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. Israeli minister's Iran threat sparks political backlash
JERUSALEM, June 8 (AFP) Jun 08, 2008
Israeli officials on Sunday slammed a senior minister's threat to attack Iran unless the Islamic republic halts its atomic drive, accusing him of exploiting the issue for political gain.

Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai, in an interview with public radio, slammed what he called Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz's "cynical use of central strategic issues for internal political reasons."

Mofaz, the infrastructure minister and a senior member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima party, said in a newspaper interview that "if Iran continues its nuclear weapons programme, we will attack it."

"Other options are disappearing. The sanctions are not effective. There will be no alternative but to attack Iran in order to stop the Iranian nuclear programme," Mofaz told Friday's edition of the top-selling Yediot Aharonot.

He stressed that such an operation could only be conducted with US support.

A former defence minister and army chief, Mofaz hopes to replace embattled Olmert as prime minister and at the helm of the Kadima party.

The premier is currently the focus of corruption allegations that have sent tremors through the Israeli political landscape and threatened to unseat him.

The government has not officially responded to Mofaz's statements, but senior officials speaking on condition of anonymity have expressed outrage.

"Mofaz should keep quiet. Everyone in the country understands his motives are election-related, but making statements like this puts Israel in a very awkward position internationally," a foreign ministry official told AFP.

Israeli public radio quoted a senior defence ministry official on Sunday as saying the remarks were "irresponsible and do not represent the position of our government."

The Israeli press was unanimous in slamming Mofaz's statements, saying that if Olmert were not in such a weak political position he would have had to come down hard on the minister.

The left-leaning Haaretz newspaper published scathing criticism of Mofaz on its front page and cited reports that the minister's remarks caused the price of a barrel of crude oil to rise by 11 dollars.

"On the one hand that is impressive productivity; on the other it is scary. What is he planning for us during the real campaign?... A world war? A clash of the Titans?"

Mofaz even came under fire from right-wing opposition MPs with whom he is ideologically close, with Yuval Steinitz of the right-wing Likud Party saying it is "completely irresponsible to say these kinds of things."

Israel, itself believed to be the region's sole if undeclared nuclear power, considers Iran its greatest threat because of the Islamic republic's accelerating nuclear programme.

Israel has also reacted strongly to repeated statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the Jewish state should be "wiped off the map."

Tehran on Saturday protested over Mofaz's remarks in a letter to the UN Security Council and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

"The Israeli regime has been emboldened by the Security Council's indifference and... in blatant violation of the principles of the United Nations continues to threaten Iran with force," the letter said.

Israel's close ally the United States has been leading the drive to pressure Iran to halt its programme of uranium enrichment, and to date the Security Council has imposed three rounds of economic sanctions on the country.

Washington accuses Iran of seeking a nuclear weapon, a charge vehemently denied by Tehran which says its atomic programme is solely intended for generating electricity for a fast-growing population.

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