JERUSALEM - Israel's prime minister told his cabinet yesterday to tone down criticism of a U.S. intelligence report concluding that Iran has stopped its nuclear weapons program, an attempt to keep the disagreement from getting out of hand.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's instructions came after one of his ministers warned that the U.S. report could trigger a war. At the same time, officials said an intelligence delegation is in the U.S. to press Israel's case that Iran is still working on a nuclear bomb.
The developments underlined the dilemma Israel faces over how to handle serious differences with its main ally over a key security issue.
Without contradicting his own intelligence, President Bush has been sympathetic to the Israeli view that Iran is still dangerous.
Israel considers Iran a serious threat because of its nuclear program, its development of long-range missiles and repeated calls by its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for Israel to be "wiped off the map." Iran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
The Israeli delegation left for the U.S. last week and will wind up its visit this week, the officials said. It was not known what type of material the delegation - for the most part military intelligence officers - presented to U.S. officials.
The Israelis are also hoping to receive additional information from the U.S. report, which for the most part was classified, the officials said, on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. and Israel will hold additional formal meetings on the matter in coming weeks, the Israeli officials said. Israel will use these forums to try to persuade the Americans that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, and to present top secret Israeli intelligence material, the officials said.
On Dec. 3, the American intelligence community issued a report concluding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate reversed years of warnings that Iran was working on a nuclear weapon.
Israeli officials discounted the conclusion. For years, Israel has been urging the world community to act to stop Iran's nuclear program, leading to speculation that Israel might attack the nuclear facilities.
Before the cabinet meeting, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters that Israel was in contact with the U.S. on the report, "to try to better understand its intelligence content, and to examine the public and political implications." *