* Media reports charge Iran has stepped up atomic warhead
* Obama seen seeking more time for diplomatic pressure on
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, Aug 12 Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu said on Sunday that most threats to Israel's security
were "dwarfed" by the prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear
weaponry, which local media reports charged Tehran had stepped
up its efforts to achieve.
The comments at a weekly cabinet meeting and the front-page
reports in the liberal Haaretz, a frequent Netanyahu critic, and
in the conservative, pro-government Israel Hayom came as Israeli
debate intensified about whether to go to war against Iran - and
soon - over its disputed atomic projects.
The debate seemed to defy appeals by U.S. President Barack
Obama, seeking re-election in November, to allow more time for
international diplomacy. Tehran says its nuclear ambitions are
peaceful and has threatened wide-ranging reprisals if attacked.
In comments also broadcast live by Israeli media, Netanyahu
said that "all the threats currently being directed against the
Israeli home front are dwarfed by another threat, different in
scope, different in substance."
"Therefore I say again, that Iran must not be permitted to
obtain nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu also said Israel was "investing billions in
home-front defence," and holding emergency drills, alluding to a
military exercise being held this week in cities across Israel
to test a text message warning system against missile strikes.
Israel's central bank has also drilled "big crisis"
scenarios such as war with Iran, the bank's governor, Stanley
Fischer, told an Israeli television station at the weekend.
The cabinet adopted rules on Sunday intended to streamline
decision-making, such as by setting deadlines for permitting
ministers to change their minds about votes, though Cabinet
Secretary Zvi Hauser insisted these changes were not expressly
meant for "any particular type of decision."
'BOOSTED' NUCLEAR EFFORTS
Citing an unnamed senior Israeli official, the Haaretz daily
said a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) compiled by the
Obama administration included a "last-minute update" about
significant Iranian progress in the development of a nuclear
warhead "far beyond the scope known" to U.N. inspectors.
The Israel Hayom daily reported NIE findings that Iran had
"boosted efforts" to advance its nuclear programme, including
work to develop ballistic missile warheads, and said U.S. and
Israeli assessments largely tallied on this intelligence.
Neither newspaper provided direct quotes or detailed
evidence. For Haaretz, it was the second report since Thursday
purporting to draw on a new NIE.
Washington has not commented on whether such an NIE exists.
But its officials say the U.S. intelligence assessment remains
that the Islamic Republic is undecided on whether to build a
bomb and is years away from any such nuclear capability.
Widely reputed to have the region's sole atomic arsenal, the
Jewish state sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a mortal threat and
has long threatened to attack its arch-foe preemptively.
The war talk is meant, partly, to stiffen sanctions on
Tehran by conflict-wary world powers. Some commentators have
speculated Netanyahu is bluffing.
Others see a bid to win over those in the Israeli cabinet,
military and public who oppose resorting to force now given the
big tactical and strategic risks involved.
Some Israeli leaders criticised the debate as too
high-profile, fearing the public exposure could damage Israeli
security interests. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz called it
"reckless" to discuss the issue so openly in the media.
Visiting Israel this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon
Panetta met unusually vocal dissent from Netanyahu over
international Iran strategy. The allies have
generally sought to play down their differences on the matter.