JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A nuclear-armed Iran would not be capable of destroying Israel, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Thursday in remarks that departed from long-running Israeli arguments about the threat posed by its foe.
“Right now, Iran does not have a bomb. Even if it did, this would not make it a threat to Israel’s existence. Israel can lay waste to Iran,” Barak said in a transcript of a newspaper interview obtained by Reuters before publication on Friday.
Israeli leaders have repeatedly sounded alarms over Iran’s atomic ambitions, pointing at President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s calls for the Jewish state to be “wiped off the map” and support for Islamist guerrilla groups arrayed along Israel’s borders.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-winger who brought the center-left Barak into his coalition government, said he saw “eye to eye” with the defense minister -- signaling a possible change in Israel’s official rhetoric as world powers prepare to revive diplomatic engagement with Iran next month.
Tehran says its nuclear plans are peaceful and has resisted U.S.-led diplomatic pressure to curb its uranium enrichment, a process with bomb-making potential. Israel is assumed to have the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal, developed in secret as a safeguard against a repeat of the World War Two Nazi genocide.
“I don’t think we are on the brink of a new Holocaust,” Barak said in his interview with Yedioth Ahronoth daily.
“Say Saudi Arabia buys, at some stage, two bombs. This would not mean it’s all over for the country. Furthermore, I think Iran is a challenge for Israel and for the whole world. Now is the time for a diplomatic effort and toughened-up sanctions.”
U.S. President Barack Obama has offered Tehran negotiations without preconditions but said he sought progress by year’s end.
Failing that, Israel has urged sanctions targeting Iran’s sensitive energy sector, but Russia and China are expected to block any such resolution at the U.N. Security Council.
Israel, which bombed an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and carried out a similar sortie against Syria in 2007, as hinted at preemptive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities if it deems diplomacy a dead end. The United States has also not ruled out military intervention as a last resort.
“I would like to make clear that all options are open. We are not taking any options off the table,” Barak said in the interview transcript, which was supplied by his office.
Barak’s comments were excerpted in Yedioth on Thursday and drew a supportive, if more cautious, response from Netanyahu.
“I know that we see eye to eye on this challenge and on this danger. It is certainly a very great danger,” he told Israel’s Channel Two television.
“But I think that what the defense minister wanted to say, something that I believe, is that the State of Israel will be able to defend itself in any situation,” Netanyahu said.
“I can say to you that we must make a great effort, and are making a great effort, to persuade the international community that this problem is not just our problem.”
Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Angus MacSwan