JERUSALEM (AP) – Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in remarks published Monday that he would support a pre-emptive strike against Iran”s nuclear program, the first time an Israeli leader has openly called for military action against the Islamic republic.
Netanyahu”s comments, made in the heat of a campaign for leadership of the hardline Likud Party, drew criticism from rivals, who accused him of playing politics with the country”s security.
Israeli leaders have repeatedly identified Iran as the biggest threat to Israel and dismissed Tehran”s claim that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. Iran”s announcement Monday that it plans to build a second nuclear power plant is likely to heighten the Israeli concerns.
Although Netanyahu is considered a long shot for the prime minister”s post, his remarks threatened to escalate growing tensions with Iran and signaled the Iranian nuclear program will be an important campaign issue ahead of Israel”s March 28 general election.
Netanyahu said Israel should follow the example of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who ordered an airstrike on an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
"I will continue the tradition established by Menachem Begin, who did not allow Iraq to develop such a nuclear threat against Israel, and by a daring and courageous act gave us two decades of tranquility," Netanyahu told the Maariv daily. "I believe that this is what Israel has to do."
Netanyahu said the Iranian program "is a genuine threat to the very existence of Israel," adding "Iran cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear threat against Israel." He said he would support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a bitter political enemy, if he were to carry out a pre-emptive strike. "If it is not done by the present government I intend to lead the next government and to stop this threat. I will take every step required to avoid a situation in which Iran can threaten us with nuclear weapons."
Netanyahu”s spokesman was not immediately available to confirm the comments. But similar remarks were reported in other Israeli newspapers as well Monday.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, a rival in the Likud race, called Netanyahu”s comments irresponsible. "These inflammatory statements endanger the very security of Israel," Mofaz told Maariv. "The nuclear issue has to be taken out of the election campaign."
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, another Likud contender, called on the international community to refer the Iranian nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council. "Only there sanctions can be imposed, and only there can we block the Iranian attempt to develop nuclear weapons."
Sharon recently quit Likud to form a new centrist party that is widely expected to win the March elections. The odds of Netanyahu or any of the other Likud hopefuls becoming prime minister appear to be slim.
Sharon says the world must not acquiesce to a nuclear Iran, but has said diplomacy remains the first line of defense. Sharon has not said what should be done if diplomacy fails, though some officials have hinted that military action is an option.
Experts say a unilateral military strike against Iran would be extremely difficult. In contrast to the Iraqi reactor, Iran”s nuclear installations are spread out throughout the country. And Arab nations like Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to permit Israel to use their air space to carry out an attack.
Still, tensions have been rising since Iran”s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said in October that Israel must be "wiped off the map." Israel”s concerns were compounded by reports last week that Russia is selling Iran missiles and other defense systems.
On Friday, Israel successfully tested its Arrow missile defense system, shooting down a missile similar to Iran”s Shahab-3, which potentially could be equipped with a nuclear warhead to reach Israel.
Iran is under intense international pressure to curb its nuclear program, which the United States claims is part of an effort to produce weapons. Iran says its program is limited to generating electricity.
While Iran has frozen its enrichment program, it restarted uranium conversion, a step toward enrichment, in August. Enrichment is a process that can produce fuel for either nuclear reactors or atomic bombs.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has warned Iran that its nuclear program could be referred to the Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions on the country.
The United States and European Union want Iran to permanently halt uranium enrichment. But Tehran says the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty allows it to pursue a nuclear program for peaceful purposes. It has said it will never give up the right to enrich uranium to produce nuclear fuel.