Speaking at the United Nations on Sept. 27, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a red marker to graphically sharpen the focus on the need for a "red line" in halting the Iranian nuclear program.
The issue of red lines is being conflated by some with the idea of delivering a public ultimatum to Iran. But that's not quite right: Setting red lines is not about what is said publicly, but rather about what Tehran views as credible -- however it is conveyed.
There are signs that Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, since their recent hour-long phone call, are renewing their efforts to reach a quiet understanding on this critical issue. In their speeches at the United Nations this past week, both leaders kept the focus on Iran -- even while stepping back from a U.S.-Israeli confrontation.
This was particularly evident in Netanyahu's speech, where the Israeli premier no longer made it sound like an Israeli strike was imminent before the U.S. presidential election in November, and subtly shifted the parameters of the debate from Israel's closing window of action (what Israeli officials describe as the "zone of immunity") to the point where can Iran make an easy dash to weapons-grade nuclear fuel.
Netanyahu also said the United States and Israel are currently "in talks" on the Iran issue, suggesting the two countries are focused on how to best ensure and measure the shared objective of preventing the Islamic Republic from going nuclear. However, there is no denying that tensions still exist between the two allies. Their war of words reached a high pitch recently when Netanyahu, responding to what he interpreted as a personal rebuke by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that if the United States does not put down red lines in halting the Iranian nuclear program, it has no moral right to put a red light in front of an Israeli strike. In a 60 Minutes interview, Obama appeared to dismiss such public statements as "noise."
It's time to dial down the rhetoric. In truth, both sides could use a dose of humility before sounding off in public.
For Israel, humility is required because public confrontation with the United States does not make any strategic sense. Israeli security officials will be the first to say there is no substitute for policy intimacy with their patron in Washington. Moreover, when there is a public disagreement with the United States on the issue of the nuclear program, only Iran profits. Tehran is bound to interpret such divisions as a lack of resolve.
But we in the United States could also use some humility. First, let's admit that our track record in halting rogue nuclear programs is rather poor. We may have bought off Libya, but we did not stop the nuclear programs of North Korea and Pakistan. As has been said by the former deputy head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Agency Ariel Levite, now at the Carnegie Endowment, the U.S. approach has been "too early, too early, oops, too late."