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Israel continues to talk about war with Iran. But is the rhetoric just part of a carefully calibrated strategy to avoid conflict?
JERUSALEM — Despite recent reports of a rift between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over how to deal with Iran's nuclear program, there are growing indications that the two — and other western leaders — may in fact be acting in concert.
A flurry of statements by Israeli and western leaders in the past two days have menaced Iran with military action while encouraging it to avoid that by entering negotiations with the West.
The crux of the matter is Iran's nuclear ambition, which Israel, the United States and Europe claim is aimed at creating a bomb. Iran maintains its reactors serve civilian purposes.
"We believe the international community is capable of stopping Iran and it's just a matter of determination and of being firm," said Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's hardline foreign minister at a press conference on Friday in Beijing, where he is on an official visit.
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His statement, analysts said, indicated that Israel still hopes sanctions rather than military action can convince Iran to roll back its nuclear program.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, amplified the saber rattling, if not the actual threat, of a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities in a speech he made Wednesday.
In a rare editorial, Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of Israel's prestigious daily newspaper, Ha'aretz, said Netanyahu is "preparing Israeli public opinion for a war with Iran."
"Netanyahu is attempting to convince the Israeli public that the Iranian threat is a tangible and existential one, and that there is only one effective way to stop it and prevent a second Holocaust: An Israeli military attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure, which is buried deep underground," Benn wrote.
In a press conference on Wednesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was on a state visit to the United States, Obama also warned Iran that time is running out for it to curtail its nuclear program.
"I think they should understand that because the international community has applied so many sanctions, because we have employed so many of the options that are available to us to persuade Iran to take a different course, that the window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking," Obama said.
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The statements made by leaders of the three governments may give credibility to a growing theory that Netanyahu and Obama may not, in fact, be on a collision course when it comes to Iran, but may be playing a well-calibrated game of high-stakes statesmanship.
In his speech, Netanyahu appeared to leave a small crack open for the possibility of negotiations.
“We prefer that Iran abandon its nuclear program peacefully,” he said. “The obligation which is incumbent upon me is to maintain Israel's ability to defend itself against any challenge.”
On Thursday, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, (SWIFT) the principal messaging service for international financial transactions, announced that following the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and the European Union, it was severing service for Iranian banks, including its central bank.
The move, which will paralyze Iran's ability to transfer funds internationally, is seen as one of the most harsh enacted so far. Tel Aviv University Professor Paul Rivlin, an economist and a Senior Fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, said the measure "is very significant indeed."
"It will mean that bank transfers will no longer be possible and the Iranians will have to start finding all sorts of surrogates, and then the question is, how effective are those surrogates? All this makes life more and more difficult for the Iranian economy and for organization within it, including Iran's central bank, companies and private individuals," he said.
Iranian officials seemed to scramble in response. Speaking with CNN, Mohammad Javad Larijani, a senior advisor to Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, said that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's oft-repeated, and oft-misunderstood, statement that Iran wants to "wipe Israel off the map" was "definitely not" intended as a military threat and that it was "not a policy of Iran."
In an interview with Denmark's TV2, however, Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbhar Salehi said that if Iranian nuclear facilities were attacked, then Israel would meet its end.
"If Israel ever, ever makes this mistake, that will set the time for the end of Israel," he said, adding that Iran would "respond forcefully" to any strike.
Not all Israeli analysts agree with Haaretz's Benn that Netanyahu's heightened rhetoric indicates war is approaching.
"Imagine a straight line going up, but inclining as it would to draw out a quarter of a circle," Rivlin said. "You are upping the rhetorical ante. You are increasing the rhetoric faster than before, but it is still rhetoric."
Meir Javedanfar, an expert on Iran and a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, agreed.
"For now, Israeli is increasing the level of psychological pressure against Iran. I don't think anyone has made a decision. Despite all the bluster from Jerusalem, it is in Israel's interest to get Iran negotiating a compromise that will be acceptable," he said.
"It is part of Israel's "jaw jaw jaw" strategy in order to avoid war, war, war."