Wed Sep 30, 2009.
* Israelis rein in threats to attack Iran
* Signs of differing styles among policymakers
TEL AVIV, Sept 30 (Reuters) - Suddenly, the Iranian "existential threat" seems to have receded from Israel's horizon.
It began with a bombshell Sept 18 newspaper interview in which Defence Minister Ehud Barak asserted that a nuclear-armed Iran could not destroy the Jewish state. Similar public remarks followed from the general in charge of all military operations.
Even hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman now sounds skittish about his government's long hinted-at willingness to go to war rather than see an enemy get the means to make a bomb.
"God forbid -- there's no need to attack anything," he told Israel's Channel Two television on Monday.
While Israeli officials insist that "all" options remain available for tackling their arch-foe, few dispute that Barak -- the top strategist, alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- has taken a new rhetorical tack as major world powers prepare to revive negotiations with Tehran on Thursday [nLU179342].
Short on the forces necessary to deliver permanent damage to Iranian nuclear sites, the Israelis hope the new talks will work, one official said -- or, failing that, eventually trigger U.S.-led military intervention. "The last thing we need to do right now is to distract from the diplomacy with the kind of threats that Iran can point to as 'proof' that they, not us, are the endangered party," the Israeli official said. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons.
Israel bombed Iraq's atomic reactor in 1981 and, in 2007, launched a similar sortie against Syria. But there are signs that when it comes to Iran, next-day considerations loom large.
A unilateral Israeli attack could draw reprisals on U.S. Gulf assets, further testing already strained ties between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama. Should Iran cut off oil exports, Israel may find itself blamed for a new global crisis.
According to one Barak aide, the risks of going it alone against Iran were brought home by a U.N. report condemning the heavy civilian toll of the January war in Hamas-ruled Gaza, an offensive that Israel says was provoked by Palestinian rockets.
"Before the operation, the message we got from plenty of foreign players, including even some NGOs, was 'Go in and do what you have to do to deal with Hamas'. But of course, that was all forgotten once the dust settled," a Barak aide said.
"The idea that Israel can do the world's dirty work is under serious review. Sufficient follow-up support just isn't there."
In his comments to the biggest-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth [nLH395080], Barak said that Israel -- which is widely assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal -- could deter or fend off any future attack by a nuclear-armed Iran.
"I don't think we are on the brink of a new Holocaust," he said, clashing openly with Netanyahu's repeated likening of today's Iran to Nazi Germany on the eve of World War Two.
Asked about the Yedioth interview, Netanyahu said he saw "eye to eye" with Barak. The Prime Minister's Office denied that there had been any change to Israeli strategising on Iran. Yet the alarm-dampening restraint professed by Barak, a retired top general and ex-premier who leads the centre-left Labour party in a coalition under Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, cannot but find its way into closed-door discussions.
As defence minister to Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, Barak was cautious on warmaking. According to a security cabinet official at the time, Barak argued against the 2007 sortie that destroyed an alleged Syrian atomic reactor, calling it hasty.
Barak's aides denied that, and the fact that the air strike happened points, at the very least, to his ability to close rank.
Syria, which described the target as a disused military building, was considering peace talks with Israel at the time, which may have helped contain any retaliation.
By contrast, Iran is dead set against recognising the Jewish state and has numerous, distant, fortified and -- in the case of an uranium enrichment plant disclosed last week -- hidden nuclear facilities.
"Barak's thinking on Iran definitely appears to have sway, for now," said an Israeli security official who is not aligned with the Defence Ministry. (Editing by Samia Nakhoul)