From The Wall St. Journal:
August 1, 2012
Israeli Leaders Toughen Iran Stance
ASHKELON, Israel—Israeli leaders dismissed the chances that a U.S.-led campaign of economic sanctions will succeed in convincing Iran to give up its nuclear program, a sign Israel is losing patience with negotiations and may be closer to military action.
The stark comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, coupled with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's more hawkish tone toward Iran during his visit to Israel, underlined the challenge facing the Obama administration in heading off an Israeli strike that could engulf the region in another major conflict and, potentially, force the U.S. to intervene.
U.S. officials say it is difficult for them to tell whether Israel is serious about attacking Iran or saber rattling in order to pressure the U.S. and the Europeans to do more to curb the country's nuclear program—or both.
"Right now the Iranian regime believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program. This must change, and it must change quickly because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out," Mr. Netanyahu said in Jerusalem with Mr. Panetta at his side.
The war talk in Israel has put the Obama administration in a difficult position at the height of the U.S. presidential campaign. It wants to keep Israel from starting a conflict but doesn't want to appear weak or unsupportive of the Jewish state. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who visited Israel earlier this week, has sought to cast himself as a bigger supporter of Israel should it decide to strike Iran.
In an apparent nod to Mr. Netanyahu's call for the U.S. to. couple sanctions with a more credible threat of military action, Mr. Panetta used unusually strong language to make the case that Mr. Obama will do what it takes to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. Iran denies trying to build a nuclear bomb.
Mr. Panetta said it was his responsibility as secretary of defense to provide Mr. Obama with a full range of options, including military options, should diplomacy fail. "We will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Period," he said. "We will exert all options."
But Mr. Panetta added: "We have to exhaust every option, every effort, before we resort to military action."
At the same time, Mr. Panetta made clear Israel—and Israel alone—has the right to decide if and when to strike Iran if it believes its security is threatened, a sentiment echoed by Mr. Barak.
"We respect Israel's sovereignty and their independence. And their effort to decide what is in their national security interest is something that must be left up to the Israelis," Mr. Panetta said.
Mr. Barak said Israel will make its own decisions but will take U.S. views into account.
In addition to pressure from Washington, Mr. Netanyahu has been grappling with doubts about an attack from within Israel's security establishment. Tuesday night, Mr. Netanyahu said in a television interview that he hasn't yet made a decision on an attack, trying to tamp down Israeli media reports saying that Israeli military Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and the serving Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo, are opposed to an attack in the coming months. In the interview, Mr. Netanyahu chastised them, saying they should keep their assessments private and not share them with the media, underlining the potential domestic risks if he decides on an attack.
In his remarks at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, Mr. Netanyahu said Mr. Panetta was "correct" when he said sanctions are having a "big impact" on the Iranian economy.
"But unfortunately it is also true that neither sanctions nor diplomacy have yet had any impact on Iran's nuclear weapons program," Mr. Netanyahu added.
Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu said that Iran doesn't appear to believe that the U.S. really means it when it repeatedly says all options are on the table.
The Obama administration has struggled at times to keep Israel on board with its diplomatic approach to resolving the conflict. So far, talks with Iran, led by the U.S. and other major powers, have gone nowhere, U.S. officials acknowledge.
That tension was evident on Wednesday when Mr. Barak said the probability is "extremely low" that U.S. and international sanctions, however tight, will convince Iran's religious rulers to say "that's it, the game is over, we have to give up our nuclear military program."
Israel's dim view of the diplomatic track appeared to be at odds with the more upbeat assessment offered publicly by Mr. Panetta ahead of his visit to Israel.
While Mr. Panetta has acknowledged Iran has yet to agree to give up its nuclear program, he has repeatedly said that the sanctions are working as intended and should be given more time. "It's biting," he said.
That appeared to be a hard argument for Mr. Panetta to sell in Israel, at least based on the public comments by Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak.
"We have clearly something to lose by this stretched time upon which sanctions and diplomacy takes place because the Iranian are moving forward" with their enrichment activities, Mr. Barak said at a joint news conference with Mr. Panetta after the two toured missile-defense battery on the outskirts of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, some five miles from the border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Israel says the Iron Dome is the first missile-defense system capable of detecting and destroying short-range missiles in flight.
The system, made by Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, is designed to intercept rockets with ranges of up to 44 miles, those typically used by Israel's declared enemies Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, and Hamas.
Mr. Panetta called Iron Dome a "game changer" for Israel's security and said the U.S. intends to provide funding annually to support the system's deployment in Israel.
The U.S. has so far committed $275 million to support the Iron Dome, which consists of arrays with about 20 rockets each, a command-and-control center and a radar facility. Each system can cover an area the size of a small city.
The Iron Dome's radar detects rockets when they are launched. The command and control center then quickly determines whether to launch an interceptor missile. That depends if the missile is headed toward an area that is populated or has critical infrastructure.
Mr. Barak said the system has intercepted more than 100 rockets so far fired from Gaza and has a success rate of more than 80%.