Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that U.S. statements of solidarity with Israel and its assurances that military strikes are still an option aren't working to convince Iran that the West is "serious about stopping them" from developing nuclear weapons.
Standing with a visiting Leon Panetta, Netanyahu dismissed the U.S. defense chief's counsel to give diplomacy more time to halt Iran's nuclear program.
"Right now the Iranian regime believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program," Netanyahu said at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. "This must change, and it must change quickly because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out."
Earlier Wednesday, at an Israeli defense site south of Tel Aviv, Panetta stood beside Defense Minister Ehud Barak to declare that the Obama administration is serious about the possibility of eventually resorting to military force against Iran. But he said all non-military measures must be exhausted first.
Barak sounded as unconvinced as the prime minister, saying he appreciated U.S. support but added that the probability of international sanctions ever compelling Iran to give up its nuclear program is "extremely low."
Netanyahu's and Barack's statements, taken together, dramatized the growing strains in U.S.-Israeli relations over what strategy to pursue with Iran.
Tehran has said repeatedly that its nuclear work is for civilian energy uses only, but suspicions that the Islamic republic will use enriched uranium for nuclear weapons have resulted in international sanctions and saber-rattling from Israel, which perceives a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. The United States has discouraged Israel from a unilateral, pre-emptive military strike on Iran.
Panetta on Wednesday said repeatedly that "all options," including military force, are on the table to stop Iran, should sanctions and diplomacy — the preferred means of persuasion — ultimately fail.
He said he still hopes Iran will see that negotiations are the best way out of this crisis.
However, Panetta said, "If they continue and if they proceed with a nuclear weapon ... we have options that we are prepared to implement to ensure that that does not happen."
Netanhayu for his part, has said repeatedly that if necessary he will order military action against Iran even if Washington objects. Panetta said in his appearance with Barak that he understands that Israel must make such important decisions on its own terms.
"Their effort to decide what is in their national security interest is something that must be left up to the Israelis," Panetta said.
The Panetta visit to Israel comes just days after U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney met with top Israeli officials about Iran and other issues and said that if he becomes president, he will "honor" whatever Israel decides to do about Iran's nuclear capabilities. Romney has accused the Obama administration of being too soft on Iran and of not providing sufficient support to Israel.
In greeting Panetta Wednesday at Israeli defense headquarters, Barak said, "The defense ties between Israel and the United States are stronger and tighter than they have ever been and the credit now has to go, most of it, to you, Leon."
Panetta responded: "We are a friend, we are a partner, we have, as the defense minister has pointed out, probably the strongest U.S.-Israel defense relationship that we have had in history. What we are doing, working together, is an indication not only of our friendship but of our alliance to work together to try to preserve peace in the future."
Netanyahu told Israeli Channel 2 TV on Tuesday that despite reservations about an Iranian attack among former Israeli security officials and Israel's current army chief, the country's political leadership would make the final decision on any attack.
"I see an ayatollah regime that declares what it has championed: to destroy us," Netanyahu said. "It's working to destroy us, it's preparing nuclear weapons to destroy us. ... If it is up to me, I won't let that happen."
With "matters that have to do with our destiny, with our very existence, we do not put our faith in the hands of others, even our best of friends," Netanyahu said, hinting that Israel might act alone despite American misgivings.
Netanyahu said both Romney and Obama have said "Israel has the right to defend itself."
Barak took Panetta on a trip Wednesday to inspect and get briefed on an Israeli air defense system known as Iron Dome. It is designed to shoot down short-range rockets and artillery shells such as those that have been fired into the Jewish state in recent years from Islamic militants linked to Iran and based in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
Obama last week announced he was releasing an additional $70 million in military aid for Israel, a previously announced aid commitment that appeared timed to upstage Romney's trip to Israel. The stepped-up U.S. aid, first announced in May, will go to help Israel expand production of the Iron Dome system.