Israel's Netanyahu, Barak volley over easing tensions with U.S.

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JERUSALEM -- A growing rift between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, a political rival, centers on Israel's strategic relations with the United States, as Mr. Barak tries to turn the tension between Mr. Netanyahu and Washington to his political advantage.

After years of a close alliance, during which the pair almost exclusively directed Israel's campaign against Iran's nuclear program, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak have been trading the kind of barbs that would appear -- at least for now -- to mean an end to that kind of intimate cooperation.

Underlying the argument is a competition over who can best steer Israel's Iran policy and other national security mainstays such as the Palestinian issue.

Those differences, while not new, are coming to the forefront now because Mr. Netanyahu may soon call for early elections, perhaps scheduling a vote for February.

Just weeks after Mr. Netanyahu was perceived by critics as having meddled in the U.S. presidential election by criticizing President Barack Obama's approach to Iran, the Israeli leader's strained relations with Washington are emerging as a hot electoral issue in Israel. Israelis are anxious about the prospect of an attack on Iran without close U.S. coordination, and they generally view strong ties with the United States as crucial, framing Mr. Netanyahu's clash with the White House as a rare political weakness.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu loyalists accused the defense minister of using his recent trip to the United States to differentiate himself from the prime minister and move away from the recent friction with the Obama administration.

"As far as I know, yes, he distanced himself in an attempt to make political gains," Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz told Israel Radio.

Mr. Katz was echoing remarks attributed to Mr. Netanyahu from a closed meeting Tuesday. Mr. Netanyahu was quoted in the Israeli news media as saying Mr. Barak had deliberately exacerbated the tensions between the prime minister and Washington in an attempt to make himself look like the moderate who can repair relations.

In response, Mr. Barak's office issued a statement saying the defense minister "works to strengthen relations with the United States and at their heart, the security relationship."

"The importance of the special security and intelligence relations built up over the past five years, during which Barak has served as the minister of defense, should not be forgotten," the statement said. "Those special relations contribute directly to the security and interests of Israel."

Critics said Mr. Netanyahu and his supporters were trying to deflect blame for the bad blood between the prime minister and Mr. Obama.

"Barak was trying to calm the waters, while Netanyahu was making statements that raised the temperature," said Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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