JERUSALEM Israel test-fired a missile from a military base on Wednesday, two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of the "direct and heavy threat" posed by Iran's nuclear program.
The noon launch near Tel Aviv, which had not been announced in advance, coincided with a week-long surge of speculation in local media that Netanyahu was working to secure cabinet consensus for an attack on Israel's arch-foe.
Netanyahu's office declined comment on the reports, which were unsourced and unconfirmed, and which some commentators suggested might be disinformation designed to jolt war-wary foreign powers into stepping up sanctions against Tehran.
The Defense Ministry described the launch from Palmachim base as the test of the propulsion system of a missile on which it declined to elaborate.
"This is an impressive technological achievement and an important step in Israel's advances in the realms of missiles and space, which has been a long time in the planning," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement.
Israel Radio's military affairs correspondent, who is regularly briefed by top officials on Defense matters, said a "ballistic missile" had been launched. The term generally applies to long-range missiles for delivering warheads.
Israel is widely assumed to have such weapons, known as Jerichos, as well as Shavit rockets for putting satellites into orbit. It has also, with U.S. help, been upgrading its Arrow aerial shield, which uses interceptor missiles to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles above the atmosphere.
The missile fired from Palmachim flew at a high angle skyward, witnesses told local media several minutes before the Defense Ministry formally announced the launch.
Dan Meridor, minister for nuclear and intelligence affairs and a member of Netanyahu's eight-man inner cabinet, played down the relevance of the launch to Israel's view on Iran.
"The two things are separate," he told Army Radio.
Meridor lambasted as "unconscionable" a flurry of newspaper and television discussions, triggered by a front-page report in the biggest-selling Yedioth Ahronoth daily, about the possibility that Netanyahu and Barak were secretly planning, against the counsel of their security chiefs, to attack Iran.
Three other members of the inner cabinet similarly denounced the Israeli media on Wednesday. None denied the speculation outright, and one minister, Benny Begin, accused former Defense officials of leaking classified information.
Iran, which denies wanting to make nuclear bombs, wants Israel's demise, prompting Netanyahu to liken it to the Nazis -- potent rhetoric for a Jewish state born of the Holocaust.
"A nuclear Iran will pose a serious threat to the Middle East and the entire world, and it of course poses a direct and heavy threat to us," Netanyahu said in a parliamentary address on Monday, echoing comments he has made in the past.
Netanyahu gave no hint of what action Israel might take. He has said that all options are on the table in trying to stop Iran from building nuclear arms.
Raviv Drucker, political commentator for Israel's Channel 10 television, saw both diplomatic and domestic gains for Netanyahu in the media focus on a military option, which follows an October 18 prisoner swap with Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.
Israel also hopes to help stiffen international sanctions on the Iranians around an upcoming publication by the U.N. nuclear watchdog that Western diplomats say will include intelligence about military aspects to their nuclear project. [nL5E7LO18Y]
"This speculation works rather well for Netanyahu, as he can be portrayed as keen to deal with Iran, but is being 'held back' by others in the (Israeli) establishment," Drucker said.
The Israelis bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981 and launched a similar sortie against Syria in 2007, precedents lending weight to their veiled threats to take similar action on Iran if foreign pressure fails to curb its uranium enrichment.
But many independent analysts see the mission as too much for Israel to take on alone against Iran.
Though reputed to have the Middle East's sole atomic arsenal along with a technologically superior air force, Israel lacks long-range bombers which could deliver lasting damage to Iran's distant, dispersed and fortified facilities.
"The military option (against Iran) is not an empty threat, but Israel should not leap to lead it. The whole thing should be lead by the United States, and as a last resort," Moshe Yaalon, Israel's strategic affairs minister, told Army Radio on Tuesday.
By contrast to the intensity of the public discourse around Iran, Israel's strikes on Iraq and Syria were surprises. Israeli officials still refuse to discuss the latter raid, against a desert site the United States described as a North Korean-supplied reactor, amid denials from Damascus.
(Writing by Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Louise Ireland)