Fury as Netanyahu confirms Syria strike

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Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing opposition party Likud, was chacteristically at the centre of a controversy yesterday after appearing to be the first Israeli politician to confirm an air strike against Syria two weeks ago.

With reporting in Israel covoered by military censorship, Mr Netanyahu startled television viewers – and reportedly shocked the office of the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert – by answering a question about the supposed air strike in an interview.

Mr Netanyahu, a former prime minister, infuriated some of his political opponents by telling Channel One television that he was "party" to the operation on which he had personally congratulated Olmert. He declared "When the Prime Minister takes action in important and necessary matters, and generally when the government is doing things for the security of Israel, I give it my endorsement. I was party to this matter, I must say, from the first minute and I gave it my backing, but it is still too early to discuss this subject." Israel's government has maintained a studious, and unusual, silence since Syria first complained about an incursion into its airspace.

The row came as US President George Bush – while refusing to confirm what US officials have been anonymously briefing for more than a week was a strike on a suspected nuclear facility built with North Korean help – warned against nuclear prolifetration by North Korea.

Eitan Cabel, secretary general of the Labour Party, told Army Radio that Mr Netanyahu had been guilty of "an outburst that is severe, stupid and irresponsible". Mr Cabel, whose party leader, Ehud Barak, is seen by his supporters as the main rival to Mr Netanyahu for the future premiership, declared: "Bibi [Mr Netanyahu's nickname] is the same Bibi. I haven no idea if it is foolishness, stupidity, the desire to jump on the bandwagon, the desire to be a partner, to steal credit – or something else. It is simply very dangerous. The man simply does not deserve to lead."

An anonymous official said to be close to Mr Olmert was quoted in the Haaretz newspaper as saying: "Bibi's slip of the tongue borders on national irresponsibility. Once again Netanyahu couldn't restrain himself and he ran to tell the guys."

The political row – fuelled by party divisions – followed a declaration by Shimon Peres, the Israeli President, on Tuesday that the tensions caused by the incident were "over" and the government was prepared for talks with Syria aimed at ending the 40 years of emnity between the two countries since Israel captured the Golan heights in the Six Day War in 1967.

Some right- wing politicians went to Mr Netanyahu's defence, with the Likud Knesset member Yuval Steinitz saying: "Netanyahu's statements were unfortunate, but they caused no harm. This is a tempest in a tea cup."

Ehud Barak – who has refrained from any comment either on the supposed Israeli operation or on Mr Netanyahu's comments, said: "It is a pity that the aides of the worst prime minister in the history of the state seek out every opportunity to incite against Netanyahu, and permit themselves to use language that is lowly and contemptible, albeit typical."

Meanwhile the European Union is calling on Israel to consider tighter sanctions on Gaza by cutting power and fuel in response to Qassam rocket attacks. Javier Solana, the EU foreign affairs chief, said: "We join the call by the secretary general of the United Nations for the Israeli government to reconsider its decision."

The European Commission, which helped coordinate emergency aid to Palestinians after the election victory of the militant Islamist group Hamas prompted the West to suspend direct aid to the territories, also urged Israel to reconsider. "The Commission hopes that Israel will not find it necessary to implement the measures for which the decisions set the framework yesterday," a spokeswoman for the EU executive said. The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, urged Israel on Wednesday to reconsider its decision to declare the Gaza Strip a hostile territory, warning that any cut-off of vital services would violate international law and punish the already suffering civilian population. Mr Ban said he was very concerned at the Israeli government's "announced intent to interrupt essential services such as electricity and fuel to the civilian population".