Israel firm on Iran, reticent on military action
JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel voiced determination to ensure Iran never develops an atomic bomb but remained reticent over military action, after a former army chief said the country had the power to strike.
"We can in no way accept the possibility of an atomic bomb in Iranian hands. We need to work hard and say less," Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told public radio after Moshe Yaalon spoke in Washington.
Deep embarrassment has been felt in Israel after the former chief of staff said the country had the military muscle to strike against and delay the nuclear ambitions of its arch-foe, Iran.
Israeli fears about Tehran's nuclear efforts have been exacerbated by comments from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map".
"This is a matter of a crazy anti-Semite who is capable of talking about and threatening the very essence of the existence of the people of Israel," Olmert said in an interview with the Maariv newspaper.
"Israel will not allow an Iranian atomic threat to our existence. Period," he told the tabloid-style daily in one of a series of interviews in the run-up to Israel's March 28 general election.
But on public radio he emphasised that Israel's objective was for the international community to take action on the Iranian issue.
"Ultimately, our objective is that the international community prevents the Iranians from developing non-conventional weapons, and Israel has helped in efforts to get the case brought before the UN Security Council," Olmert said.
Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz also appeared to downplay Yaalon's comments to the Hudson Institute in Washington, saying only that Israel would do whatever necessary to defend its citizens. He did not elaborate.
"There was a time when generals learnt to hold their tongue once they were out of uniform," the irritated leader of the centre-left opposition Labour party, Amir Peretz, told public radio.
Yaalon told the security research institute that Israel had the military capability to damage and delay Iran's nuclear programme by several years.
He maintained that in six to 18 months Tehran would have the knowledge to produce nuclear weapons, and within three to five years it would have such weaponry if its plans went unchecked.
Although he proposed that diplomatic channels be first exhausted to isolate Tehran economically and diplomatically, he said Israel could strike Iran's aerial defence system in ways other than air strikes.
Israel triggered an international storm of protest in 1981 when it bombed Iraq's French-built Osirak nuclear reactor.
Should Israel strike, Yaalon said the Iranians would probably respond by firing missiles, which could be dealt with by Israeli anti-missile systems, and by mobilising the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah.
But Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, another former chief of staff, was one of the few to come to Yaalon's defence in comments broadcast on army radio.
"I don't think that what he said amounts to violating military secrets. There are different military options. The Iranians also know that," he said.
The Jewish state is widely believed to be the only nuclear power in the Middle East, but has campaigned tirelessly for Iran to be brought before the UN Security Council and face sanctions for its nuclear activities.
Although Tehran insists the programme is designed only to meet its domestic energy needs, the UN nuclear watchdog on Wednesday referred the Iranian nuclear issue to the Security Council, opening the way for possible sanctions.
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