Prime minister's office says Shimon Peres should not speak out on Iran as he is too prone to mistakes
Aides to Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu launched a stinging rebuke to the country's president, Shimon Peres, after he said that Israel should not act alone in launching military action against Iran's nuclear programme.
"Shimon Peres forgets what the role of the president of Israel is," officials from Netanyahu's office were quoted in the Israeli media as saying. The aides offered examples from the past when they said Peres's judgment had been wrong.
The row is a stark example of the sharp differences at the heart of Israel's political, military and intelligence establishment over the merits and dangers of an early unilateral military strike on Iran. Speculation has intensified recently that Netanyahu and defence minister Ehud Barak are considering launching action this autumn, before the US presidential election.
In an interview on Israeli television, Peres said: "It is clear to us we cannot do it on our own. We can only delay [Iran's progress]. Thus it's clear to us that we need to go together with America. There are questions of cooperation and timetables, but as severe as the danger is, at least this time we're not alone."
He said he was confident the US would take action, but added: "My estimate is that they will not do this before the elections, which are more than 80 days away."
Following the remarks, a Netanyahu aide cited three previous occasions when he said Peres had been wrong. The first was after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 when Peres "thought there would be a new Middle East". The second was following Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 when "he thought there would be peace ... but in reality we got missiles".
The aide continued: "But Peres's biggest mistake was in 1981 when he opposed [Israel's] bombing of the Iraqi reactor. Luckily, prime minister Menachem Begin ignored him."
Peres later stood by his comments, saying: "I say what is in my heart with a loud and clear voice."
The president's views echoed those of many former and current military, intelligence and political figures in Israel. US officials have also made repeated efforts to dissuade Netanyahu and Barak from unilateral action.
Earlier this week, the US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Martin Dempsey, said Israel did not have the capacity to eliminate Iran's nuclear programme. "I may not know about all of their capabilities. But I think it's a fair characterisation to say that they could delay but not destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities," he told reporters.
Some observers believe the current frenzied speculation about a possible Israeli strike this autumn is aimed at forcing an unequivocal public statement in the coming weeks from President Obama on America's willingness to take military action against Iran should diplomacy and sanctions fail.
Peres's intervention could be a decisive moment, according to one commentator. "The president's stance, along with the stance of the top security and intelligence officials, was apparently the final chord, the tiebreaker if you will, in the debate between the supporters and opponents of an Israeli strike," wrote Shimon Shiffer in daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. "Netanyahu, who declared that he and only he would decide whether to attack and when, will now have to reconsider his firm stance ... Now it remains only to wait and see what Netanyahu will write in his memoirs about ... why he apparently refrained at the last moment from giving the order."
According to an opinion poll by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv university, 60% of Israeli Jews are against a strike on Iran without US co-operation. Eleven per cent strongly support unilateral action by Israel.