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Israel focused on Iran, but tensions with US, Europe loom

Israel may seek to focus on Iran after next week's election, but tensions with the US and European discontent over the frozen peace process could see it face diplomatic initiatives from abroad or even sanctions.

Over the past four years, Israel's right-wing government has made no headway in ending the conflict with the Palestinians, instead pushing ahead with the largest number of settlements in a decade and sparking European and US anger.

The stand-off over Iran's nuclear programme has seen Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu locked in several high-profile disputes with US President Barack Obama, leaving Israel increasingly isolated on the international stage.

Netanyahu, who is widely expected to win the January 22 vote, has said his "first priority" after re-election would be preventing a nuclear Iran.

"The central issue is Iran, there is no time left. The decision will have to be made rather quickly," said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israeli relations at Bar Ilan University.

Israel has refused to rule out a military strike to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms, although analysts doubt it has the military capability to carry out an effective strike alone.

But tensions with Washington, which erupted again this week over an article in which Obama reportedly referred to Netanyahu as a "political coward," could prove a challenge for future coordination on Iran and other issues.

In the article, prominent Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg said Israel could soon notice a sea change in US diplomatic support.

"It is in terms of American diplomatic protection -- among the Europeans and especially at the UN -- that Israel may one day soon notice a significant shift," he wrote.

Gilboa said the fraught ties could improve "if Netanyahu has at least one centrist party in his coalition" and depending on who fills the key defence and foreign portfolios, as well as that of Israel's envoy to Washington.

Although Israel and Europe see eye to eye on the danger of Iran's nuclear ambitions, their relationship was overshadowed by the Palestinian issue, an Israeli official told AFP.

"The problem is that they think the settlements are more important than all of those things," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

If Israel does not initiate a fresh attempt to renew peace talks, the Europeans would very quickly try "to create a new initiative with the new US administration," he said.

Earlier this week, French President Francois Hollande told an Israeli newspaper that Paris would unveil an initiative to revive peace talks after the elections, with French officials waiting to see what kind of coalition Netanyahu will form.

Any continued freeze in peace talks could lead to harsh repercussions from Europe, he warned.

"If the stagnation we saw in the last four years continues, their dealings with anything pertaining to settlements will intensify," he said, suggesting that European nations could even bar the entry of extremist settlers.

"Europe got used to imposing sanctions and knows how it's done," he said. "If there is a political desire to impose sanctions on Israeli elements, the mechanisms are already in place."

International relations expert Alfred Tovias of Jerusalem's Hebrew University agreed that Europeans had "serious issues" with Netanyahu's government over policies towards the Palestinians.

"They feel that the peace process is stuck also because of the current government's lack of desire to move ahead," he told AFP.

"Everyone has had enough of this conflict and cannot understand why Israel will not take any measures. They perceive Israel as the strong side and the Palestinians -- even Hamas -- as the weak ones," said Tovias.

Although the Europeans prefer to use "carrots rather than sticks," it is not out of the question that they could impose "limited sanctions on Israel, such as on settlement produce," he said.

Tension with Europe over the peace process or settlement activity, however, is unlikely to impair coordination with Israel over Iran, which was likely to continue, the Israeli official said.

"We and the Europeans have succeeded in creating a firewall around the issue," he said.

"The Europeans understand the Iranian issue should be taken care of not only because they don't want us to attack, but also because for them too, a nuclear Iran would be very bad."

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