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Harper, Netanyahu stand side-by-side, but apart

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Rotunda on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 2, 2012.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS/CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Canada for three days with a staunch political ally, urged the world to rattle the sabre louder to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program: Time is running out, he warned, and proposed new talks with Tehran could be a trap.

But Stephen Harper was careful to cool his own past heated rhetoric on Iran, at a time when the United States is encouraging Israel not to rush into a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Standing side-by-side with Mr. Netanyahu at a joint news conference in Ottawa, Mr. Harper did not urge his Israeli counterpart to forswear a unilateral strike, but called for a diplomatic solution.‬

"We of course recognize the right of Israel to defend itself, as a sovereign state, as a Jewish state," Mr. Harper said. "That said, we want to see a peaceful resolution of this issue, and we want to see every action taken to get a peaceful resolution of the situation."

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Mr. Netanyahu's visit to Ottawa, marked by an honour guard, a 19-gun salute and a warm reception from Mr. Harper, was a chance for the Israeli leader to press his case on Iran in a country whose prime minister, according to Mr. Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, "sees the issue in a similar vein."

But Ottawa was in many ways a staging ground for a tug-of-war next week in Washington with Barack Obama. The U.S. President insisted in an interview that he's not bluffing when he says he will stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, including using the military – but cautioned against an early Israeli strike because it could allow Tehran to "portray itself as a victim."

Mr. Harper is hosting Mr. Netanyahu in Canada over the weekend before the Israeli leader heads to Washington to meet Mr. Obama and address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a large pro-Israel lobby in the United States. Mr. Harper and Mr. Netanyahu are said to be friendly, but with a business-like relationship; they have an opportunity, at a private lunch Saturday, to discuss a shared interest: their read of U.S. politics.

The issue that divides Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama now is not whether a military strike would be used, if needed, to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons – but how soon that might be needed, and how loudly the sabre should be rattled until then.

While the United States has sought room for diplomatic talks, Mr. Netanyahu emphasized a threat that he said will be a "hinge of history," and warned that Tehran could use talks to deflect pressure.

"It could pursue, or exploit the talks, as they've done in the past, to deceive and to delay, so that they can continue to advance their nuclear program and get to the nuclear finish line by running the clock," he said. "I think the international community should not fall into this trap. I think the demands on Iran should be clear."

Israel wants Iran to commit to pausing nuclear development while talks go on, and Mr. Netanyahu set new lines on what he believes the world must demand: the dismantling of an underground nuclear facility in Qom, the ceasing of all enrichment of uranium, and shipping its current stock of enriched uranium out of the country.

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Mr. Obama, in an election year where he has been accused by Republicans of being soft on Iran, sought to quell doubts – and provide an assurance Mr. Netanyahu has sought – that he would use the U.S. military to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.

"I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as President of the United States, I don't bluff," Mr. Obama said in an interview with The Atlantic published Friday. "I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are."

Iran, he said, is feeling the bite of harsh sanctions, and that makes it possible for them to make a "strategic calculation" that at least delays their ability to develop nuclear weapons.

But he said threats of early military action could allow Iran to gain support at a time when sympathy for it is weak and its only real ally, Syria, "is on the ropes."

"Do we want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim, and deflect attention from what has to be the core issue, which is their potential pursuit of nuclear weapons?" Mr. Obama said.

Crucially, his read of the urgency seems to differ with Mr. Netanyahu's. Mr. Obama said Iran can't acquire nuclear weapons without the United States "having a pretty long lead time in which we will know they are making that attempt." Mr. Netanyahu, asked when the clock will run out, said: "Every day brings that point sooner."

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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