* Barak says US ties never been better but skeptical on
* Israel fears "zone of immunity" when bombs can't penetrate
* Obama strengthens sanctions, funds "Iron Dome" rocket
By Phil Stewart and Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, Aug 1 Israel told visiting U.S.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday that time was
running out for a peaceful settlement to the nuclear dispute
with Iran because sanctions and tough talk over possible
military action were failing to sway Tehran.
Speculation is rampant over whether Israel will make a
military strike against Iran to halt a nuclear program that the
West suspects is aimed at building an atomic bomb but which
Tehran says is entirely peaceful.
Panetta assured Israel that the United States would not
allow Iran to develop a nuclear bomb. Using a tough tone, he
suggested military action was possible after all other options
"This is not about containment. This is about making very
clear that they are never to be able to get an atomic weapon,"
Panetta said in Jerusalem.
"If they make the decision to proceed with a nuclear
weapon...we have options that we are prepared to implement to
ensure that that does not happen," said Panetta, whose visit to
the close U.S. ally included a tour of an anti-rocket battery
known as "Iron Dome".
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signalled that
such declarations were of little comfort.
"However forceful our statements, they have not convinced
Iran that we are serious about stopping them," Netanyahu said,
standing next to Panetta at the prime minister's residence in
"Right now the Iranian regime believes that the
international community does not have the will to stop its
nuclear program. This must change, and it must change quickly
because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out."
Any conflict could easily draw in the United States, where
debate over Israel and Iran figures in campaigning for the
presidential election in November. Republican candidate Mitt
Romney visited Israel this week.
The Jewish state - which declines to confirm its own
suspected nuclear arsenal - says little time remains before Iran
achieves a "zone of immunity" in which Israeli bombs would be
unable to penetrate deeply buried uranium enrichment facilities.
The United States has more potent weapons that would allow
more time for the sanctions push to work.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, speaking at a news
conference with Panetta, said the chances that sanctions would
ultimately force Tehran's hand were extremely low.
"We have clearly something to lose by this stretched time
(during) which sanctions and diplomacy takes place because the
Iranians are moving forward, not just in enrichment," Barak
said, possibly referring to missile development.
Panetta's trip to Israel showcased the strong security ties
between the two countries. Barak said those relations had never
been better despite Israel's misgivings over the Iran strategy
pursued by Washington and other world powers.
Romney, on a visit to Israel that ended on Monday, said
"any and all measures" must be used to keep Iran from developing
a nuclear weapon.
Even as it strengthens sanctions, Washington is bolstering
Obama last week announced he was releasing $70 million in
approved funding for Iron Dome, a protection against Palestinian
rockets that is backed by the powerful U.S. pro-Israel lobby.
On Tuesday, he laid out new U.S. sanctions against foreign banks
that help Iran sell its oil.
Obama received 78 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2008
election but a nationwide Gallup poll in June showed him down to
64 percent backing versus Romney's 29 percent.
The political jousting on the U.S. campaign trail is
mirrored in Israel, whose media have reported misgivings among
the military top brass about going it alone against Iran.
Speculation is rife that Netanyahu wants to take action ahead of
a possible Obama reelection in November.
"The struggle behind the scenes over attacking Iran is
reaching a boiling point," the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz
wrote in a front-page analysis.