Israel-based journalist Paul Alster: Is it really 'Romney or bust’ for Netanyahu?

HAIFA, Israel — Whether intended or not, the perception here in Israel is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hitched our wagon well and truly to the Mitt Romney Republican presidential campaign — for better or worse.

Last month’s release of a campaign video funded by Secure America Now in which Netanyahu is seen unequivocally spelling out the dangers of waiting too long to take action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program is widely seen as an appeal to Jewish voters in key swing states such as Florida to desert President Obama and his policy of sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

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The implication behind the 30-second ad is that Obama is risking Israel’s survival by refusing to spell out just where his "red line" is, something both Romney and Netanyahu have insisted is essential to warn Iran of just how far it can go with its provocative nuclear development program before triggering a response. While Secure America Now self-identifies as “Democrats, Republicans, independents, conservatives and liberals who share a common concern about our security and liberty,” the overwhelming impression is that SAN backs the Romney view of the Iranian threat.

A spokesman for the prime minister’s office told the Jerusalem Post that the ad had not been made with its blessing and that “no one consulted us about either video, or asked our permission.” But no one here really believes that SAN would have brazenly used the Israeli leader’s image and words without at least tacit approval.

But it is the timing of the newly released SAN presentation that makes the latest ad so significant and lends weight to those who contend that Netanyahu is deliberately meddling in the U.S. presidential election, which he denies.

Netanyahu’s frustration at what he sees as lack of support from the Obama administration over key issues involving Iran’s nuclear weapons has bubbled over from the normal "behind closed doors" political wrangling to a very public and somewhat unsavory spat with Obama. The president’s decision not to invite the Israeli leader to meet with him for discussions during Netanyahu’s visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, which the White House blamed on a scheduling conflict, has been viewed around the world as a snub.

Indeed, tradition dictates that Israeli leaders visiting the United States are invariably invited for either formal or informal discussions with the president. Netanyahu had reportedly also offered to travel to Washington to meet with Obama whenever it would be convenient for him, to no avail.

With Mitt Romney backing Netanyahu’s take on the Iran situation almost every step of the way, their close ties since they were Boston Group Consulting colleagues in the 1970s now well known and the Secure America Now video, a growing number of Israelis from across the political spectrum are increasingly concerned that their leader’s gamble in appearing to endorse Romney’s candidacy could fail. If Obama is reelected, Netanyahu’s perceived attempt at undermining him could make it very difficult indeed for the pair to work together in any meaningful way in the next four years.

Privately, even a few committed Israeli right-wingers have voiced concerns that Netanyahu could be taking too big a chance on Romney. They worry that after Nov. 6, the Israeli leader may not have the ear of the U.S. president, leaving his country with far less influence on the foreign policy of our closest ally than at any time since Israel was founded in 1948.

With the ever-increasing likelihood of military conflict in the region dominating the debate in the Israeli media and around every family dinner table, the thought that the United States could cease to stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel is giving many people the jitters.

Is Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama really so bad that he would risk jeopardizing such an invaluable friendship by going "all in" on a Romney victory in less than six weeks' time? And surely, isn't it the case that whoever is elected to the presidency — and whatever his personal relationship with the Israeli leader — it would be in the U.S. national interest to support Israel's fight against radical Islam and the Iranian quest for a nuclear bomb?

So why on earth is Netanyahu getting so involved?

In what appears to be a closely related issue, it didn’t go unnoticed that in a step away from normal convention, Israeli government minister Gilad Erdan of Netanyahu’s Likud party recently raised eyebrows by commenting on the radio about Israel's strike against Syria’s nuclear program in 2007. The strike, believed to have been sanctioned by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, came after President George W. Bush reportedly refused to get involved.

Erdan’s words, the first from an Israeli minister to publicly acknowledge Israel’s role, have been interpreted in some quarters here as a clear signal that Israel might now be preparing to strike Iran with or without American support, even though many experts here and abroad believe the country lacks the capability to critically damage Tehran’s nuclear development sites.

Paul Alster is an Israel-based broadcast journalist who blogs at www.paulalster.com and can be followed on Twitter at @paulalster