Israel's Netanyahu offers an olive branch of sorts to Obama on Iran

Netanyahu's long, silent glare over Iran threats at U.N.
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(CNN)It was vintage Benjamin Netanyahu, but with a surprising twist.

The Israeli Prime Minister castigated United Nations delegates for hounding the Jewish state on Thursday in a speech bursting with rhetorical pyrotechnics, apocalyptic warnings and a haunting pause of silence.
But easy to miss in his tirades against Iran and boilerplate lines on the Palestinian conflict was something unexpected -- an apparent peace offering to the Israeli leader's White House nemesis, President Barack Obama.
It's not that Netanyahu has experienced a sudden conversion on the Iranian nuclear deal, which he desperately tried -- and failed -- to thwart. In fact, he warned Iran was more dangerous than ever Thursday, comparing the country to an "unmuzzled" tiger.
    But there were also the first signs of a new strategy from Netanyahu to begin to repair relations with the White House ruptured by the long tug of war over the Iran nuclear deal that Obama's foes in Congress, enthusiastically backed by the Israeli leader, have failed to derail.
    The strategy seemed to include holding out an olive branch to Obama and Capitol Hill Democrats by expressing a pragmatic willingness to live with the accord -- for now -- and identifying places of agreement on enforcement, which will be in both nations' interests over the deal's duration.
    If Netanyahu's speech does end up easing some of the hard feelings between the U.S. and Israeli governments, however, there is no sign that any breakthroughs are likely soon on another issue that has divided Obama and Netanyahu -- the elusive search for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

    Violence simmering in West Bank

    In fact, the situation appears to be deteriorating, amid tensions on the sacred Temple Mount in Jerusalem, simmering violence in the West Bank and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' declaration at the United Nations on Wednesday that he would no longer honor the Oslo Accords, the 1993 deal with Israel that was supposed to lead to a permanent peace and a Palestinian state.
    Abbas' dramatic statement, however, didn't get the attention he might have hoped for on the international stage amidst the intense focus on Iran, not to mention the chaos in Syria and the Russian attempt to shore up ally President Bashar al-Assad.
    It was another sign that while the Palestinian issue was once a cause celebre and at the center of U.S. foreign policy and U.N. gatherings, it has now slipped well down a crowded list of American and international priorities.
    Indeed, Netanyahu felt no compulsion to pay any more than scant attention to the issue, while Obama skipped it entirely. The topic, on which the two leaders have starkly divergent approaches, has been a source of friction longer than the Iran deal has been, and the Israeli leader and his White House outreach only benefits from it being consigned to the back burner.
    In his comments on Iran on Thursday, for the first time that close Middle East watchers could remember, Netanyahu uttered a sentence that was not uniformly critical of the Iran nuclear pact.
    Netanyahu: Iran deal makes war more likely
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    "This deal does place several constraints on Iran's nuclear program, and rightly so," Netanyahu admitted, focusing his dire warnings that the "militant Islamic terror regime" would be "weeks away" from amassing an entire arsenal of nuclear bombs only on the period after the deal's restrictions sunset in 10 or 15 years -- rather than repeating his claim that the deal itself would facilitate Iran getting a bomb in the near future.
    Netanyahu also called on the United Nations to keep Iran's feet to the fire and fully implement the deal he decried, offering at least the prospect of some common ground that Israel could share with the administration, as the latter also wants to see the world body remain resolute on the issue.
    "Make sure that the inspectors actually inspect. Make sure that the snapback sanctions actually snap back. And make sure that Iran's violations aren't swept under the Persian rug," Netanyahu said. "Of one thing, I can assure you: Israel will be watching closely."
    He also had plenty of harsh words for the agreement: "This deal doesn't make peace more likely. By fueling Iran's aggression with billions of dollars in sanctions relief, it makes war more likely," Netanyahu said, before angrily accusing the United Nations of greeting Tehran's threats to destroy Israel with silence and pausing for a chilling 45 seconds in his own speech -- glaring out at the chamber at the General Assembly.
    But he also hinted at conciliation with the United States, and Netanyahu went out of his way to detail all the places where he and Obama agree.

    Shared effort to stop Iranian proxies

    He said they both wanted to keep arms away from "Iran's terror proxies" and to stop Tehran from destabilizing the Middle East, and he thanked Obama for helping to bolster Israeli security and its military edge.
    He even reached out to Democrats, who blocked Republican attempts to kill the Iran deal and who remain furious that Netanyahu used an address to Congress earlier this year to openly criticize the President during the premier's re-election bid.
    "Israel is grateful that this sentiment is widely shared by the American people and its representatives in Congress, by both those who supported the deal and by those who opposed it," Netanyahu said.
    While the headlines will be grabbed by Netanyahu's invective against Iran, it could turn out that the more subtle parts of his speech could be the most significant ahead of planned talks at the White House between Obama and Netanyahu in November.
    Former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller told CNN that the passage of the speech about the constraints on Iran was "curious" and a new development.
    "I think that reflects a measure of acquiescence -- not to Iran, he made it very clear that was not going to be the case -- but in essence to the agreement itself," he said.
    "In many respects, this was an effort I think to move on, and to move on in partnership with President Obama," Miller continued. "We will see if that is going to be possible."
    Another former U.S. official, David Makovsky, who worked on the administration's unsuccessful effort to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in Obama's second term, also agreed that Netanyahu was reaching out to the President.
    "I think that he extended an olive branch to President Obama and, for the first time, I heard him talk about both sides of the aisle," he said. "I think it was a way of Netanyahu pivoting to say ... 'I am not an ostrich putting my head in the sand, but we want to work with the U.S. on implementation.' "
    Netanyahu's speech came four days after Obama spoke in the U.N. chamber and defended the Iran deal as vindication for his strategy of pursuing hard-nosed diplomacy even with America's enemies.

    A missing peace deal

    But there was one big omission from Obama's remarks, and that was any mention of his frustrated efforts to forge a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
    Given that it was at the United Nations in 2010 that Obama predicted an agreement could be reached on a Palestinian state within a year, his swerve was especially striking -- appearing to reflect frustration with Abbas and Netanyahu and signal that a new U.S. Middle East peace bid is unlikely during his final year in office.
    Abbas' vow, meanwhile, to ignore the Oslo Accords threatens to further deepen antagonism between the Palestinians and Israel.
    But it remains unclear whether Abbas' move was a symbolic measure born of desperation -- and a desire to placate domestic critics of his leadership -- or will be acted upon by cutting coordination with Israel over security and other key arenas.
    "It was really, at the end of the day, a very convoluted statement that does not amount to going all the way to abrogating Oslo," said Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian Authority official now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
    The worsening security situation in Jerusalem and on the West Bank has led to some warnings of a new Intifada, or uprising, similar those that raged in the Palestinian territories between 1987 to 1993 and 2000 to 2005.
    While some analysts believe tensions could ease in the coming weeks, al-Omari said it was impossible to say whether a crisis would be sparked that could spin out of control.
    "Things are very, very volatile and anything could trigger it -- but by the same token, things could continue to be stable for a time," he said. "We will not know what the trigger is until it happens."
    If that trigger is pulled, Obama's efforts to remain aloof will likely prove futile. The administration may have to resume its frustrating role as middleman between Israel and the Palestinians, in a new test for the bruised relations with Israel that Netanyahu tried to at least start repairing on Thursday.