- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top deputies have not formally asked for U.S. aid or permission for possible military strikes on Iran’s nuclear program, fearing the White House would not approve, two Israeli officials said.

One senior Israeli official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, told The Washington Times that Mr. Netanyahu determined that “it made no sense” to press the matter after the negative response President Bush gave Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, when he asked early last year for U.S. aid for possible military strikes on Iran.

Israel is increasingly nervous that Iran is developing the capability to build a nuclear weapon, an intention Iran denies. However, Israel is unlikely to attack Iran without at least tacit U.S. approval, in part because that would require cooperation from the United States. At the very least, Israel likely would have to fly over Iraqi airspace, which is still effectively controlled by the U.S. Air Force.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. refused during a television appearance Sunday to say whether the U.S. would give Israel overflight rights for such an attack, but said it was Israel’s “sovereign right” to attack Iran if it considers the Iranian nuclear program an existential threat.

“There is no pressure from any nation that’s going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed,” he told ABC’s “This Week.”

Mr. Biden said the U.S. was pursuing a diplomatic route, but, “If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice.”

Despite the political upheaval in Iran since the disputed June 12 presidential elections there, the Obama administration says it is still seeking negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue. In early May, as The Times reported last month, the White House sent a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, asking for talks and improved relations.

White House officials have declined to confirm or deny the existence of the letter, and they also declined to comment on the substance of discussions between U.S. and Israeli officials on Iran.

A senior Israeli official said that Israel has not asked for U.S. aid or permission because the Netanyahu government doesn’t want to risk being told “no.”

“There was a decision not to press this because it was probably inadequate for the engagement policy and what we know about Obama’s approach to Iran,” he said.

Mr. Netanyahu’s private diplomatic posture differs from his public stance during his campaign. He ran for office earlier this year on a promise to do whatever was necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. In March, Mr. Netanyahu told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons was one of two great challenges facing the Obama presidency. He also implied in the interview that Israel would act if the United States did not.

Kenneth Pollack, acting director for the Saban Center for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, said “the Israelis have made it clear that they are going to allow this diplomatic process to work out, and even if they conclude that it has failed, they don’t want to attack Iran. But the problem is they may feel they have no other choice but to do so.”

Mr. Pollack added that “Israel has a real problem with the distance from Israeli air bases to Iranian targets. And the shortest route from Israel to Iran is over Jordan and Iraq. And the United States is responsible for Iraqi airspace.”

David Sanger of the New York Times reported in January that Israel asked the Bush administration for overflight rights and other technical assistance for a possible bombing campaign against Iran but was rebuffed. Instead, Mr. Sanger reported, the Bush administration stepped up clandestine operations aimed at disrupting Iran’s nuclear program and other scientific infrastructure.

Thus far, the Israelis have opted to hew closely to President Obama’s line on Iran.

Last week, Israel’s national security adviser, Uzi Arad, met with his American counterparts in a meeting of a special working group on Iran. The Washington Times first reported the formation of such a working group in May when Mr. Netanyahu met with Mr. Obama at the White House.

Iran has not responded to U.S. overtures for talks, and the Obama administration has offered few specifics about the consequences to Iran if the U.S. offer is spurned.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said there would be “crippling sanctions” but has offered no details. Mr. Obama told Mr. Netanyahu that he would assess the diplomatic-engagement strategy at the end of the calendar year. Reports in the Israeli press over the weekend predicted that the White House will not press for new international sanctions this week at a meeting in Italy of the Group of Eight industrialized nations.

David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that “while Israel is the only country existentially threatened by Iran, it understands that American interests are impacted. As such, I don’t think Israel would attack Iran out of the blue.”

Mr. Makovsky is the co-author of “Myths, Illusions and Peace,” with Dennis Ross, now a senior U.S. policymaker on Iran and the broader Middle East at the White House National Security Council.

Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said that if Israel were to give the United States advance notice of its intention to strike Iran, it would be risking a “red light.”

“That could force the president to choose Israel’s security over his desired rapprochement with Iran. An ugly and dangerous outcome for all concerned,” she said.

Iran’s nuclear program is dispersed, and parts of it may be hidden, making it difficult for Israel or the United States to destroy all the installations. In addition, a strike could provoke Iranian retaliation against both Israeli and U.S. targets, including U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran might also attack Arab oil installations or U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that a U.S. strike on Iran would be “very destabilizing,” as would a nuclear Iran.