No time for quarrels

Last week’s unfortunate outburst of name-calling between the White House and the prime minister’s office in Israel doesn’t speak well for either President Obama or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It’s no secret that these two don’t like each other very much, but that’s no reason for either leader, or their aides, to engage in unseemly personal insults. And it won’t help for supporters of either to claim that the other guy started it. The essential reality is that their two countries are partners in a long-standing geo-political alliance that benefits both parties, and they need each other more than ever as they approach a deadline requiring a strong measure of mutual trust and support.

On Nov. 9, the group of nations known in diplomatic shorthand as the P5+1 — the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany — will meet with Iranian negotiators to try to hammer out a deal over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities. Israel won’t be in the room, but it expects to have a say on whether any deal is acceptable, which is only fair considering that the Jewish State has the most to lose if Iran acquires nuclear weapons capability.

Whether a deal is possible or not is anyone’s guess. “I’m hopeful,” Secretary of State John Kerry said last week, but he noted that there are still serious gaps between the two sides. “I hope the Iranians will not get stuck in a tree of their own making, on one demand or another.”

There are some reasons to be hopeful. Iran’s people have been hurt by the economic sanctions imposed on the country, and the worldwide drop in oil prices doesn’t bode well for Iran’s economic improvement. The last thing the ayatollahs need is another, stricter set of sanctions, which is exactly what they would face if there is no deal by the self-imposed negotiating deadline of Nov. 24.

Not everyone is optimistic. Gerard Araud, France’s chief nuclear negotiator with Iran from 2006 to 2009, told reporters in Washington last week that Iran did not seem to be prepared to pay the price of making a deal.

That would require, among other things, a rollback in the number of centrifuges that enrich uranium. The Iranians, said Mr. Araud, want to keep the number of centrifuges they already have, a position that Western countries rightly find unacceptable.

As the deadline approaches, it is essential that the United States and Israel, the most interested parties among those who deem Iran’s nuclear activities a threat, refrain from words or actions that undermine their alliance.

It is unfair to accuse the Obama administration of being soft or easy on the Iranians. After all, the United States has employed a variety of tactics — cyberattacks, sabotage and tough economic sanctions — to discourage the Iranians and demonstrate American resolve. Mr. Obama has said repeatedly that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable.

Mr. Netanyahu, for his part, cannot be expected to take chances when it comes to nukes in Iran. He’s duty-bound to be skeptical about any prospect that poses a threat to the existence of Israel, and he has every right to express his doubts and criticism openly.

But back-biting between American and Israeli leaders only benefits the Iranians. For the sake of peace in the Middle East and throughout the world, the United States and Israel must stand together and demand that Iran be held to a strict and verifiable standard that prevents the country from acquiring nuclear weapons.