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Criticism of Netanyahu intensifies

  • Article by: ANNE BARNARD
  • New York Times
  • April 29, 2012 - 11:51 PM

NEW YORK - Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister of Israel, on Sunday plunged into the country's growing debate over Iran policy with harsh criticism of his successor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

As several recently retired top security officials have done, Olmert urged Netanyahu's government not to rush into unilateral military action against Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program.

But Olmert went much further. Drawing boos from an audience in New York, he fired off a wide-ranging broadside against Netanyahu's foreign policy, saying the prime minister was unprepared to offer meaningful compromise to Palestinians, disrespectful to the United States and dismissive of the international community at a time when Israel needs foreign support to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

"A nation has the right to determine what it should do to defend itself," Olmert said at a conference held in a Manhattan hotel by the Jerusalem Post. "But when at the same time we ask the United States and other countries to provide us with the means to do it, no one is entirely independent to act, irrespective of the positions and attitudes and policies of other countries."

Since leaving office in 2008, Olmert has often urged caution concerning Iran. His remarks Sunday were noteworthy for their place and time -- before an audience of some of Netanyahu's strongest American supporters, and only a few days after Israel's top military officer suggested that the threat posed by Iran is less urgent than Netanyahu has said, and the former head of Israel's internal security service said the prime minister has "messianic ideas."

Illustrating how visceral the debate has become, and how entwined it is with politics in both Israel and the United States, some in the crowd peppered Olmert with shouts of "Naive!" and "Neville Chamberlain!" and booed loudly when he called for a less-confrontational stance toward President Obama, whose political opponents Netanyahu has openly courted.

"You have to respect him," Olmert said of Obama. "He is the president of the most powerful nation on Earth, and happens to be a friend of Israel."

Boos rang through the conference room.

Olmert was booed again when he declared that while Israel should prepare the military ability to strike Iran's nuclear program as a last resort, it should first push for U.S.-led international action against Iran, including sanctions and possible joint military action.

Israeli politics suffused Sunday's conference. Olmert noted that critics of Netanyahu have ascribed the prime minister's urgent rhetoric on Iran to political considerations, an observation that may add to recent pressure on Netanyahu to tack to the left ahead of the next election, which is now expected as early as this fall.

Netanyahu plans to call this week for a renewal of talks with the Palestinians, proposing direct negotiations with no preconditions, according to the Israel Project, an advocacy group that promotes Israeli government positions.

Although Olmert is embroiled in a corruption scandal at home and faces a possible prison term, Israel is a country where political comebacks are common, so his remarks in New York on Sunday may reflect domestic political calculations of his own. His Kadima Party was formed to offer a center-right alternative to Netanyahu's conservative Likud bloc.

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