Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu launched a rhetorical offensive against Iran on Sunday. The move came amid unease that the world might be enticed by a "compromise proposal" that Jerusalem believes Tehran is hatching, and concern that regional turmoil was distracting everyone's attention from Iran's nuclear march.
Senior Israeli officials said the Iranians were considering a proposal whereby they would agree to a temporary halt of uranium enrichment to 20 percent, and even agree to convert some of that enriched material to a lower grade, in return for a partial lifting of sanctions.
"This is an insignificant and meaningless concession," one senior official said.
"The Iranians have invested a lot in upgrading centrifuges and have the technological ability to replenish their stockpiles within a few weeks. We will totally oppose this sort of proposal because it does not offer a real solution."
Netanyahu, meanwhile, told an American audience on CBS News's Face the Nation that regarding the 20% enriched uranium, the Islamic Republic was just 60 kilograms short of crossing his "red line."
He defined this line — beyond which the Iranians should not be allowed to proceed — as being the possession of 250 kg. of 20% enriched uranium, enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb. He said they now had 190 kg., up from about 110 six to eight months ago.
Netanyahu said the Iranians were also building "faster centrifuges that would enable them to jump the line at a much faster rate. That is, within a few weeks."
"They're getting closer," he said. "They should understand that they're not going to be allowed to cross it."
Asked when he would make a decision to attack, Netanyahu responded: "I can tell you I won't wait until it's too late." He added that it was "important to understand that we cannot allow it to happen," and that the Israeli and US clocks on this matter were "ticking at a different pace."
"We're closer [to Iran] than the United States," he said.
"We're more vulnerable. And therefore, we'll have to address this question of how to stop Iran, perhaps before the United States does. But as the prime minister of Israel, I'm determined to do whatever is necessary to defend my country, the one and only Jewish state, from a regime that threatens us with renewed annihilation."
Netanyahu's tough rhetoric is widely seen as an attempt to reinsert a sense of urgency regarding Iran, urgency that some in Jerusalem feel has been lost due to the election last month of Hassan Rouhani as Iran's new president, and also because of the tumultuous events roiling the region.
Representatives of the six world powers known as the P5+1 that are negotiating with Iran — the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — are scheduled to meet Tuesday in Brussels to discuss strategy now that Rouhani is about to take over.
"I have a sense there's no sense of urgency," Netanyahu said. "All the problems that we have [in the region], however important, will be dwarfed by this messianic, apocalyptic, extreme regime that would have atomic bombs. It would make a terrible, catastrophic change for the world and for the United States."
Regarding Rouhani, Netanyahu said the Iranian president-elect had criticized his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, "for being a wolf in wolf's clothing. His strategy is, be a wolf in sheep's clothing. Smile and build a bomb."
Iran also figured prominently in comments Netanyahu made earlier in the day at the weekly cabinet meeting, saying that a month after Iran's elections the Islamic Republic continued to "quickly sail forward" toward nuclear capability.
According to Netanyahu, Iran was expanding and improving its uranium enrichment capabilities, and in parallel was developing a plutonium reactor so it would have two tracks to create material for a nuclear weapon. At the same time, he said, Tehran was expanding its ballistic missile capabilities.
"We believe that now, more than ever, it is important to stiffen the economic sanctions and present Iran with a credible military option," he said.
"We are determined to stand firm by our demands [on Iran], which must become the demands of the international community," he went on. "First, to cease all enrichment. Second, to remove from the country all the enriched uranium. And third, to close the illegal nuclear facility at Qom."
Israel's demands are harsher than those of the international community, which — through the P5+1 — has indicated that Iran must cease enriching uranium to 20% but could keep for civilian purposes some of its stockpiles of uranium that had been enriched to a lesser degree.
On other issues in his Face the Nation appearance, Netanyahu walked carefully around a direct question posed to him about whether he thought the US should cut off military aid to the new interim government in Egypt.
"Look, that's an internal American decision," he said. But then he added a caveat: "Our concern is the peace treaty with Egypt. One of the foundations of that peace treaty was the US aid given to Egypt."
He said that Israel and Egypt had maintained formal contacts during the past two years since Hosni Mubarak was deposed, "including now."
Netanyahu also gave an answer that could be interpreted different ways when he was asked about US reports that Israel, as alleged by anonymous US officials, had been behind the attack last week on Latakia in Syria. The strike targeted Russian-made Yakhont antiship missiles that Israel has in the past warned could fall into Hezbollah's hands.
"Oh God, every time something happens in the Middle East Israel is accused," Netanyahu said. "I'm not in the habit of saying what we did or we didn't do. I'll tell you what my policy is. My policy is to prevent the transfer of dangerous weapons to Hezbollah and other terror groups. And we stand by that policy."