Vice President Joe Biden issued a high-level admonishment to Israel's new government Tuesday that it would be "ill advised" to launch a military strike against Iran.
Biden said in a CNN interview that he does not believe newly installed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would take such a step. Even so, his comment underscored a gap between the conservative new Israeli government and the Obama White House on a series of questions, including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iran.
While the Obama administration has made a series of recent overtures to Tehran, the Israelis have grown more confrontational out of concern that the Islamic Republic's increasing nuclear know-how could one day become an existential threat.
Netanyahu signaled several times during his election campaign that he would not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran. "I promise that if I am elected, Iran will not acquire nuclear arms," he said in one appearance, "and this implies everything necessary to carry this out."
With his brief comment Tuesday, Biden became the highest-ranking administration official to caution the Jewish state against a military strike. In the interview, Biden was asked whether he was concerned that Netanyahu might strike Iranian nuclear facilities.
"I don't believe Prime Minister Netanyahu would do that. I think he would be ill advised to do that," Biden said.
"And so my level of concern is no different than it was a year ago."
But many U.S. officials believe Israel is serious. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. forces in the Middle East, told senators this month that the Israeli government may be "so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take preemptive military action to derail or delay it."
Other U.S. officials have made it clear in the past that they would prefer that Israel not carry out a strike against Iran. Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned last summer against military action.
"This is a very unstable part of the world," he said then. "And I don't need it to be more unstable."
Among other concerns, U.S. Defense Department officials worry that Iran might retaliate by striking at U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq.
Differences between U.S. and Israeli officials also are emerging on key issues involving the Palestinians. Netanyahu has not embraced Washington's goal of an independent Palestinian state, and some of his key supporters favor expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank, an idea criticized by President Obama.
But U.S. views are important to the Israelis. Steven J. Rosen, a former policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential lobbying group, said a decision by Israel to attack Iran's nuclear facilities "depends to a large extent on the impact such a strike might have on the United States." He made the comment in a blog, the Obama Mideast Monitor.
Many top officials in the Obama administration have said they believe the costs of a U.S. attack on Iran would outweigh any benefits, and they are considered less likely to favor military action than the Bush administration.
One hint of the Obama administration's intentions may lie in its choice of top experts.
Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has hired longtime Iran expert Vali Nasr. Dennis Ross, senior administration advisor for Southwest Asia, has hired Ray Takeyh, another veteran Iran expert.
Both Nasr and Takeyh have advocated diplomatic engagement with Tehran.