JERUSALEM — Nervous about the upcoming US presidential election and — despite a poor debate performance — the strong poll numbers for President Barack Obama, Israeli leaders are beginning to take their frustrations out on each other.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made little secret of his support for Republican challenger Mitt Romney, antagonizing Obama at every turn on the issue of Iran’s alleged nuclear program.
But this week, before the US debate that breathed new life into Romney’s sputtering campaign, the prime minister suddenly appeared to change course. In a meeting with senior government officials, Netanyahu appeared to try and absolve himself of blame for fueling Israeli friction with its key ally, instead placing it on his defense minister, Ehud Barak.
“Do you know what he [Barak] has done on diplomatic matters? He went to the US to stir up the dispute between us and Obama and come across as a moderate savior," Netanyahu said at the meeting, according to Israel’s Channel 2.
Netanyahu’s comment set off an all-consuming political firestorm in Israel. He was further quoted accusing Barak of disloyalty on foreign soil, and said that the defense minister was guilty of "stoking tensions" with the United States.
Barak's office issued a statement — intended to be clarifying — that only heightened the sense, in Jerusalem, that the two leaders are beginning to position themselves on opposing sides in the face of upcoming Israeli elections.
"It is no secret that in closed government meetings, and from time to time in public, Ehud Barak espouses positions unlike those held by most cabinet members, including the prime minister,” the statement read. “But during his trip to the US, Barak defended the government's policies, and he tried, with some success, to help lower tensions between the governments and strengthen defense ties."
The subject of the traditionally robust US-Israel relationship has become increasingly contentious in Israel, where ties to the United States are considered of existential importance.
A growing chorus of Israeli observers has questioned the wisdom of Netanyahu's signature hostile statements in recent months against Obama, whom he accuses of insufficient toughness on Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Coupled with Netanyahu's all-but-undisguised support of Mitt Romney, strategic relations between Israel and the United States have become a burning political issue that looms darkly on Netanyahu's future.
And that future suddenly appears closer: in a development that may be related to the tensions between Netanyahu and Barak, Israel seems to have taken a step toward early elections.
Surrogates for both Netanyahu and Barak peppered the news cycle with explanations about the open nature of the dispute, carefully leaving open the possibility that Barak will continue to serve as Netanyahu's minister of defense, at least in the short-term.
"I know that Barak travels to the United States often on behalf of the prime minister, but this time lines were crossed and things that shouldn't have occurred, occurred,” Deputy Prime Minister Shalom Simhon, a member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, told Israel Army Radio. “Barak's need to differentiate himself from the prime minister and the Likud is great because he realizes he will not have a place reserved for him in the future government and that he is on his own."
“There are always ups and downs in any relationship," Simhon added. "Anyone can see that over the past few months the minister of defense has felt the need to distance himself from the right-wing coalition."
Both Netanyahu and Barak have long-earned reputations as wily political operators, and some observers immediately concluded the spat was conjured to help each shore up his own constituency.
Barak, a former army chief of staff who is now the head of a four-man parliamentary faction called Independence, faces a slew of polls indicating that his party will fail to garner the lowest number of votes required to gain a place in the parliament.
Asked if Barak should leave the coalition government over the alleged "perfidy," Simhon said, "If it weren't for early elections I'd take that very seriously, but given the early vote I don't see the need to upend the ministry of defense."
Despite the flare-up, there have been small indications that Netanyahu himself may have decided to change course from the unusually aggressive tone he has directed at Obama.
"He's had to emerge from his Republican point of view and recognize that Obama may well continue as president," said one analyst with ties to the Netanyahu government. “You have to understand that Netanyahu is a Republican through and through.”
Initial indications of a change of heart may have been audible at his speech at the United Nations General Assembly late last month. Netanyahu appeared to go out of his way to praise "Obama's leadership" in initiating crippling sanctions against Iran, even while maintaining that they have yet to bear fruit.
The speech drew widespread attention for the cartoon image of a ticking bomb that illustrated it, but it may, in fact, have been a sign of Netanyahu's growing concern with his relationship to Washington.
As the issue continued to simmer, Barak parried back at Netanyahu with a statement implying that his own "bipartisan" connections safeguarded against the dangers of relying only on "one side in US politics."
"Efforts to ensure Israel's unique military edge rely on its special relations with the Pentagon, the administration and Congress' bi-partisan support of Israel," the statement said. "We must not compromise this support by steps that show Israel aligning itself with one side in US politics."
It is a safe bet that both Netanyahu and Barak were up late Wednesday night, watching the debate upon which their own debate may well depend.