Netanyahu made a case, laced with historical references, for telling Iran explicitly where it must stop to forestall an outside attack. He also warned that time was running out.
“At this late hour there is only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs,” Netanyahu told the annual gathering. “And that is by placing a clear red line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
Estimates have varied widely on when Iran might have a nuclear weapon, but Netanyahu offered Israel’s most specific timetable yet when he said Tehran’s progress would be irreversible by next spring or summer.
In a bit of theater, Netanyahu illustrated his point by holding up a placard showing a cartoon-like bomb with a lighted fuse. Lines on the chart marked what he said was Iran’s progress toward a weapon. With a flourish, Netanyahu pulled a red marker from his pocket and drew a thick line across the cartoon just below the start of what he described as the third and final stage.
Some of the diplomats in the audience squinted to see the chart; others seemed perplexed. The image quickly went viral on the Internet and drew praise in some quarters and criticism from opposition politicians back in Israel.
Netanyahu never directly threatened his own attack on Iran, and his tone toward Obama was conciliatory, but his meaning was clear: If Iran won’t back down and the United States won’t act, Israel will be forced to do so.
The Obama administration has been irritated by what many advisers see as rising Israeli threats and pressure. Obama told the U.N. session on Tuesday that there is still time to negotiate a peaceful end to the most troublesome elements of Iran’s nuclear program. But he has refused to set a deadline for Iran to back down or to publicly outline precisely what Iranian nuclear milestone would trigger a U.S. attack.
U.S. officials have said that an ultimatum now could kill chances for a peaceful deal to head off the Iranian program. The threat of war or a rupture with Israel, a close U.S. ally, is also an unwelcome topic in this election season.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has criticized Obama for being too hard on Israel and not hard enough on Iran. He responded to Netanyahu’s remarks with a statement saying: “I, like the rest of the American people, applaud the bravery of the people of Israel and stand with them in these dangerous times. The designs of the Iranian regime are a threat to America, Israel, and our friends and allies around the world.”