* Newspaper says U.S. told Iran it won't back Israeli attack
* Netanyahu ramps up pressure on Obama to set "red line"
By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM, Sept 3 Israeli officials played down
a report in an Israeli newspaper on Monday that accused
Washington of secretly negotiating with Tehran to keep the
United States out of a future Israel-Iran war.
Israel's most widely-read newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, said
Washington had approached Tehran through two unidentified
European countries to convey the message that the United States
would not be dragged into hostilities if Israel attacked Iran
over its nuclear programme.
The paper said the United States told Iran it expected
Tehran in return to refrain from retaliating against U.S.
interests, including its military in the Gulf. The report did
not disclose any source for its information.
An Israeli official, who asked not to be identified,
described the report as illogical.
"It doesn't make sense," the official said. "There would be
no need to make such a promise to the Iranians because they
realise the last thing they need is to attack U.S. targets and
draw massive U.S. bombing raids."
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for
comment over the Israeli newspaper story, which appeared during
the Labor Day holiday.
President Barack Obama is fighting accusations from his
Republican challenger Mitt Romney that he is lax in support for
Israel, Washington's long-term ally in the Middle East.
The Obama administration says it is strongly committed to
Israel's security and to preventing Iran from obtaining a
nuclear weapon. White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Sunday:
"I can tell you that there is absolutely no daylight between the
United States and Israel when it comes to the necessity of
preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon."
The United States and Israel both accuse Iran of developing
nuclear capability that could be used to make a weapon, and have
both said they reserve the right to take military action to
prevent Iran from making a bomb.
However, the Obama administration has repeatedly made clear
in public that it thinks diplomacy and tough new sanctions have
not yet run their course, even as Israeli officials say the
window for effective military action is rapidly closing.
Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said he still
believed Obama's assurances that Washington was prepared to use
force if needed to prevent Iran from developing a bomb.
"I don't know what kind of messages Yedioth Ahronoth heard,"
Meridor said. "But I think the Iranians understand ... that if
they cross a line towards a bomb, they could encounter very
strong resistance, including all the options that are on the
table - as the American president has said."
Yedioth Ahronoth is a mainstream newspaper, not known for
taking a particular political line on U.S.-Israeli ties.
Iran denies it is seeking a weapon and has threatened to
retaliate fiercely against both the United States and Israel if
either attacks it.
Obama has had frosty relations with Israel's rightwing Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is due to visit the United
States this month.
The Nov. 6 presidential election is seen hinging mostly on
the U.S. economy with foreign policy taking a back seat. But
support for Israel is an important issue for many U.S. voters,
including evangelical Christians as well as Jews who could prove
critical in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania.
Obama wants to shore up his advantage among Jewish voters.
He 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.
Obama said in March "I have Israel's back". But
administration officials have also made clear they regard the
prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran with alarm.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, was quoted in Britain's Guardian newspaper as saying of a
prospective Israeli attack on Iran: "I don't want to be
complicit if they choose to do it."
Setting what is expected to be the main talking point for
his coming U.S. visit, Netanyahu said on Sunday the time had
come for world powers to declare a "clear red line" - which he
did not define - for Iran's nuclear activities.
The West had failed so far to convince Tehran it was truly
determined to halt Iran's nuclear activity, Netanyahu said, in
remarks widely portrayed in Israel as a critique of Obama.
The Obama administration and the European Union imposed
harsh new sanctions on Iran which took effect in July. U.S.
officials say they hope that this will persuade Iran to give up
its nuclear ambitions.
Of Dempsey's comments, Meridor said: "I'm sorry we've
reached the situation where Dempsey said what he said, but this
campaign (against Iran) is continuing and it must be conducted
Netanyahu's cabinet is divided over the wisdom of attacking
Iran, and Israeli officials have dropped heavy hints of a
climbdown strategy, under which Netanyahu would shelve threats
of an attack now in return for a stronger public pledge from
Obama on conditions that would provoke U.S. action in future.