WASHINGTON – Israeli officials say they won't warn the U.S. if they decide to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The pronouncement, delivered in a series of private, top-level conversations with U.S. officials, sets a tense tone ahead of meetings in the coming days at the White House and on Capitol Hill.
Israeli officials said that if they eventually decide a strike is necessary, they would keep the Americans in the dark to decrease the likelihood that the U.S. would be held responsible for failing to stop Israel's potential attack, said one U.S. intelligence official familiar with the discussions. The U.S. has been working with the Israelis for months to convince them that an attack would be only a temporary setback to Iran's nuclear program.
Israeli defense officials confirmed that there are no plans to alert the U.S. ahead of time about any operation against Iran, though they stressed no decisions have been made on whether to attack. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a confidential security matter.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak delivered the message to a series of high-level U.S. visitors to the country, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House national security adviser, the director of national intelligence and top U.S. lawmakers, all trying to close the trust gap between Israel and the U.S. over how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Netanyahu delivered the same message to all the Americans who have traveled to Israel for talks, the U.S. official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive strategic negotiations.
The Pentagon and the Office of Director of National Intelligence declined comment. White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday he would not answer "speculative" questions about Israeli intentions.
"We have very close relationships with our Israeli counterparts. We have deep engagement at every level," Carney said.
He repeated the Obama administration's commitment to resolving questions about Iran's disputed nuclear program through diplomacy and economic pressure.
Iran claims its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the International Atomic Energy Agency has raised alarms that its uranium enrichment program might be a precursor to building nuclear weapons.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, testifying before Congress Tuesday, reiterated the administration's position that Iran has not decided whether to pursue a nuclear weapon.
"But...people sometimes say and do things that are at variance with what one might expect. It still is quite bewildering to me why Saddam Hussein wanted everybody to believe that he had chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons of mass destruction, when apparently he did not."
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress Tuesday that he has not counseled Israel to not attack Iran.
Asked during a Senate hearing to clarify his comments in a television interview earlier this month, Dempsey said "we've had a conversation with them about time." And he added that he would "absolutely not" take military force against Iran off the table.
Israel's U.N. representative did not directly address the possibility of a strike in remarks Tuesday.
"I think decision by the international community to do more sanctions on Iran ... is very, very important," said Israel's U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, after a Security Council meeting on the Middle East. "I think the international community can do a lot in that field before it's too late."
Israel's secret warning is likely to worry U.S. officials and begin the high-level meetings with Israel and the U.S. far apart on how to handle Iran.
But the apparent decision to keep the U.S. in the dark also stems from Israel's frustration with the White House. After a visit by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, the Israelis became convinced the Americans would neither take military action, nor go along with unilateral action by Israel against Iran. The Israelis concluded that if there were any strike they would have to conduct it unilaterally — a point they are likely to hammer home in a series of meetings over the next two weeks in Washington, the official said.
Barak will meet with top administration and congressional officials during his visit. Netanyahu arrives in Washington for meetings with President Barack Obama next week.
The behind-the-scenes warning belies the publicly united front the two sides have attempted to craft with the shuttle diplomacy to each other's capitals.
"It's unprecedented outreach to Israel to make sure we are working together to develop the plan to deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapon," and to keep Iran from exporting terrorism, said Maryland Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee.
He traveled there with the intelligence committee chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., to meet Israel's prime minister and defense minister, along with other officials.
"We talked about the fact that sanctions are working and they are going to get a lot more aggressive," Ruppersberger added.
Rogers told CNN on Monday: "I got the sense that Israel is incredibly serious about a strike on (Iran's) nuclear weapons program. It's their calculus that the administration ... is not serious about a real military consequence to Iran moving forward.
"They believe they're going to have to make a decision on their own, given the current posture of the United States," he added.
U.S. intelligence and special operations officials have tried to keep a dialogue going with Israel despite the high-level impasse, offering options such as allowing Israel to use U.S. bases in the region to launch such a strike, as a way to make sure the Israelis give the Americans a heads-up, according to the U.S. official and a former U.S. official with knowledge of the communications.
Cooperation has improved on sharing of intelligence in the region, according to one current and one former U.S. official. Israel is providing key information on Syria, for instance, now that the U.S. has closed its embassy and pulled out its diplomats and intelligence officials stationed there, the U.S. official said.
AP National Security Writer Anne Gearan, and AP writers Lolita C. Baldor and Donna Cassata in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the U.N. contributed to this report.
Dozier can be followed on Twitter (at)kimberlydozier.