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Netanyahu history lesson seen as message about Iran

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Cautioned by Washington about the risks of a military strike on Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on Sunday about making "the right decision at the right moment," even when allies object.

In a speech at an annual memorial for Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu did not mention Iran and its nuclear programme once.

But in the context of an on-going debate with the United States over how to stop what Netanyahu and U.S. leaders believe is Iran's quest for atomic weapons, his comments on Israeli go-it-alone decision-making in the past could have relevance for the future.

"Great statesmen as well as friends of the Jews and of Zionism" warned Ben-Gurion that declaring a Jewish state in 1948 would bring an invasion of Arab armies and a "grave and difficult battle," Netanyahu said.

"He understood full well the decision carried a heavy price, but he believed not making that decision had a heavier price," Netanyahu said. "We are all here today because Ben-Gurion made the right decision at the right moment."

On Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leona Panetta used some of his strongest language yet to explain U.S. concerns about any military attack on Iran, citing Israeli estimates that a strike might set back its nuclear program by only one or two years.

The consequence, Panetta told a pro-Israel forum in Washington, could be "an escalation" that could "consume the Middle East in confrontation and conflict that we would regret."

Netanyahu has called a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat to Israel, and along with the United States has said that all options are on the table to deal with such a threat. Iran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.

In his speech, Netanyahu said Ben-Gurion deliberated long and hard before he decided to declare a state.

"Today we are all in agreement it was a considered, correct and responsible decision. I want to believe we will always act with responsibility, courage and determination to make the right decisions to ensure our future and security," Netanyahu said.

Reporting on Netanyahu's speech on its website, Israel's Haaretz newspaper said he had "sent a hint to his critics at home and abroad on the Iranian nuclear issue," and noted its timing, shortly after Panetta's words of caution.

Those critics include Meir Dagan, a former chief of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, who since leaving the post in January has been vocal in warning about the dangers of regional conflict and Iranian retaliation if Israel attacked on its own.

Alon Ben-David, military affairs analyst for Israel's Channel 10 television, also alluded to a hidden message about Iran in Netanyahu's remarks. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Ben-David tweeted.

Iran has weathered several rounds of sanctions passed by the U.N. Security Council and Western powers. A U.N. watchdog report last month suggested Iran has worked on a nuclear bomb program, heightening international pressure.

On Saturday, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel and the United States were coordinating closely on Iran.

But, Barak said, Israel has sovereignty and ultimate responsibility for its security.

(Editing by Michael Roddy)

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