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Tensions Run High Between Israel And U.S. Over Iran


Tensions are not only high between Israel and Iran, but also between Israel and the U.S. Israel's leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is demanding that the Obama administration draw a clear line to determine what would cause the U.S. to take military action against Iran for its suspect nuclear program. The U.S. counters that sanctions and diplomacy should be given more time to work.

From Tel Aviv, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports on the view in Israel.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Far from backing down from the dispute with the American government, Israel's prime minister took to the airwaves in the U.S. on Sunday. On CNN, Netanyahu again made a call for the U.S. to set a so-called red line on Iran.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: If they know there's a point, a stage in the enrichment or other nuclear activities that they cannot cross because they'll face consequences, I think they'll actually not cross it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The relentless and public pressure the Israeli premier has been placing on the Obama administration has some observers accusing Netanyahu - who is from the right wing - of trying to influence the upcoming U.S. vote. Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been making much of the rift between the two leaders. On NBC, Netanyahu denied that.

NETANYAHU: What's guiding my statements is not the American political calendar but the Iranian nuclear calendar.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Here in Israel though, Mr. Netanyahu has also come under a great deal of scrutiny for his tactics. Columnists have been excoriating the prime minister for jeopardizing the important U.S.-Israel relationship.

Editorial writer Nahum Barnea had this to say writing in Yedioth Ahronoth.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: (Reading) The public conflict with the American administration has weakened Israel's deterring power; gotten the state involved, against its better interests, in the U.S. elections race; caused unnecessary economic and political damage; and did not in any way advance the struggle to stop Iran.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The paper Ma'ariv launched a similar criticism.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: (Reading) It seems that Netanyahu is making every possible mistake. He has made himself Obama's opponent. The problem is that this isn't just bad news for Netanyahu. It's bad news for Israel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there have been public disagreements within Netanyahu's government. Over the past week, the deputy prime minister here distanced himself from the red line demand. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has also publicly broken ranks, saying that we must not forget that the U.S. is Israel's main ally.

Still, the Israeli public is evenly divided on the issue. A poll last week, from Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute, said 43 percent of Jewish Israelis think the Israeli government is behaving correctly towards the U.S., with regards to attacking Iran, while 40 percent say that it's not.

At a seaside table at a cafe in Tel Aviv, the divergence of opinion was on display among friends in one group. Yaki says he's worried about Netanyahu's confrontation with the U.S.

YAKI: This is the big brother and we need to keep them, you know, next to us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: His friend Nisi disagrees

NISI: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The prime minister knows how to handle the situation with the Americans, he says.

Political analyst Ruevan Hazan is from Hebrew University. He says traditionally Israelis will punish leaders who damage the key relationship with the United States. But that isn't the case now.

RUEVAN HAZAN: The Obama administration isn't positively perceived in Israel. And Netanyahu's bashing heads with Obama is perceived by large segments of the Israeli public as not going against a good relationship with the United States, but trying to straighten Obama out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hazan says both men are to blame for the public spat and there is only one country benefiting.

HAZAN: Iran is sitting back and watching the two countries that are most likely to damage its nuclear program, Israel and the United States, quarrelling. And this is the best possible thing that could happen for Iran.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that he says isn't just a problem for Israel and the United States, but also others in the world worried about Iran's intentions.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.