Israeli officials say they will not warn the US if they decide to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The pronouncement, delivered in a series of private, top-level conversations with US officials, sets a tense tone ahead of meetings in the coming days at the White House and in Congress.
Israeli officials said that if they eventually decide a strike is necessary, they would keep the Americans in the dark to decrease the likelihood that the US would be held responsible for failing to stop Israel's potential attack, said one US intelligence official familiar with the discussions. The US has been working with the Israelis for months to convince them that an attack would be only a temporary setback to Iran's nuclear programme.
Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a confidential security matter, however, they stressed no decisions have been made on whether to attack.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak delivered the message to a series of high-level US visitors to the country, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House national security adviser, the director of national intelligence and top US lawmakers, all trying to close the trust gap between Israel and the US over how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Netanyahu delivered the same message to all the Americans who have traveled to Israel for talks, the US official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive strategic negotiations.
The White House declined to comment, as did the Pentagon and Office of Director of National Intelligence.
Iran claims its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, but the International Atomic Energy Agency has raised alarms that its uranium enrichment programme might be a precursor to building nuclear weapons. The US has said it does not know whether the government has decided to weaponise its nuclear material and put it on a missile or other delivery device.
The secret warning is likely to worry US officials and begin the high-level meetings with Israel and the US far apart on how to handle Iran.
But the apparent decision to keep the US in the dark also stems from Israel's frustration with the White House. After a visit by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, the Israelis became convinced the Americans would neither take military action, nor go along with unilateral action by Israel against Iran. The Israelis concluded that if there were any strike they would have to conduct it unilaterally - a point they are likely to hammer home in a series of meetings over the next two weeks in Washington, the official said.
Barak will meet with top administration and congressional officials during his visit. Netanyahu arrives in Washington for meetings with President Barack Obama next week. The behind-the-scenes warning belies the publicly united front the two sides have attempted to craft with the shuttle diplomacy to each other's capitals.
"It's unprecedented outreach to Israel to make sure we are working together to develop the plan to deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapon," and to keep Iran from exporting terrorism, said Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee.
He travelled there with the intelligence committee chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican, to meet Israel's prime minister and defence minister, along with other officials. "We talked about the fact that sanctions are working and they are going to get a lot more aggressive," Ruppersberger added.
They also discussed presenting a unified front to Iran, to counter the media reports that the two countries are at odds over what to do about Iran. "We have to learn from North Korea. All those (peace) talks and stalling and they developed a nuclear weapon," he said. "We are going to send a message, enough is enough, the stalling is over...All options are on the table."
Rogers told CNN television on Monday: "I got the sense that Israel is incredibly serious about a strike on their nuclear weapons programme. It's their calculus that the administration...is not serious about a real military consequence to Iran moving forward.
"They believe they're going to have to make a decision on their own, given the current posture of the United States," he added.
US intelligence and special operations officials have tried to keep a dialogue going with Israel despite the high-level impasse, offering options such as allowing Israel to use US bases in the region to launch such a strike, as a way to make sure the Israelis give the Americans a heads-up, according to the US official and a former US official with knowledge of the communications.
Cooperation has improved on sharing of intelligence in the region, according to one current and one former US official. Israel is providing key information on Syria, for instance, now that the US has closed its embassy and pulled out its diplomats and intelligence officials stationed there, the US official said.