Israel under huge pressure to avoid Iran attack

Israel under huge pressure to avoid Iran attack

Jean-Luc Renaudie JERUSALEM - Agence France-Presse
Israel under huge pressure to avoid Iran attack

Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu. REUTERS photo

Israel is coming under increased pressure from Washington and Europe to hold off from attacking Iran over its disputed nuclear drive and allow time for a regime of tight international sanctions to kick in.

Pressure is being exerted from all directions, officials acknowledge, with Washington's concern over a pre-emptive Israeli strike reflected in the steady stream of senior officials arriving in Jerusalem for top-level talks.

The latest visitor was US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, who on Sunday held a two-hour meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and held similar in-depth talks with Defence Minister Ehud Barak, whose "hawkish line" on Iran is worrying Washington, Haaretz newspaper reported on Monday.

Later this week, US intelligence chief James Clapper is also due to arrive, press reports said.

Barak, Netanyahu's de facto deputy, has been "summoned" to Washington next week, media reports said, ahead of a visit by the premier himself in early March.

"Israel is under pressure from all sides. The Americans don't want to be surprised and faced with a fait accompli of an Israeli attack," a senior Israeli official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"They are telling us to be patient and see if the international sanctions against Tehran will eventually work," he said.

In an interview with CNN this weekend, top US military commander Martin Dempsey gave a blunt assessment that it would be "premature" to launch military action against Iran.

For several weeks, Israel has blown hot and cold over the possibility of a pre-emptive military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, which much of the West believes masks a weapons drive.

"For now, we are trying to nurture a certain vagueness, partly to push the international community to impose even tougher sanctions against Iran," he said.

"But at the same time, we are dealing with the usual polyphony from Israel's political class," he acknowledged.

The United States is not alone in wanting to curb the warlike tendencies apparent in some Israeli circles.

On Sunday, Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said it would not be "wise" for Israel to take military action against Iran, echoing comments earlier this month by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"The solution is never military, the solution is political, the solution is diplomatic, the solution lies in sanctions," he told French Jewish leaders on February 8.

Even back home, Netanyahu is coming under pressure, with opposition leader Tzipi Livni accusing him of pursuing policies which isolate Israel.

"The prime minister's policies have brought about a situation in which the world is calling on us through loudspeakers to do this or not to do that," she told public radio on Monday.

"The whole world is running after us to stop us," she said.

Such policies, she charged, had meant Israel was "doubly isolated" -- over the Iranian issue and over the stalled peace process with the Palestinians. In an editorial entitled "An American Warning," the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper urged the government to heed the warnings from Washington.

"Fear of Iran's nuclear programme is pushing Israel into a dangerous corner," it said.

"The state could find itself in a conflict of interest, or even on a collision course with the American administration just when it needs US support more than ever before." Israel, it argued, "must listen to the warnings coming out of Washington and refrain, for now, from unilateral measures." In 1981, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike on the unfinished Osirak reactor outside Baghdad, leaving US officials stunned and earning it a sharp rebuke from its American ally.

Meanwhile, Iran on Monday deployed warplanes and missiles in an "exercise" to protect its nuclear sites and warned it may cut oil exports to more European Union nations unless sanctions were lifted.

The moves were announced the same day as officials from the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, arrived in Tehran for a second round of talks focused on "the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme." Iran has repeatedly said it will not give up its nuclear ambitions, which it insists are purely peaceful.