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Analysis: As Biden visits, Israel keeps Iran fears in mind

To force US action on Iran's nukes, Netanyahu may need to concede in talks with Palestinians.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden reviews a guard of honor alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prior to their meeting on March 10, 2010, in Ramallah, West Bank. Biden is in the Middle East to meet with Palestinian and Israeli leaders, including Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres, before traveling to Jordan. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders would like nothing better than to smash Iran’s putative nuclear capability with a swift bombing raid. Trouble is, most Israeli military and political chiefs are doubtful it could be done and fear the broader consequences of any attempt.

That might make for uncomfortable times down the road for Israel when it comes in the range of Iranian nukes. But it also could lead to domestic political conflict over the peace talks with the Palestinians, which U.S. mediators announced this week will restart in the coming days.

Israeli observers fear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make concessions to the Palestinians to buy favor with Washington, in the hope that he’ll be able to persuade President Barack Obama to take a much tougher line on sanctions — or even military action — against Iran.

“Talks on Iran and talks on the Palestinian state are now combined,” said Hanan Shay, former head of the Israeli army’s command and control branch and now senior lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College. “But you mustn’t buy an agreement from the U.S. that protects Israel on the one track, when you also do things that put Israel at risk on the other track.”

Israeli military and intelligence officials have long talked of a potential attack on Iranian nuclear targets, emphasizing a similarity to the historic importance of the 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor by the Israeli air force and the effectiveness of a bombing raid just over two years ago against a purported Syrian military nuclear site. But they’ve also consistently acknowledged that such an attack would be far harder to pull off against Iran, and that success or failure could lead to an unpredictable diplomatic and military response from a range of countries.

In an interview with an Israeli newspaper before his arrival Monday for a weeklong visit to the region, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden said that “a nuclear-armed Iran would constitute a threat not only to Israel — it would also constitute a threat to the United States.”

The response to Biden’s comments from most Israeli political and intelligence figures is, in private, uniform: if you’re so threatened, Mister Vice President, why don’t you seem more worried about it?

Biden’s visit has so far provided no answer.