JERUSALEM – Israeli officials said Tuesday they are in close discussions with the United States over how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program, seeking to ease tensions that have emerged between the two allies over a possible Israeli military strike against Iran.
The dialogue, in which Israel is looking for President Barack Obama to take a tough public position against Iran, suggests the odds of an Israeli attack in the near term have been reduced.
Israel, convinced that Iran isn't taking seriously U.S. vows to block it from acquiring nuclear weapons, believes that time to stop the Iranians is quickly running out. A series of warnings by Israeli officials in recent weeks has raised concerns that Israel could soon stage a unilateral military strike. In response, senior American officials have made clear they oppose any Israeli military action at the current time.
After tense exchanges with the Americans, Israeli political and defense officials said Tuesday that the sides are now working closely together in hopes of getting their positions in sync. Clearer American assurances on what pressure it is prepared to use against Iran, including possible military action, would reduce the need for Israel to act alone, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a security matter.
There was no immediate American comment Tuesday, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu huddled with his security cabinet for a daylong briefing by military intelligence on Iran's nuclear program.
Netanyahu has criticized the international community for failing to curb Iran's nuclear program. In recent days, he has called for the world to set a clear "red line" for the Iranians. His comments were seen as veiled criticism of President Barack Obama.
Israel has not publicly defined its own red lines, which might include a deadline for Iran to open its facilities to U.N. inspectors or a determination that Iran has definitively begun enriching uranium to a weapons-grade level.
Israel believes Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge the Iranians deny. The U.S. has said it doesn't know what Iran's ultimate plans are for its nuclear program.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Sunday played down any differences, saying "there is absolutely no daylight between the United States and Israel when it comes to the necessity of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon."
"The best way to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon is through a diplomatic process that results in Iran finally agreeing to, in a completely verifiable way, give up its nuclear weapons ambitions and abide by its international obligations. But that window will not remain open indefinitely," Carney said. He emphasized that Obama "has insisted that all options ... remain on the table."
A U.N. report last week showing continued progress in the Iranian nuclear program reinforced the Israeli view that negotiations and economic sanctions are not persuading Iran to change its behavior.
The U.N. report found that Iran has moved more of its uranium enrichment activities into fortified bunkers deep underground and impervious to air attack. Enrichment is a key activity in building a bomb, though it has other uses as well.
Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as a mortal threat, citing Iranian calls for Israel's destruction, Iran's development of missiles capable of striking the Jewish state, and Iranian support for hostile Arab militant groups.
Israel's timeline for military action is shorter than that of the United States, which has far more powerful bunker-busting bombs at its disposal.
Feeling so vulnerable, Israel needs strong assurances from its key ally, said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and confidant of Netanyahu.
"We have to hear something a lot more concrete, a lot more public from the U.S., which is the leader of free world. What is it going to do?" Gold told the Army Radio station.
Israeli officials said they are discussing the possibility of tightened economic sanctions on Iran. They also want Obama to make a strong public statement of American unwillingness to tolerate a nuclear Iran, perhaps at the U.N. General Assembly later this month or even sooner.
"What we'd like to see is President Obama saying something in the next few days or weeks, something serious," said one official.
"It could be (a declaration) of red lines, or some forceful statement," he said. "The point is not to convince Israel, but to convince the Iranians, that we, the United States, mean business. We will tighten sanctions. There's a military option. ... The Iranians have to understand unequivocally that the Americans are serious about preventing them from acquiring nuclear weapons."
Obama has repeatedly said he would not allow Iran to gain nuclear weapons and has said the U.S. would be prepared to use force as a last resort.
But many Israelis are skeptical. Obama is also believed to be unwilling to launch a risky military operation in the run-up to presidential elections. An attack could send global oil prices skyrocketing and endanger U.S. troops in the region.
The Israel Hayom newspaper, widely considered to be a mouthpiece for the Netanyahu government, wrote in an analysis Tuesday that Obama "does not believe in a military strike on Iran."
"Obama could have long ago resolved the entire matter in the simplest fashion: Had he posed the Iranians with an ultimatum, even for a date after Nov. 6 (U.S. presidential elections), he would have allayed Israel's concerns, he would have shown the Iranians that he was resolute," commentator Boaz Bismuth wrote. "But Obama has not done that for now, not because he can't, but simply because he doesn't want to."
Israel Hayom is a free tabloid financed by American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a friend of Netanyahu's and a major donor to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign.
Strains between Washington and Israel have been exceptionally apparent in recent weeks, with the top U.S. military official, Gen. Martin Dempsey, twice speaking out against a go-it-alone strike. Last week he said he would "not want to be complicit" in such an assault.
At the same time, many in Israel suspect Israel's leaders are bluffing in order to compel the world to get serious about the issue. An array of retired military officials have said Israel should not act on its own, reasoning that it can depend on Washington to act if necessary and fearing a harsh Iranian retaliation by Tehran and its proxies in Lebanon and Iran in the event of an Israeli strike.