Israel steps up talk of threat of force on Iran

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JERUSALEM (AP) — A rising chorus of Israeli voices is again raising the possibility of carrying out a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities in what appears to be an attempt to draw renewed attention to Tehran's atomic program — and Israel's unhappiness with international negotiations with the Iranians.

In recent days, a series of newspaper reports and comments by top defense officials have signaled that the military option remains very much on the table. While Israeli officials say Israel never shelved the possibility of attacking, the heightened rhetoric marks a departure from Israel's subdued approach since six world powers opened negotiations with Iran last November.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been an outspoken critic of the international efforts to negotiate a deal with Iran. He has spent years warning the world against the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and fears a final deal will leave much of Iran's nuclear capabilities intact.

But since the global powers reached an interim agreement with Iran last November, Netanyahu's warnings about Iran have been largely ignored. A frustrated Israeli leadership now appears to be ratcheting up the pressure on the international community to take a tough position in its negotiations with Iran.

A front-page headline in the daily Haaretz on Thursday proclaimed that Netanyahu has ordered "to prep for strike on Iran in 2014" and has allocated 10 billion shekels (2.87 billion dollars) for the groundwork. Earlier this week, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon hinted that Israel would have to pursue a military strike on its own, with the U.S. having chosen the path of negotiations. And the military chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, said this week that Iran "is not in an area that is out of the military's range."

An Israeli military strike would be extremely difficult to pull off, both for logistical and political reasons. Any mission would likely require sending Israeli warplanes into hostile airspace, and it remains unclear how much damage Israel could inflict on a program that is scattered and hidden deep underground. In addition, it would likely set off an international uproar, derail the international negotiations and trigger retaliation on Israeli and U.S. targets.

Yoel Gozansky, an Iran expert at the Institute of National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank, said the comments were meant as a wake-up call to the world.

"It was in a coma. It has awoken suddenly," he said of the military-option talk. "Someone has an agenda to bring up this subject again, which has dropped off the agenda in recent months, especially after the deal with Iran."

Netanyahu has long been at odds with his Western allies over how to dislodge Iran from its nuclear program. He has called the interim agreement a "historic mistake," saying it grants Iran too much relief while getting little in return, and fears a final agreement would leave Iran with the capability to make a bomb.

Israel believes that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon, a charge Iran denies. Israel says a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state, citing Iranian calls for Israel's destruction, its development of long-range missiles and its support for hostile militant groups.

During a swing through Washington early this month, Netanyahu tried to draw attention to the Iranian issue in stops at the White House and in an address to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group. Israel then engaged in a six-day PR blitz when naval commandos seized a ship in international waters that was carrying dozens of sophisticated rockets Israel said were bound for militants in the Gaza Strip and sent by Iran. The effort was capped by a display of the seized weapons.

But beyond placid acknowledgments from world leaders, the ship's seizure did little to change the course of negotiations with Iran.

Netanyahu said the world's indifference to the naval raid was "hypocritical," and he lashed out at Western leaders for condemning Israeli settlement construction while ignoring Iran's transgressions.

Netanyahu's past warnings have been credited with bringing the Iran issue to the fore and galvanizing world powers to take action on the nuclear program. He made headlines in 2012 when he drew a red line on a cartoon bomb during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly.

Yaakov Amidror, who recently stepped down as Netanyahu's national security adviser, said the threat of a military strike is a real possibility.

"We aren't playing a game of neighborhood bully. This is a stated policy of the state of Israel and has been made clear ... to anyone who meets Israel's representatives."

But if Israel is trying to raise the alarm again, the move comes at an inopportune time. The urgency of the Iran issue has taken a backseat to more pressing international crises, namely Russia's annexation of the Crimea peninsula. With world powers charging forward with negotiations with Iran, threats from Israel are likely to be ignored at best. At worst, they could alienate Israel's closest allies.

Gozansky said the renewed threats were largely empty because if Israel carried out a strike with diplomacy underway, it would be seen as a warmonger out to destabilize the region. But he said the threats could nonetheless serve as leverage on Iran while it conducts talks. Netanyahu has suggested that may be the case.

"The greater the pressure on Iran," he said in his speech to AIPAC, "the more credible the threat of force on Iran, the smaller the chance that force will ever have to be used."

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