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Good News for Obama Before His Trip -- Israel Unlikely to Bomb Iran in 2013

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President Obama doesn't want Israel to bomb Iran. He'll say so, in person, in Jerusalem this week. He'll again declare that there's still time for diplomacy, before the military option would have to be used. In his private talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials, Obama will likely offer more security assistance, such as continued cash for anti-missile systems -- and stepped-up coordination between the CIA and the Mossad aimed at sabotaging Iran's nuclear work.

Netanyahu isn't likely to promise explicitly not to send Israel's air force and missiles against Iranian targets, because he consistently stands up for his country's right to make its own decisions on war and peace. But, even before flying to Israel, to arrive this coming Wednesday, Obama's top Middle East experts -- including his ambassador in Tel Aviv, longtime aide Dan Shapiro -- must be taking a close look at Netanyahu's newly minted coalition.

Any serious analysis of the new cabinet line-up will lead to the conclusion that Israel will not bomb Iran this year: not on its own, and clearly Obama has no intention of having the United States do so before 2014 at the earliest. He told Israeli TV, after all, that it will be more than a year before Iran is able to arm itself with a nuclear weapon.

Israel is likely, once again, to restrain itself -- reluctantly depending on Obama to strike Iran, while the United States and other major powers attempt to avoid a Middle East war by negotiating a deal with Iran.

In addition to the Iran issue, Obama will spend some time on the flagging prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. He will make a short visit to the Palestinian Authority on Thursday, but it does not seem that Obama will put his reputation on the line by pushing any particular plan for renewing talks between the two skeptical sides.

Yet, after returning to Jerusalem from Ramallah on Thursday, Obama may have some visionary ambitions in a highly anticipated speech -- at a large convention center, rather than to Israel's parliament, signaling that he wishes to address the people directly rather than through their politicians. Israelis expect to hear that Obama truly cares about the country remaining a democratic and Jewish nation.

His priority in the Middle East now matches that of Prime Minister Netanyahu. They are both highly concerned about Iran's stubborn continuation of its uranium enrichment and clear defiance of international sanctions. The time for a bold step seems near, and Obama will have to conjure up some strong alternatives if he does not want that step to be an Israeli military strike.

His chances of restraining Israel have increased greatly with the installation of a new governing coalition, being sworn in on Monday. Cabinet posts have been divvied out, and the line-up of ministers reflects the reality that Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party lost 25 per cent of the seats it had in the last Knesset.

The post of foreign minister is again held by Avigdor Lieberman, whose party partnered with Likud in the January election. That normally would indicate an uncompromising refusal to make concessions to the Palestinians or allow Iran to get any closer to creating a nuclear bomb, but Lieberman's authority is diminished by the fact that he is on trial on corruption charges.

The new coalition partners are moderates. Most notable are the new kids on the bloc: a former TV anchor, Yair Lapid, and a wealthy software entrepreneur who happens to be religious, Naftali Bennett. Both have powerfully turned Israel's focus onto domestic reforms, and neither shows any appetite for war with Iran.

The most significant factor is the departure from politics of Ehud Barak, who as defense minister was enthusiastically saber-rattling with Netanyahu against Iran. The defense post will now be held by Moshe ("Boogie") Yaalon, who is in the prime minister's Likud party. As a former chief of staff of Israel's military who served in recent years as minister for strategic affairs, Yaalon is intimately familiar with all of his country's capabilities and choices.

On most issues he is a hawk. Yaalon is unabashedly proud of being the senior officer in the army's elite Sayeret Matkal commandoes when they assassinated Yasser Arafat's deputy, Abu Jihad, in far-off Tunisia in 1988. Yaalon continues to believe in an uncompromising battle against terrorists. He also says that the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, led by Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, is not ready for a peace deal.

Despite his hard-line views, Yaalon has displayed surprising caution when it comes to Iran. Together with other members of the inner security cabinet, he disdained pressure on the military by Netanyahu and Barak to prepare an immediate attack on Iran. We can expect Yaalon to show the same restraint in his new job, only this time with a voice that is louder and more authoritative.

He is joined now by other moderate ministers who oppose Netanyahu's verbally adventurous approach toward Iran, including a former foreign minister who launched her own political party, Tzipi Livni.

The faction which opposes a military strike mentions three key reasons: An attack likely would not delay Iran's nuclear work for long; it would give Iran a moral and perhaps legal justification to rush toward a nuclear bomb; and Iranian-backed retaliation against Israel could be highly disruptive to normal life.

The new ministers counseling caution enjoy some tail wind from the top military brass. The chief of staff, Major General Benny Gantz, and the commander of the air force, Lt.-General Amir Eshel both firmly oppose a unilateral strike on Iran by Israel. They do, however, advocate a coordinated effort with the United States - including the use of force as a last resort, to be led by America's awesome forces.

Although no one in Israel is leaking any details, it's understood that intelligence agencies -- led by the foreign operations agency, the Mossad -- are highly active in covert operations against Iran's nuclear work. There, too, sources say there is unprecedented cooperation with the United States.

Dan Raviv of CBS News and Yossi Melman, who covers security issues for the Israeli website Walla, are co-authors of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars. They blog at IsraelSpy.com.