* Israeli leader fears pressure might lift from Iran
* Netanyahu seeks to impose conditions for nuclear deal
* Military warning sounds hollow after years of threats
By Dan Williams
NEW YORK, Oct 4 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu said this week that Iran's new president was a "wolf
in sheep's clothing", but he himself looked increasingly like a
lone wolf as his allies seek to bring Tehran into the fold.
After years of worrying about Iran's disputed nuclear
ambitions, Netanyahu took to the stage at the U.N. General
Assembly on Tuesday and made his most explicit threat yet to
attack the Islamic republic unless it ends its atomic programme.
However, his warning carried less weight than in previous
years, with only a dwindling band of diplomats and experts
convinced that Israel might unleash its warplanes, especially at
a time of warming ties between Iran and the rest of the world.
One Western diplomat involved in Iranian nuclear diplomacy
described Netanyahu as "out of step" with the mood of detente
and a former senior U.S. official cautioned that Israel would be
unlikely to secure all its demands in any negotiations.
An additional concern for Netanyahu, who relishes his time
in the international spotlight, was that world attention was
focused elsewhere, notably on the U.S. government shutdown.
This was particularly noticeable when Netanyahu met U.S.
President Barack Obama on Monday as part of his mission to
undermine an Iranian diplomatic drive to build warmer relations
with the United States and other Western powers and to prevent
any swift easing of economic sanctions on Tehran.
Although the U.S. president took pains to agree with his
guest, his more pressing concern - as reflected by the sole
question taken from reporters covering the White House meeting -
was the political paralysis gripping Washington.
"Israel needs to be taken seriously and Netanyahu did his
best," said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow at the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy. "But his message might have
become diluted and in terms of getting it heard, I am not sure
he succeeded. The timing was not his choice."
While Netanyahu still enjoys broad support at home for his
unyielding approach, aides said he worried that Western powers,
impressed by more clement rhetoric from new Iranian President
Hassan Rouhani, will "fumble the ball" and let Iran reach a
point where it could rapidly put together a nuclear weapon.
The United States and Israel accuse Iran of seeking to
develop an atomic bomb. Tehran says its nuclear programme is for
peaceful purposes only and Rouhani has projected a moderate
image for his country since taking office in August.
Later this month, Iran will meet the P5+1 - the five
permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany - in Geneva
to resume negotiations aimed at resolving the years-old nuclear
Netanyahu's message, a senior Israeli official said, was
that world powers should "cut the crap" - see through what
Israel regards as Iranian deception. That reflects the prime
minister's concern that there could be a swift easing of
sanctions before Iran dismantles any nuclear infrastructure.
Not a member of the international negotiating team, the
Israeli leader nonetheless laid out his conditions for a deal,
including shutting down all Iranian uranium enrichment
facilities and shipping out all its stocks of fissile material.
Such a comprehensive nuclear rollback looks highly unlikely,
meaning Netanyahu will have to calibrate his expectations.
"Negotiating means there will have to be some give on both
sides," said Gary Samore, until recently the top nuclear
proliferation expert on Obama's national security staff.
"I think it's unlikely that we are in a position to dictate
to the Iranians that they have to meet all of our demands."
While Obama has said he is determined to prevent Iran from
possessing a bomb, Israel argues that Tehran is working toward
what is called nuclear latency, whereby it would not actually
make a nuclear device but would have all the elements required
to build a first weapon at a few weeks' notice, too short a time
for effective foreign intervention.
That has left Israeli and U.S. planners trying to agree on
what limits should remain on Iran's nuclear programme in
exchange for any eventual easing of sanctions.
There was no suggestion this week that such an accord was
reached, but Gilad Erdan, a minister accompanying Netanyahu on
his trip, played down the differences between the allies.
"I don't think there are large gaps between the U.S.
administration's position and ours," he said. "We may not see
eye to eye on everything, but there is certainly agreement and
common interests in the greater goal of stopping a nuclear-armed
However, a diplomat from one of the P5+1 countries directly
involved in the negotiations with Tehran stressed that while
Israel's view was important, it did not have power of veto.
"Israel will not be in the room if and when a deal is done,"
said the diplomat, who declined to be named. "We take Israeli
concerns very seriously. But I have a feeling that Netanyahu is
slightly out of step with other nations at the moment."
CONFUSION AND CREDIBILITY
Israel has always maintained that only a combination of
strong sanctions and credible military threat would convince
Iran to back down and renounce its nuclear ambitions.
While Washington has said the military option remains on the
table, Israeli officials expressed alarm last month when Obama
suddenly backed off striking Syria, seemingly going against a
pledge to attack if Damascus deployed chemical weapons.
In that context, Netanyahu, who says a nuclear-armed Iran
would threaten Israel's very existence, put the notion of a
unilateral Israeli strike, without U.S. backing, to the fore in
his U.N. address.
"I want there to be no confusion on this point. Israel will
not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons," he said. "If Israel is
forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone."
After years of implicit threats, Netanyahu's explicit threat
did not generate many headlines around the world.
Though believed to have the Middle East's only atomic
arsenal, Israel lacks the conventional means to deliver lasting
damage to Iran's increasingly well-defended nuclear sites.
"The optimal operational opportunity that Netanyahu had to
physically attack the Iranian nuclear capability was in the
years 2008-2010," columnist Alex Fishman wrote in top-selling
Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. "And he missed it."
However, Fishman said that unlike in recent years, Netanyahu
now had political backing within his core security cabinet for a
strike should he decide to go it alone.
The right-wing Israeli leader will also be bolstered by an
opinion poll published on Friday in Israel Hayom newspaper,
which showed 65.6 percent of voters saying they supported his
statement that Israel was ready to stand alone against Iran.
But Israeli officials make no secret of the fact they would
prefer the U.S. superpower to take the lead in any use of force
and during his half-day in Washington, Netanyahu made sure to
visit Capitol Hill - scene of Obama's short-lived bid to muster
the support of U.S. lawmakers for an attack on Syria.
Netanyahu has many friends in the U.S. Congress and some of
his key security officials believe that despite the reticence
shown by lawmakers for action against Damascus, they would
nonetheless rally to Israel's support in a showdown with Iran.
Yaari, of the Washington Institute, said: "When Netanyahu
was addressing the United Nations, he was basically talking to
Obama and Congress - telling them what is the right kind of deal