Israel's Barak: election would not alter Iran plans

JERUSALEM Wed May 2, 2012 9:11am EDT

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The prospect of an imminent election in Israel will not affect its strategy for tackling Iran's nuclear program, including plans for a possible preemptive war, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday.

Rifts in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative coalition over military conscription and budget cuts have prompted parties to mobilize to bring forward the ballot to as early as September, a year ahead of schedule.

That has raised questions about whether an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites - long threatened, although viewed by some Netanyahu critics as a bluff - might now be shelved due to government reluctance to send potential voters to bomb shelters.

"Elections will not affect deliberations of the professional echelon in everything regarding the Iranian issue," Barak said on his Facebook page, adding that Israel still saw military force as among "options on the table".

Israel, reputed to have the region's sole atomic arsenal, has long said it would strike Iran to prevent it from getting nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.

The United States and European Union have sharply tightened economic sanctions on Iran this year, and have called on Israel to show restraint to give the new measures a chance to bite. Washington says it too would be willing to strike Iran as a last resort, but the White House believes it is too early to give up on diplomacy.

Nuclear talks between major powers and Iran, which broke down last year, restarted in Istanbul on April 14 and are expected to continue later this month in Baghdad.

Netanyahu's national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, was touring European capitals this week to hear arguments in favor of the six world powers' negotiations with Iran.

"We are telling him (Amidror) that we need time," a Western diplomat told Reuters, saying the goal was "verifiable compliance" by Iran with nuclear anti-proliferation safeguards.

Netanyahu and Barak have maintained a continuously hawkish stance in public towards Iran, but there are signs that the Israeli security establishment may not be keen on war.

In a rare public rebuke on Friday, Netanyahu's former internal security chief accused the prime minister and Barak of having a "messianic" policy, and of overstating their belligerence.

"A barking dog doesn't bite," Yuval Diskin said.

Surveys show Netanyahu's Likud party is likely to win the most seats in an election, but most Israelis would oppose going solo in an attack on Iran.

Israel could be vulnerable to cross-border missile salvoes from Iran and its guerrilla allies in retaliation for any strike. Fortification drives overseen by its Civil Defence Ministry have lagged, with the current minister, Matan Vilnai, due to step down in August and no successor in sight.

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff)

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