Leon Panetta's mission to stop Israel bombing Iranian nuclear plant



America’s spy chief was sent on a secret mission to Israel to warn its leaders not to launch a surprise attack on Iran without notifying the US Administration.

As Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, prepares to visit Washington, it emerged yesterday that Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA, went to Israel two weeks ago. He sought assurances from Mr Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister, that their hawkish new Government would not attack Iran without alerting Washington.

Concerns have been rising that Mr Netanyahu could launch a strike on Tehran’s atomic programme, in the same way that Israel hit Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in 1981. Israel has been preparing for such an eventuality. It has carried out long-distance manoeuvres and is due to hold its largest civil defence drills this summer. The country’s leaders reportedly told Mr Panetta that they did not “intend to surprise the US on Iran”.

Mr Netanyahu will leave for Washington this weekend. He will meet Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, and Mr Obama, whom he will try to convince of the need for tougher action against Iran. Mr Obama favours trying to engage Tehran, but his efforts have been received coolly by President Ahmadinejad.

The Israeli leader is expected to insist that the US stays focused on Iran, rather than tackling stalled talks with the Palestinians.

Mr Netanyahu has held meetings with Arab leaders this week, including President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan. Both Sunni leaders share Israel’s fears of a resurgent Shia Iran.

In Aqaba, Jordan, yesterday King Abdullah told Mr Netanyahu there could be no regional peace without a Palestinian state. So far Mr Netanyahu has refused to commit to a two-state solution. Instead, he has talked about developing the Palestinian economy, with Palestinians having only limited sovereignty. That view is likely to cause confrontation with Mr Obama.

Mr Netanyahu raised the issue of Iran during a private meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in Nazareth yesterday. “I asked him as a moral figure to make his voice heard loud and continuously against the declarations coming from Iran of their intention to destroy Israel,” he said. .

“I think we found in him an attentive ear.” The Pope, who reiterated his calls for peace yesterday, did not give an account of the meeting.