U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Ehud Barak
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem, July 31, 2012. Photo by Ariel Hermoni / Ministry of Defense
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U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta arrived in Israel last night for a brief visit that will focus on the American-Israeli dispute over whether to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak plan to stress that Israel reserves the right to defend itself, and to make its own decision on whether to attack.

Another major topic of discussion will be efforts to prevent Syria's chemical weapons from reaching Lebanon.

A senior government official told Haaretz that even if Jerusalem attacks Iran over Washington's objections, he doesn't think the United States will turn its back on Israel. Israel, he added, must retain sole responsibility for its security.

Panetta's visit comes against the backdrop of a rash of media reports about the possibility of an Israeli strike. In a series of interviews with Israeli television stations on Tuesday, Netanyahu said, "Iran wants to annihilate us. I won't let that happen."

He also stressed that regardless of the defense establishment's views, it's the government that will make the decision on whether to attack. He was responding to media reports stating that virtually all senior defense officials, including Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, vehemently oppose an attack now, in the run-up to the U.S. election in November.

While no decision on an Israeli strike has yet been made, a complex campaign is being waged over the issue on at least three fronts: between the Obama administration and the Israeli government; between President Barack Obama and his rival, Republican candidate Mitt Romney; and between politicians and defense professionals within Israel. All sides are making heavy use of the media.

The American-Israeli dispute revolves around both whether to attack, and when. Twice in the last 48 hours, Panetta acknowledged that sanctions haven't yet caused Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, but insisted that they have had a major impact on Iran's economy, as witnessed by its willingness to discuss a negotiated solution. Therefore, he said, what's needed is to keep up the international pressure.

Panetta also denied that Jerusalem and Washington would discuss detailed military plans against Iran, but said they would "continue to work on a number of options."

Netanyahu, meanwhile, said on Tuesday that "things that affect our fate, our very existence, we don't entrust to others - not even to our best friends. Obama and Romney both said that Israel has the right to defend itself against any threat, and we are obligated to make the decisions."

The public statements have been accompanied by an unprecedented campaign of American leaks, including Haaretz's report that Netanyahu was shown American plans for attacking Iran (and given the message: "We can do it better" ), Yedioth Ahronoth's report that America would attack Iran within a year and a half, and a surprising report about how Israel eavesdrops on the CIA in Tel Aviv (the message: "We also know some unpleasant things about you" ). The bottom line of all these reports is that America is committed to decisive action against Iran, but not now. And it is embracing Israel in an effort to prevent an Israeli attack before November.

That embrace is also connected to the Obama-Romney race: During his visit to Jerusalem this week, Romney outflanked Obama to the right on Iran, while Obama sought to preempt by announcing new legislation on American-Israeli security cooperation and reiterating his previous pledge of another $70 million for Israeli missile defense systems.

Barak also intervened in the battle for Jewish American voters' hearts on Monday, when he told CNN that the Obama administration has done more for Israel's security than any of its predecessors.

Finally, there's the internal Israeli front, where Netanyahu and Barak are lined up against the defense professionals. In his television interviews on Tuesday, Netanyahu said he will listen willingly to the professionals' views "in the proper place: in closed forums, not in the media. The media discussion is irresponsible and undermines national security."

It is a matter of principle, he added, that in Israel, "as in every democracy, it's the government that decides, and the executive agencies execute."

As for international objections to an Israeli strike, he said, "I'd be happy if the world, and the United States, would do the job." But while international pressure has hurt Iran's economy, "it hasn't set its nuclear program back by so much as a meter."

Gantz, for his part, said on Tuesday that "None of the media reports in recent days were from me or on my behalf."

Gili Cohen and Barak Ravid contributed to this report