JERUSALEM — It is a taboo for Israeli leaders to give even the slightest hint of favoritism in politics in the United States, Israel's closest ally. So some Israelis are squirming over a perception that their prime minister is siding with Republican Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential race, in the belief he will take a harder line on archenemy Iran if elected.
With President Barack Obama holding a narrow lead in opinion polls, Benjamin Netanyahu's perceived strategy looks risky to Israelis who fear their alliance with the U.S. could be in trouble if the incumbent wins.
"If our prime minister doesn't get along with their leader, it will hurt our relations," said Shai Hugi, 20, a car rental clerk in Jerusalem. "The United States is Israel's best ally, and it's always good that you have a strong friend behind you."
Netanyahu, convinced that Iran is close to developing nuclear weapons, says Tehran must be stopped. Claiming international diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions have failed, Netanyahu says the threat of force must be seriously considered. He has urged Obama to declare "red lines" that would trigger an American attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, coupling his appeals with veiled threats of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran.
Obama has rejected these calls, saying diplomacy and U.S.-led sanctions must be given more time and that Iran will never be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. At the same time, American officials have pressed Israel not to attack unilaterally, a move that could set off regional mayhem just ahead of the November election.
Netanyahu has not backed down. In a message directed at the White House, he recently said: "Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel."
Israeli leaders have relied on broad bipartisan support in the U.S. for decades, but Netanyahu has had a rocky relationship with Obama, underscored by public differences over Iran. These agreements, coupled with his longstanding friendship with Romney, have created a perception that Netanyahu backs the Republicans.
"Whether or not it is true that he is actively taking sides ... I don't know," said Alon Pinkas, Israel's former consul-general in New York. "But the pattern of behavior clearly suggests this perception is founded in reality."
Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israeli relations at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, said Obama, if re-elected, may seek payback from the Israelis by pressuring Netanyahu to make new concessions to the Palestinians to overcome a deadlock seen as a key failure of the U.S. administration.
Gilboa also said support for Israel is increasingly being seen as a Republican, not bipartisan, issue in America. Recent polls have shown that Republican support for Israel is significantly higher than Democratic support, a reversal from 10 or 15 years ago.
In interviews on American television this week, the Israeli leader vociferously denied he is meddling in Obama's reelection campaign and said he appreciated the importance of American support.
"I'm not going to be drawn into the American election," Netanyahu told NBC television. "What's guiding my statements is not the American political calendar, but the Iranian nuclear calendar."
Ari Shavit, a columnist for Israel's liberal Haaretz daily, accused Netanyahu of misreading the American political climate.
"Netanyahu not only argued with Obama, but turned himself into the declared enemy of many of Israel's friends in the United States. He pushed himself into America's extremist right corner — he pushed all of us into it," he wrote.