NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday that only a credible military threat can deter Iran from building a nuclear weapon, Israeli political sources said.
In comments signaling growing Israeli impatience with diplomacy, the sources said Netanyahu, beginning a five-day U.S. visit, argued that economic sanctions have failed to persuade Iran to stop its nuclear program.
However, Biden said after the talks that the sanctions “have a bite” and were having a “measurable impact,” though he expressed frustration that Tehran had brushed aside overtures by President Barack Obama’s administration.
Netanyahu and Biden met on the sidelines of an American Jewish conference in New Orleans, and also discussed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks suspended in a dispute over building in settlements in the West Bank.
“The only way to ensure that Iran will not go nuclear is to create a credible threat of military action against it if it doesn’t cease its race for a nuclear weapon,” one of the sources said Netanyahu told Biden.
“The economic sanctions are making it difficult for Iran, but there is no sign that the Ayatollah regime plans to stop its nuclear program because of them.”
In remarks to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, Biden said the door to diplomacy remains open for Iran “but there is a price to walk through that door — acting rationally.”
“We continue to seek a peaceful resolution and to hope Iranian leaders will reconsider their current destructive and debilitating course,” he said. “But let me be very clear about this: We are also absolutely committed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
The tough talk from the Israelis swiftly raised speculation in Israeli media that Netanyahu, who has rebuffed U.S. and international calls to reimpose a freeze on building in West Bank settlements, was trying to shift the focus of his visit away from stalemate.
The West believes that Iran aims to use its uranium enrichment program to build atomic weapons, and both Israel and the United States have said all options are on the table in dealing with its nuclear ambitions.
But Netanyahu had made clear that Israel wanted to see if tough economic sanctions could eliminate what it has described as a threat against its existence.
Tehran denies it is out to produce nuclear arms.
A fuller discussion on Israeli-Palestinian issues will await Netanyahu’s scheduled meeting in New York on Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, one of the sources said.
During his U.S. visit, Netanyahu will not see Obama, who is on a 10-day trip to Asia.
“Agreement or not, our commitment to your security is unconditional and complete,” one of the Israeli sources quoted Biden as telling Netanyahu.
Biden said later the United States and Israel had a “critical strategic relationship” and it is “one in which we will not yield one single inch.”
A 10-month moratorium on housing starts in West Bank settlements expired in late September, some three weeks after direct peace talks began in Washington. Clinton said on Thursday she was working nonstop to break the deadlock.
Diplomats said Washington has offered Israel a package of incentives, including ideas on security, to persuade Netanyahu to resume a partial settlement freeze for two months.
The proposals included U.S. backing for Netanyahu’s demand for an Israeli military presence along the Jordan river, the likely eastern border of a future Palestinian state.
But Israeli leaders have balked at what the political sources said was the package’s vague time frame for the troop deployment, which Palestinians oppose.
A top Palestinian official said last week the Palestinians would give the United States several more weeks to try to relaunch direct peace talks with Israel.
Netanyahu flies to New York on Monday after speaking to the Jewish Federations conference and will raise in a meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Israel’s objection to any unilateral statehood moves at the U.N. by the Palestinians, an Israeli official said.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan in Washington; Editing by Christopher Wilson