries to Get Between Obama and Iran

Meeting at the White House on Monday

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Abir Sultan / Reuters

Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu has ordered his housing minister to halt a contentious settlement plan.

Updated at 10:26 a.m. on Sept. 30, 2013

Winging his way to Washington on Sunday for a meeting with President Barack Obama on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to deflate the new spirit of diplomacy that’s blossomed between the U.S. and Iran. A post appeared on his Twitter account, perhaps from 11,000 m in the air, perhaps from the desk of a PR functionary back in Jerusalem. “I will tell #truth in face of the sweet-talk and the onslaught of smiles,” the post read. “One must talk facts and one must tell the truth.”

Netanyahu did not publicly comment immediately after Obama placed his call to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Friday. “Things are going really, really fast — faster than expected,” the New York Times quoted a conservative Iranian journalist as saying. Netanyahu’s job — at the White House, where he will meet Obama on Monday, and at the U.N., where he will speak on Tuesday — is to slow things down, probably by making repeated note of the facts surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, the issue that brought Obama and Rouhani together. Iran says its nuclear program has no military component; much of the rest of the world suspects that is a lie.

(MORE: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly: Three Takeaways)

The Israeli reality check will likely take the form of details — the number of centrifuges spinning in Iran’s underground Natanz plant, where uranium is enriched to 3.5 %, and another plant, the heavily fortified Fordow, where enrichment continues to 20 %, an elevation that brings the nuclear fuel closer to bomb grade. He will likely note the progress on the heavy water reactor being built at Arak, which will be able to produce plutonium. Netanyahu may direct people to the files posted online at the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which say all most observers need to know about an oil-rich country that, more than a decade ago and in secret, set out to master every element of the nuclear-fuel cycle.

In the hours before he left for Washington, Netanyahu was immersing himself in the data at length, Shimon Shiffer writes in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth: “He intends to share this information with Obama.”

And, on Tuesday, he’ll do the same with the global audience from the familiar green rostrum of the General Assembly, where Netanyahu will be the last speaker of the annual convocation. A year ago, Netanyahu stole the show by holding up a cartoon bomb — a gimmick, but one that succeeded in keeping control of the narrative of the Iranian nuclear threat. Netanyahu (and then Defense Minister Ehud Barak) had done a remarkable job of bringing Iran’s ambiguous program to the top of the global agenda, most effectively by timing their own unsubtle threats of air strikes as a drumroll for the release of a damning IAEA report. The Iran of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did its part too, galvanizing the world’s diplomatic community against it by allowing thugs to overrun the British embassy just a couple of weeks later.

(MORE: Obama to U.N.: Diplomacy With Iran ‘Must Be Tested’)

But the rise of Rouhani, with the assent of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has taken control of the narrative away from the Jewish state. That matters, as the issue enters the realm of high-level diplomacy, because it’s not yet clear whether Israel and the U.S. share the same definition of an acceptable outcome. That’s a major reason for Israel’s unease with the enthusiasm over the phone call between Obama and Rouhani and the momentum the call might bring.

All of which will feed a fresh round of speculation about Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama — a troubled one for the four years of the American’s first term, then recast as a buddy movie during Obama’s state visit earlier this year. But that was before Obama called the President of Israel’s worst enemy. After the conversation between Obama and Rouhani was made public, the White House broadcast assurances that Israel was told the call would happen before it went through. But in Israel the Sunday papers hinted not all was well.

“Obama presented Netanyahu with a done deal,” wrote Yedioth columnist Nahum Barnea, widely respected and no apologist for Netanyahu. “The advance warning about the phone conversation with Rouhani, which was given to National Security Adviser Major General Yaakov Amidror prior to the conversation, was a joke. Obama neither consulted with Netanyahu nor did he take his position into account.”

So the table is set for more drama, if dramatic is how Bibi chooses to play it. Two-and-a-half years ago, he sat in the Oval Office and lectured Obama on the history of the Palestinian conflict as cameras rolled. Netanyahu could try to bully Obama again. But given the extraordinary amount of cooperation between governments as a matter of routine, though — and substantial investment both leaders have made in improving their personal dynamic — look for a more restrained approach from the Netanyahu when he visits the White House this time.

MORE: Iran President Rouhani’s Real Challenges