Israel's Netanyahu upbeat on Obama plans for Iran

(Adds Iran on Obama's statements, paragraphs 10-11)

TEL AVIV, Dec 8 (Reuters) - The man many tip to be Israel's next leader said on Monday he saw Barack Obama as serious about denying Iran nuclear arms, even though the U.S. president-elect made no mention of a military option in a weekend interview.

Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing party leads in polls before a Feb. 10 election, was responding to concerns raised by Israeli analysts that Obama did not explicitly say in televised remarks on Sunday that he could resort to force against Tehran if it did not bow to U.S. demands over its nuclear programme.

"President-elect Obama spoke to me about his view that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons is unacceptable," Netanyahu told Reuters in a brief interview.

"I say that what counts is the goal and the result that he envisions and the way that he achieves that goal is less important," said Netanyahu, a former prime minister.

"I was impressed by his commitment to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold...I have no doubt that that commitment is genuine and that he will follow through with it."

Israel's insistence that its Iranian enemy must not be allowed to develop an atomic bomb has fueled speculation that the Jewish state, widely assumed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, could mount its own pre-emptive strikes.

Obama said in the television interview that he would be willing to directly offer Iran economic incentives to stop pursuing nuclear technologies that have bomb-making potential, with the threat of tougher sanctions if it did not comply.

Contrasting his latest comments with the routine refusal of outgoing President George W. Bush to rule out a military option or talk to Tehran, some Israeli analysts saw Obama signalling that the next U.S. administration, already fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be reluctant to open up a third front.

"Not through Force," read a front-page headline in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest-selling newspaper.


Iran, which denies seeking nuclear weapons but whose stridently anti-Israel rhetoric has stoked regional war fears, was cool to the prospect of Obama's "carrot and stick" strategy.

"If their (Washington's) new stance is to remove concerns about Iran's nuclear activities, we are ready for that. But our new expectation is ... that they should recognise our right to nuclear technology," Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Despite speculation over an Israeli go-it-alone strike, many analysts believe that only the U.S. military has the clout to finish such a job and that any independent action by Israel would require at least tacit approval from Washington.

Netanyahu, currently opposition leader, is seen in Israel as more hawkish on Iran than his main rival for the premiership, centrist Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Three years ago, Netanyahu called for Israel to reprise, against Iran, its 1981 bombing of Iraq's main nuclear reactor. But more recently he has voiced a preference for pressing ahead with U.S.-led diplomatic and economic pressure on Tehran.

Asked if Israel might feel circumscribed by Obama, Netanyahu said: "I think that it's important that Israel and the United States have close consultations on this issue. This an issue that endangers Israel, endangers the United States, endangers the entire world and certainly endangers peace."

Many Israelis blame Iran, which backs the Islamist group Hamas, for disrupting peace efforts with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu has been dismissive of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's U.S.-sponsored negotiations with Hamas's secular rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who holds sway in the occupied West Bank while the Islamists control Gaza.

Palestinians remember Netanyahu's term as prime minister in the late 1990s as a time of only grudging diplomatic progress that deepened distrust between the sides. With a six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas now fraying, Netanyahu said he would abandon what he called the Olmert government's "passive response" to Gazan rocket attacks. But he pledged to pursue an economic development programme in parallel intended to "deprive militant Islam, Hamas and Iran, the foothold to sway the minds of young Palestinians". (Editing by Alastair Macdonald)