Certainly Israel's official reaction to the news, as reported in the Times story, has nourished this anti-Obama narrative:
Israeli officials initially expressed an awareness of, and openness to, a diplomatic initiative. But when asked for a response on Saturday, Israel's
ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, said the administration had not informed Israel, and that the Israeli government feared Iran would use
new talks to "advance their nuclear weapons program."
Perhaps anxious about the political fallout, the White House has denied the Times story -- though it added that the Obama administration has "said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally." (The Iranian
regime, perhaps for its own domestic political reasons, has also denied the report.)
Personally, I don't see why this story has to work against Obama. The truth is that a large majority of Americans don't want to be involved in another war,
and if you can convince them that bilateral talks stand a decent chance of avoiding war while also avoiding a nuclear-armed Iran, then they'll favor
bilateral talks. Sure, there may be some Jewish voters who buy the (gravely confused) argument that this would be some kind of sellout of Israel, but I'm guessing they're mainly older voters. So far as I
know, the only swing state in which there are enough of those votes to worry about is Florida, and it's looking like Florida is a lost cause for Obama
anyway -- and certainly a state he's not counting on in the most common victory scenarios.
If I were Obama, during Monday's debate I'd heartily embrace the idea of bilateral negotiations and do so in a way that puts Romney in an uncomfortable
position. Here's what I'd say about the Times story if moderator Bob Schieffer -- or Romney -- brings it up:
One thing you learn as president is that there are times when you see a newspaper story that's not entirely accurate, and the interests of the United
States are best served by just saying it's not accurate and saying nothing more. So I'm not going to comment further on that story. However, let me say
this: We have always said we would welcome bilateral negotiations with Iran. And the reason is that war is a very serious thing, and a war with Iran could
have some very bad consequences, consequences that endanger the lives of American soldiers and American civilians, and endanger the lives of our friends in Israel and
elsewhere in the Middle East and even in Europe. I believe every president has the moral obligation to resort to war only when all other avenues have been
exhausted, and one of those avenues is certainly direct negotiations with Iran. So, yes, I'd welcome direct negotiations with Iran, because I think there's
a chance they could lead to a peaceful resolution of this problem, a resolution that keeps Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons and doesn't involve war.
And if Mitt Romney wouldn't engage in direct talks with Iran, then that just means he's more likely to get America involved in another war than I am. So I
challenge him to tell us tonight, would he or would he not be willing to engage in direct negotiations with Iran before resorting to war?"
This puts Romney in a tight spot. If he says he wouldn't talk to Iran, he's sounding more casual about starting a war than most voters want him to sound.
If he says he would talk to Iran, then the story that may well have been leaked to damage Obama will have been neutralized -- and in a way that's kind of
flattering to Obama, since would-be hawk Mitt will be seen as meekly following Obama's lead. What's more, and perhaps most important, there would then be
conspicuous bipartisan agreement on the value of direct talks -- and that agreement would prepare the ground for them after the election. What's not to like?