Israel's Netanyahu to visit U.S. next month

JERUSALEM Sun Feb 5, 2012 1:10pm EST

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit Washington next month, his office said Sunday, amid heightened speculation that Israel might attack Iranian nuclear facilities despite U.S. reservations.

Netanyahu is to address the annual policy conference of the influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, which will be held in the U.S. capital on March 4-6, an official statement said.

It did not say whether he would hold talks with U.S. President Barack Obama but Israeli political sources said a meeting was likely during the visit.

There was also no official word on whether Netanyahu would see any Republican presidential hopefuls, some of whom have accused Obama of a lack of commitment to Israel's security, an allegation White House officials deny.

U.S. and European officials have said the Obama administration is increasingly concerned about Israeli leaders' recent strong public comments on Iran's atomic ambitions and a lack of information from Israel about its plans.

Netanyahu and Obama, who have had a frosty relationship, last held face-to-face talks in September on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Israeli political commentators have speculated that Netanyahu could opt for bold moves on Iran, believing that Obama would be reluctant to oppose him for fear of angering pro-Israel voters as the U.S. November election nears.

But an Israeli attack could also have serious consequences for the U.S. economy, and Obama's re-election prospects, should Iran retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz and choking off oil shipments.

Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak cautioned publicly that Tehran's nuclear program was reaching "the immunity stage" where atomic facilities would be sheltered against any effective military attack.

"Those who say 'later' may find that later is too late," Barak said, an indirect reference to the prevailing view in Washington that strengthened international sanctions against Iran should be given sufficient time to work.

Fuelling the debate, David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist, reported that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta believed there was a "strong likelihood" Israel would attack Iranian nuclear installations within the next six months, as early as April.

In an attempt to mute some of the rhetoric that has alarmed Washington, Netanyahu, with reporters present, told cabinet ministers from his Likud party at a meeting on Sunday: "I ask you not to comment on the Iranian issue, neither publicly nor on background."

Also Sunday, Amir Eshel, a general who has cautioned publicly that Israel could not deal a knock-out blow to its enemies, including Iran, in any regional conflict was named chief of Israel's air force.

In his role as the country's top military planner, Eshel declined to answer reporters directly last month when asked about the possibility of such an attack, which could spark a broader conflict.

"We have the ability to hit very, very hard, any adversary," he said, but added that people often have "romantic views about knock-outs, like in boxing. One of the sides is lying on the ground, you count to ten and that's it. This is not the case anymore. This won't be the case."

Iran has vowed to hit back at any country involved in a strike against its territory. And in that case its allies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip would be likely to open fronts against Israel, as well.

Netanyahu has called a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat against Israel. Along with the United States, he has said all options are open in preventing Tehran from building atomic weapons.

Iran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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