JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s prime minister and defence minister would like to attack Iran’s nuclear sites before the U.S. election in November but lack crucial support within their cabinet and military, an Israeli newspaper said on Friday.
The front-page report in the biggest-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth came amid mounting speculation - fuelled by media leaks from both the government and its detractors at home and abroad - that war with Iran could be imminent even though it might rupture the bedrock ties between Israel and the United States.
“Were it up to Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, an Israeli military strike on the nuclear facilities in Iran would take place in the coming autumn months, before the November election in the United States,” Yedioth said in the article by its two senior commentators, which appeared to draw on discussions with the defence minister but included no direct quotes.
Spokesmen for Prime Minister Netanyahu and Barak declined to comment.
Yedioth said the top Israeli leaders had failed to win over other security cabinet ministers for a strike on Iran now, against a backdrop of objections by the armed forces given the big tactical and strategic hurdles such an operation would face.
“The respect which in the past formed a halo around prime ministers and defence ministers and helped them muster a majority for military decisions, is gone, no more,” Yedioth said. “Either the people are different, or the reality is different.”
Israel has long threatened to attack its arch-foe, seeing a mortal menace in Iranian nuclear advances and dwindling opportunities to deal them a blow with its limited military clout. Washington has urged Israel to give diplomacy more time.
The war talk is meant, in part, to stiffen sanctions on Tehran - which denies seeking the bomb and says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes - by conflict-wary world powers. Israel and the United States have publicly sought to play down their differences, the latter saying military force would be a last-ditch option against Iran.
A Reuters survey in March found that most Americans would support such action, by their government or Israel’s, should there be evidence Iran was building nuclear weapons - even if the result was a rise in gas prices.
But U.S. President Barack Obama, seeking re-election in November, has counselled against what he would deem premature Israeli unilateralism. He recently sent top officials to try to close ranks with the conservative Netanyahu.
Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, an old friend of Netanyahu who casts himself as a more reliable bulwark for Israeli security, also visited Jerusalem last month.
The Yedioth article said, without citing sources, that some government advisers in Israel and the United States believed a pre-November strike might “embarrass Obama and contribute to Romney’s chances of being elected.”
Yedioth said the aim of an initial Israeli attack on Iran could be to trigger an escalation that would draw in superior U.S. forces - but described Barak as dismissive of this theory.
“He believes that America will not go to war, but will do everything in its power to stop it. It will give Israel the keys to its emergency (munitions) stores, which were set up in Israel in the past. Israel needs no more than this,” Yedioth said.
Netanyahu, apparently trying to avoid being seen as meddling in U.S. politics, has voiced gratitude for cross-partisan support of Israel in Washington, while insisting his country remains responsible for its own security.
Haaretz, an influential liberal Israeli newspaper, quoted an unnamed senior official in the Netanyahu government as saying the Jewish state - widely assumed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal - potentially faced a greater danger from Iran than on the eve of its 1967 war with several Arab neighbours.
That thinking seems to be gaining ground domestically.
A poll published on Friday by the mass-circulation Maariv daily found that 41 percent of Israelis saw no chance of non-military pressure on Iran succeeding, versus 22 percent who thought diplomacy could work.
While 39 percent of Maariv’s respondents said dealing with Iran should be left to the United States and other world powers, 35 percent said they would support Israel going it alone as a last resort - up from previous polls that found around 20 percent support for the unilateral option.
Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Tim Pearce