Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit Washington next month, his office said on Sunday, amid heightened speculation that Israel might attack Iranian nuclear facilities, in spite of U.S. reservations.
Netanyahu is to address the annual policy conference of the influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, which will be held in the U.S. capital between March 4-6, an official statement said.
It did not say whether he would speak with U.S. President Barack Obama but Israeli political sources said a meeting was likely during the visit, and that the Iranian nuclear issue and peace talks with the Palestinians would top the agenda.
Nor was there official word as to whether Netanyahu would meet with any of the Republican presidential hopefuls, some of whom have accused Obama of a lack of commitment to Israel’s security, an allegation the White House denies.
President Shimon Peres is also set to attend the AIPAC conference, where he will be honored with the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Officials in Jerusalem see the visits as unusual as both the prime minister and president will be in Washington at the same time. The officials said this could put the U.S. in an embarrassing position, as Peres is also slated to meet with Obama, and the U.S. president does not generally hold meetings with two leaders from the same country.
Netanyahu’s office and the President’s Residence on Sunday night made it clear that the visit has been coordinated and that a “perfect understanding” prevails between the prime minister and the president.
Peres and Netanyahu’s trips will be the latest in a series of visits by senior Israeli officials who have traveled to Washington recently for strategic talks on Iran. Officials who have visited the U.S. in recent months include Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Intelligence Affairs Minister Dan Meridor and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
On Sunday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman left for Washington where he is expected to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This is the first meeting between the two since September 2010, a particularly long period of time in diplomatic terms. Lieberman is expected to discuss regional developments with Clinton and to tell her that sanctions against the regimes in Iran and Syria are not enough - that these regimes must be overthrown.
U.S. and European officials have said the Obama administration is increasingly concerned about Israeli leaders’ recent strong public comments on Iran’s atomic ambitions as well a lack of information from Israel about its plans.
Netanyahu and Obama, who have had a frosty relationship, last held face-to-face talks in September on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Israeli political commentators have speculated that Netanyahu could opt for bold moves on Iran, believing that Obama would be reluctant to oppose him for fear of angering pro-Israel voters with the approach of U.S. presidential elections in November.
An Israeli attack could also have serious consequences for the U.S. economy, as well as Obama’s re-election prospects, should Iran retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz and choking off oil shipments.
On Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak cautioned publicly that Tehran’s nuclear program was reaching “the immunity stage” where atomic facilities would be sheltered against any effective military attack.
“Those who say ‘later’ may find that later is too late,” Barak said, an indirect reference to the prevailing view in Washington that bolstered international sanctions against Iran should be given sufficient time to work.
Fuelling the debate, David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist, reported that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta believed there was a “strong likelihood” Israel would attack Iranian nuclear installations within the next six months, even as early as April.
In an attempt to mute some of the rhetoric that has alarmed Washington, Netanyahu, with reporters present, told Cabinet ministers from his Likud party at a meeting on Sunday: “I ask you not to comment on the Iranian issue, neither publicly nor on background.”
Also on Sunday, Amir Eshel, a general who has cautioned publicly that Israel cannot deal a knock-out blow to its enemies, including Iran, in any regional conflict, was named chief of the Israel Air Force.
In his role as the country’s top military planner, Eshel declined to give reporters a direct answer last month when asked about the possibility of such an attack, which could spark a broader conflict.
“We have the ability to hit very, very hard at any adversary,” he said, but added that people often have “romanticized views about knock-outs, like in boxing. One of the sides is lying on the ground, you count to ten and that’s it. This is not the case anymore. This won’t be the case.”
Iran has vowed to hit back at any country involved in a strike against its territory. And in that case its allies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip would likely open fronts against Israel as well.
Netanyahu has called a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat to Israel. Along with the U.S., he has said all options are on the table in preventing Tehran from building atomic weapons.
Iran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.