(Adds Mofaz spokeswoman)
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, June 8 (Reuters) - Israeli defence officials and political pundits rounded on Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz on Sunday after he threatened attacks against Iran, accusing him of exploiting war jitters to advance his personal ambitions.
Mofaz, a former armed forces chief and likely challenger to the Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in their Kadima party, said in a newspaper interview last week that Israeli strikes on Iran looked "unavoidable" given progress in its nuclear plans.
The remarks helped drive up oil prices by nearly 9 percent to a record $139 a barrel on Friday and drew a circumspect response from Washington, which has championed U.N. sanctions against Iran and only hinted force could also be a last resort.
While the White House suggested Mofaz was giving voice to the Jewish state’s fear of the Islamic republic, officials in Israel’s Defence Ministry pointed to a power-struggle roiling centrist Kadima as Olmert tries to beat off a bribery scandal.
"Turning one of the most strategic security issues into a political game, using it for the internal purposes of a would-be campaign in Kadima, is something that must not be done," Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai told Israel Radio.
The state-owned broadcaster quoted another senior defence official as saying Mofaz’s interview "did not reflect policy" and "risked making it even harder for Israel to persuade more countries to step up their sanctions against Iran".
Asked about the flurry of criticism, Mofaz aide Talia Somech said he had spoken "out of his more than 40-year-long commitment to the national security of Israel".
"We would like his statements to be taken at face value, and not be given alternative interpretations," she told Reuters.
Iranian-born Mofaz had served as defence minister until Olmert made him transport minister in a 2006 cabinet reshuffle.
Though Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons, the virulently anti-Israel statements of its government pose a challenge for Israeli leaders, who must at once reassure their public while trying to keep in sync with U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Israel, which is assumed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal, bombed an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and, last September, a Syrian target which the Bush administration described as a North Korean-built reactor. Damascus denied having such a facility.
But many independent analysts say Iran’s nuclear sites are too numerous, distant and fortified for Israel to take on alone. Iran, for its part, has threatened to retaliate for any attack with missile salvoes against Israel and U.S. assets in the Gulf.
The mass-circulation Israeli daily Maariv devoted a full spread to the fallout from Mofaz’s interview with the rival Yedioth Ahronoth. Maariv’s headlines — "Big Mouth", "Demonstrable Damage" and "Boomerang" — made clear its views.
"Were Mofaz defence minister today, he would demand that the transport minister be fired forthwith," wrote Maariv’s Ben Caspit. "Suddenly, (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad is the underdog. Iran is on the defensive from crazed Jews."
There was agreement from Yedioth’s economic analyst, Sever Plotzker, who suggested that Mofaz was, paradoxically, giving a back-end boost to Iran — the world fourth-biggest oil producer:
"Blathering away about how ‘we’ll attack and destroy you’ does not deter the decision-makers in Tehran, but it does drive the oil markets crazy ... And who profits from that? Tehran." (Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)