AP: Israeli election front-runner Benjamin Netanyahu told a session of the World Economic Forum on Thursday that preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons ranks far above the global economy among the challenges facing leaders of the 21st century.
The Associated Press
By JOHN DANISZEWSKI
DAVOS, Switzerland (AP) — Israeli election front-runner Benjamin Netanyahu told a session of the World Economic Forum on Thursday that preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons ranks far above the global economy among the challenges facing leaders of the 21st century.
Discussing leadership in crisis on a panel that also included British Conservative leader David Cameron, the hawkish Israeli Likud Party leader discussed the need for Israel to lower taxes and increase competitiveness if he emerges as prime minister after Feb. 10 elections.
Netanyahu, a former finance minister, said he believes the global financial meltdown is reversible if governments, businesses and people make the right decisions.
"What is not reversible is the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a fanatic radical regime … We have never had, since the dawn of the nuclear age, nuclear weapons in the hands of such a fanatical regime," he claimed.
Iran has denied it is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and says it is pursuing nuclear power for peaceful uses. It also denies it is engaged in terrorism, instead accusing Israel of terrorist policies against the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, which were occupied by Israel after the 1967 Mideast War.
Asked about achieving peace in Gaza, Netanyahu swiftly turned his answer to Iran, which he said is in a "100-yard dash" to get nuclear weapons.
While he did not specify any planned military action, Netanyahu said that, if the Iranian rulers were "neutralized," the danger posed to Israel and others by Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah militants in south Lebanon would be reduced.
"We have had two wars with two Iranian proxies in two years and Persia has now two bases on the eastern Mediterranean," said Netanyahu, referring to this month's brutal fighting in Gaza against Hamas and Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
"I think we are going to have to deal with neutralizing the power of the mother regime," he said. "The Hamas stronghold would be about as important, if Iranian power was neutralized, as Cuba was when the Soviet Union became irrelevant."
As prime minister, he said, he would "move rapidly to advance a workable peace" with moderates in the Palestinian Authority and work to "drive down the radicals."
"But all of this will fall by the wayside if the world fails to stop Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons. It was and remains the greatest challenge facing the leaders of the 21st century at the beginning of the 21st century," he said.
Netanyahu said he saw no chance of peace with Hamas. "You know, what agenda can you have against an organization who seeks to obliterate you off the face of this earth," he said.
The comments come amid a heated election race in Israel that could bring about a Likud government pledged to strongly oppose Hamas and Hezbollah and allow existing settlements in the West Bank to expand — one of the main sources of anger between Arabs and Israelis.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama's new Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, is visiting Israel this week. He met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who, according to the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, told the envoy that Israel would be willing to evacuate some 60,000 settlers in the West Bank and hand over much of east Jerusalem as part of as part of any permanent peace arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians.
But that policy would be in doubt if Likud wins. The latest election polls show Likud leading Olmert's centrist Kadima party and its candidate for prime minister, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, by about five seats in the 120-seat parliament. Olmert, who is facing corruption allegations, is stepping down.
The polls show Likud and other hawkish parties winning a majority in the parliament, giving Netanyahu the best chance to form a government.