- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) — Israel does not intend to bomb Iran, Israel’s foreign minister said Wednesday in the most explicit comments on the matter to date by a top minister of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Speaking at the end of a three-day visit to Russia, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Tehran’s nuclear program is the world’s problem, not just Israel’s, and that its Arab neighbors should be even more concerned about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran than Israel is.

But he said those countries should not expect Israel to solve this problem for them.

The comments marked a softening of signals from Netanyahu’s hardline government — particularly coming from Lieberman, one its leading hawks.

“We do not intend to bomb Iran, and nobody will solve their problems with our hands,” Lieberman told reporters. “We don’t need that. Israel is a strong country, we can protect ourselves.

“But the world should understand that the Iran’s entrance into the nuclear club would prompt a whole arms race, a crazy race of unconventional weaponry across the Mideast that is a threat to the entire world order, a challenge to the whole international community,” he said, in Russian. “So we do not want a global problem to be solved with our hands.”

Netanyahu has repeatedly said Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and has refused to rule out the use of force.

After his recent meeting in Washington with President Barack Obama, Netanyahu said he and Obama agreed Iran must not obtain nuclear weapons, and attempts to solve the problem through negotiations could not be unlimited in time.

Iran, whose president has expressed hatred of Israel, maintains its nuclear programs are only designed to provide electricity. But Israel, the United States and other nations fear the effort is aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons.

Lieberman suggested Iran’s closer neighbors should be more concerned about a nuclear-armed Iran than Israel.

“It’s clearly not an Israeli problem — it’s the problem of the whole Middle East, and those who are most concerned about the Iranian nuclear problem are the Arab countries,” Lieberman said.

“I think that those Iran’s nuclear program frightens most of all are the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and all the others,” he said. “Iran is a factor of instability in the Middle East, without any connection with Israel.”

Lieberman also said that issues such as the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs and instability in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia pose greater global threats than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does — suggesting the United States should focus more on resolving other problems.

He spoke as Obama began his first Mideast trip as president.

Lieberman met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his Russian visit, the first since he — a Soviet native — became Israel’s foreign minister two months ago.

Israel wants Russia, which has close ties with Iran, to increase pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program. But his visit brought no sign of a shift in Russian policy on Iran or Moscow’s engagement with the violent Hamas group, which angers Israel.

“I won’t pretend that full mutual understanding can be reached in a single visit. Doubtless, there are disagreements.” Lieberman said. “But these disagreements were very clearly laid out and we will continue our dialogue with Russia.”

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