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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns to the United Nations today in an attempt to rein in Iran’s nuclear program, a year after visiting the body to turn back a bid for Palestinian statehood.
Before leaving for New York, Netanyahu told reporters that he will warn the UN General Assembly that Iran must not be allowed to arm itself with atomic weapons. If the international community fails to heed the message, the Israeli leader said his country is ready to utilize all options against Iran. “This is a people that has overcome every obstacle in the past, and every tyrant, and that is what will happen this time as well,” he said.
Netanyahu will step onto the dais a day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood there and cited what he termed the “continued threat by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to a military action against our great nation.” In response, Netanyahu issued a statement decrying the fact that “a platform was given to a dictatorial regime that strives, at every opportunity, to sentence us to death.”
Netanyahu’s New York visit follows weeks of disagreement with President Barack Obama’s administration over Iran. Warning that the Islamic Republic is possibly just months away from developing nuclear weapons capability, Netanyahu has asked the U.S. to set explicit “red lines” that would justify military action, a step that U.S. officials have refused to do.
Netanyahu plans to outline “red lines” for the Iranian program that won’t conflict with U.S. positions, said an Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the speech hasn’t yet been released. Netanyahu believes Israel and the U.S. can work together to stop Iran’s nuclear program, the official said.
U.S. officials have said they believe Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hasn’t made a decision to develop an atomic bomb. Obama, in his UN address Sept. 25, said the U.S. would do whatever it takes to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and warned that time for a diplomatic resolution “is not unlimited.”
The debate over Iran has spilled over into the U.S. elections, with Republican candidate Mitt Romney accusing Obama of throwing “Israel under the bus” and criticizing the president for not meeting with Netanyahu during his three-day visit to the U.S. The White House said the meeting isn’t taking place because of scheduling issues with the election so close, and Netanyahu will meet instead with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Netanyahu erred in making public his differences with the U.S. over Iran, and Obama made a mistake in not finding time to meet with him,” said Eytan Gilboa, professor of political science at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, who specializes in U.S.-Israeli relations. “Policy on Iran should have been set by Israel and the U.S. in secret discussions and not public skirmishes.”
The U.S. is “not setting deadlines” for Iran and still considers negotiations as “by far the best approach” to the Islamic Republic, Clinton said in an interview with Bloomberg Radio on Sept. 9. Netanyahu responded two days later that “those in the international community who refuse to put a red line before Iran don’t have the moral right to place a red light before Israel” to forestall military action.
Trying to bridge that gap will probably be the main focus of Netanyahu’s meeting with Clinton, according to Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S.
“Between the Israeli position that a ‘red line’ is needed, and the way Secretary Clinton put it, there’s still some scope for common ground,” said Shoval, who advises Netanyahu on international affairs. “The most important point is that Israel and America’s interests coincide despite the differences in emphasis.”
Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, said Iran’s refusal to stop its nuclear program is helping the U.S. and Israel move toward resolving their differences.
“As long as the Iranians continue to drive the whole world crazy we will move closer and closer until we totally agree,” Ayalon said on Israel Radio.
Iran, which says its nuclear facilities are for peaceful civilian purposes, has vowed to retaliate if attacked.
Iran’s uranium enrichment activities are under international monitoring to prevent diversion to weapons use. The International Atomic Energy Agency said it has seen no diversion. Still, the agency reiterated last month that it “is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”
Half of Israelis either “fear” or “greatly fear” for the Jewish state’s existence if war breaks out with Iran, the daily Haaretz reported, citing a survey conducted in conjunction with the Dialog polling institute. The majority of those asked said the chance of war with Iran in the coming year is “high” or “medium.”
Haaretz didn’t report a margin of error or the number of people polled. It said full survey results will be published tomorrow.
Talks between Iran and the IAEA, and negotiations with the so-called P5+1 nations -- the U.S., Russia, China, France, the U.K. and Germany -- haven’t found a formula to slow the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment program. Nor have economic sanctions imposed against Iran by the U.S. and the European Union forced concessions from the Tehran government.
The focus on Iran has drawn attention away from the Palestinian issue, which dominated Netanyahu’s appearance at the General Assembly a year ago. Israel and the U.S. successfully lobbied against an attempt by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to gain full UN membership as an independent state from the Security Council.
The Palestinians are aiming lower this year, seeking recognition as a non-member state from the General Assembly, which would elevate their current observer status and gain them some diplomatic leverage.
“This will give Palestine access to all international bodies,” Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said on Sept. 20.
The Palestinians are “trying to make a shortcut to statehood that could short-circuit the peace process,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilana Stein said in a phone interview. She said that, unlike last year’s Security Council vote, “there is usually a majority in the General Assembly for perceived anti-Israel motions.”
The Palestinian diplomatic push has gained added urgency in recent weeks as deteriorating economic conditions in the West Bank have spurred unprecedented social welfare protests. Palestinians say the situation there and in the Gaza Strip is increasingly untenable.
“The Palestinians always have the capability to push themselves back on the front page, and it’s not with diplomatic action in New York,” said Mark Heller, senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “The protests against the Palestinian Authority could easily turn against Israel.”
Israel’s currency has been hurt by the increasingly tense stand-off with Iran, analysts say, with the shekel weakening about 5 percent over the past 12 months.
“Geopolitical concern, including over a possible Iran conflict, has been a key factor supporting a weaker shekel,” said Jonathan Katz, a Jerusalem-based economist for HSBC Holdings Plc.
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