Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Thursday that U.S. President-elect Barack Obama shouldn't talk to Iran just yet, warning that such dialogue could project "weakness" — a first sign of disagreement with the incoming American administration.
Obama has stated a willingness to talk to Iran about its nuclear program, which Israel, the U.S. and others believe is aimed at developing an atomic bomb. His policy marks a departure from that of the Bush administration, which has refused to engage Iranian leaders.
Livni, a contender for prime minister in February elections, noted in an interview with Israel Radio that Obama is not willing to accept a nuclear Iran.
But "dialogue at this time is liable to broadcast weakness," cautioned Livni, who is head of the governing Kadima Party. "I think early dialogue at a time when it appears to Iran that the world has given up on sanctions could be problematic."
'Source of inspiration'
Later in the day, Livni described Obama's election as "a source of inspiration to millions around the world" as she stood next to visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a joint press conference in the home of the American ambassador to Israel.
"I would of course like to congratulate President-elect Barack Obama on his historic victory, a man who has impressed Israelis during his visits here and throughout the campaign by what he represents," she said. "I would like to also express our appreciation to Senator John McCain for his leadership and long-standing friendship."
Then she returned to the subject of Iran.
"We need to fight extremism," Livni said. "We need to continue the pressure on Iran and I believe that the idea of continuing the pressure comes with more intense and effective sanctions on the Iranians."
Obama, who swept to victory in elections Tuesday, reasons that direct diplomacy with Iranian leaders would give the U.S. more credibility to press for tougher international sanctions. The U.N. Security Council already has passed three rounds of sanctions against Iran.
He has said he would step up diplomatic pressure on Iran before Israel feels compelled to launch a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Biggest threat to Israel
Israeli officials describe Iran as the biggest threat to the Jewish state's existence, citing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's frequent calls for Israel's destruction and its development of long-range missiles capable of striking the Jewish state. Iran says its nuclear program is designed to produce energy, not weapons, but Israel, like the U.S., is unconvinced.
Israeli military officials have said Iran could have the capacity to produce a bomb as early as next year.
Livni has repeatedly said she hopes international diplomacy prevails. But she doesn't rule out force if U.N. sanctions don't pressure Tehran to scale back its nuclear aims. In June, she said Iran "needs to understand the military threat exists and is not being taken off the table."
Israeli combat planes destroyed an unfinished Iraqi reactor in 1981. But policy makers and experts are at odds over whether Israel could cripple Iran's nuclear program, whose facilities are scattered and in some cases built underground in heavily fortified bunkers.