Barak: US now shares Israel’s sense of urgency on Iran, but there are ‘differences’ on how to go forward

Defense minister denies warning received from Saudi Arabia that it would shoot down Israeli planes en route to Iran attack

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, in Washington DC, in May. (Photo credit: Chad J McNeely/Ministry of Defence/FLASH90)
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, in Washington DC, in May. (Photo credit: Chad J McNeely/Ministry of Defence/FLASH90)

The United States estimate of Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons is closer now than it was in the past to Israel’s assessment, and reflects a greater sense of urgent imperative to thwart the Iranian nuclear drive, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Thursday.

He spoke amid reports that the American intelligence community has produced a new National Intelligence Estimate, recently presented to President Barack Obama, which details “alarming” intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program, including marked progress on key elements of its weaponization drive.

The defense minister told Israel Radio the US and Israel saw eye-to-eye as regards the need to ensure Iran did not attain nuclear weapons, and that “all options” are on the table. There were “certain differences” between the US and Israel about the operative consequences of that shared assessment, but these differences were overstated in media reports.

Nonetheless, he said, Israel would decide for itself on matters, such as thwarting Iran, that affected the security and future of the country.

To that end, he added, he had received no message from the Americans to the effect that Saudi Arabia has warned it will shoot down any Israeli warplanes that enter its airspace in the course of an attack on Iran. Of course, he noted, Saudi Arabia is a sovereign nation and has every right to make its own sovereign decisions.

The new NIE report, the daily newspaper Haaretz reported Thursday, is a 180-degree turn from the last NIE on Iran, in 2007, which reported that Iran had frozen its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and had not returned to it.

Barak derided the notion that he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would alone determine whether or not to strike at Iran. If he and Netanyahu reached any decision, he said, it would need to be brought before the cabinet for approval.

On other matters, Barak said the Egyptian government had the ability to quash terrorism in the Sinai, but time would tell if it was prepared to do so. He said he was concerned, in the long-term, about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt, but also said he did not see the Israel-Egypt peace treaty “unraveling” so fast.

He said the treaty had benefited both countries, and remained their shared interest. For Israel, the security and economic benefits had been dramatic. The defense budget fell from 30 percent of the national budget to 12% as a consequence of the treaty, he said.

Given the rise of the Brotherhood in the region, he added, there was ever-greater urgency to make progress with the secular Palestinian leadership. The Brotherhood’s rise was boosting Hamas, he said, and for all the difficulties of working with Mahmoud Abbas, Israel’s interests required that it “seek every path to make progress” — if necessary, toward some kind of interim accord with the Palestinian Authority.

He acknowledged that “not all members” of the government shared that view. But the alternative, he said, was a “slide” into a one-state solution that would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.

On Syria, Barak reiterated his sense that President Bashar Assad’s fall is inevitable, but said the longer Assad held onto power, the greater the chaos that would follow. He did not rule out Assad seeking to carve out an enclave of his own in Alawite-populated northern Syria, “if he is not killed.”

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