Israel Keeps Iran Strike on "The Table"

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, shakes hands with his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak during a meeting at a Jerusalem hotel, July 27, 2009. AP Photo/Jack Guez

Israel dug in its heels Monday in a disagreement with the United States over a potential military strike to thwart Iran's progress toward a possible nuclear weapon, as the visiting American defense chief urged patience.

"We clearly believe that no option should be removed from the table," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said pointedly, following discussions with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

"This is our policy; we mean it," Barak continued. "We recommend to others to take the same position, but we cannot dictate it to anyone."

While the United States also reserves the right to use force if need be, the Obama administration is playing down that possibility while it tries to draw Iran into talks about its disputed nuclear program and other topics. Gates said Washington still hopes to have an initial answer in the fall about negotiations.

"The timetable the president laid out still seems to be viable and does not significantly raise the risks to anybody," Gates said.

Israeli leaders and a significant share of the population fear the U.S. is prizing outreach to Iran over its historic ties to Israel and appears resigned to the idea that Iran will soon be able to build a nuclear weapon.

President Barack Obama says he has accepted no such thing.

The question of how to deal with Iran's rapid advancement toward nuclear proficiency has become one of the most public differences between new administrations in Jerusalem and Washington, despite overall close relations.

Both Barak and Gates said time is short, and Gates stressed that any negotiations would not become cover for Iran to run out the clock while it perfects a nuclear weapon.

"I think we're in full agreement on the negative consequences of Iran obtaining this kind of capability," Gates said. "I think we are also agreed that it is important to take every opportunity to try and persuade the Iranians to reconsider what is actually in their own security interest. We are in the process of doing that."

Gates's brief visit to Israel was partially aimed at dissuading Israel from a pre-emptive attack on Iran's known nuclear sites, although Israel has never announced any specific intention to do that. Barak's no-options-off-the-table comment, uttered three times, seemed to indicate Gates made no visible headway in getting Israel to soften its line.

Obama pledged a new outreach to Iran during last year's presidential campaign. Aides say the recent election-related political upheaval in Iran has complicated, but not derailed, that effort.

Moreover, the United States argues that a strike would upset the fragile security balance in the Middle East, perhaps triggering a new nuclear arms race and leaving everyone, including Israel and Iran, worse off.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton implicitly urged Israel to set aside any plans it might have for attacking Iran, saying she hopes the Jewish state understands the value of American attempts at diplomacy.

Speaking on NBC's "Meet The Press," Clinton also said she would not reveal any specifics of a possible "defense umbrella" to protect Mideast allies against an eventual Iranian bomb.

The umbrella idea, which Clinton offhandedly mentioned last week, has fueled Israel's uncertainty over U.S. policy under Obama even though Clinton later backpedaled.

Iran says it is merely trying to develop nuclear reactors for domestic power generation. The U.S. and much of the rest of the world believes the Islamic regime is trying to build a nuclear weapon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said Sunday he hopes to work out key policy disagreements with the U.S. during a series of meetings with high-profile American envoys. Gates was the second of a parade of Americans coming to Israel this week, and the only one for whom Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements was not a primary topic.

Israel is under heavy pressure to freeze construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, land the Palestinians want for their eventual state and capital. Netanyahu has so far resisted, and the issue is a growing sore point between the U.S. and Israel.
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