JERUSALEM – Israel's military chief said in an interview published Wednesday that Iran will ultimately decide against building a nuclear weapon -- putting him at odds with Israel's more pessimistic prime minister.
Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz told the Haaretz daily that he believes that diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions, along with Israel's determination to strike if necessary, will deter Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons.
"I don't think (Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) will want to go the extra mile," he said. "I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people."
At the same time, he warned that Israel is moving forward with its preparations to take military action if necessary. "We are preparing for it in a credible manner. That's my job, as a military man," he said.
He said this year would be critical in determining whether Iran decides to take the final steps needed for a weapon.
"We're in a period when something must happen: Either Iran takes its nuclear weapon to a civilian footing only or the world, perhaps we too, will have to do something. We're closer to the end of the discussions than the middle," he said.
Gantz's comments contrasted with much tougher statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who complained in an interview with CNN on Tuesday that international sanctions have not changed Iran's behavior. He told the network that Iran continues to enrich uranium -- a key step toward developing a weapon.
The sanctions "are certainly taking a bite out of the Iranian economy, but so far they haven't rolled back the Iranian program or even stopped it by one iota," Netanyahu said. Nuclear centrifuges are "spinning as we speak. So if the sanctions are going to work, they better work soon," he said.
Israel and much of the West believe Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. But differences have emerged on how to deal with the issue.
The U.S. and other major powers have imposed a series of economic sanctions while opening a dialogue with Iran. Netanyahu has voiced skepticism about the negotiations, saying Iran is merely trying to buy time as it pushes forward with a weapons program, while hinting that Israel would be ready to attack Iran's nuclear installations.
Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its very existence. Iranian claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
Netanyahu sarcastically dismissed the denials. He cited Iran's development of missiles capable of dropping a bomb on Israel, Iranian leaders' repeated calls for Israel's destruction, and fortifying Iranian nuclear facilities deep underground. "Nobody can take them seriously," he said.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz gave the interviews as Israel marked its annual Memorial Day for soldiers and civilians killed in violence with Arab neighbors -- a solemn day that leads into the festive Independence Day at sundown.
Under Netanyahu, peace efforts with the Palestinians have ground to a standstill due to disagreements over Israeli settlement construction in occupied areas claimed by the Palestinians.
In the interview, Netanyahu said he is not convinced that Palestinian leaders are serious about making peace with Israel.
He said if he believed Palestinians would be ready to compromise for peace, he could convince the Israeli public to support a peace treaty. He said Israel has no interest in ruling another people, and that he wants an independent but demilitarized Palestinian state.
He also voiced support for a contiguous Palestinian state -- addressing Palestinian fears that Netanyahu wants to give them little more than autonomous cantons in the West Bank separated by Israeli forces and settlements. He said a Palestinian state would not be "Swiss cheese."
Earlier this week, Israeli President Shimon Peres told Haaretz that in contrast to Netanyahu, he is convinced that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is a credible partner for peace.
At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Israelis stood for two minutes as sirens wailed throughout the country in an annual ritual to remember fallen soldiers and victims of Palestinian militants.
Memorial ceremonies were held throughout the day, bereaved families visited the graves of their dead relatives, flags were at half-staff and radios played somber songs. Earlier this week, Netanyahu visited the grave of his brother Yonatan, an army commando who was killed in a famous 1976 rescue operation on a hijacked airliner.
At sundown, Israelis were to begin celebrating Israel's 64 years of independence with fireworks, concerts, street parties and folk dancing in public squares.
Israel's military said it closed entry points into Israel for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, citing security concerns. The closure is routinely done during Israeli and Jewish holidays, when fears of militant attacks are heightened.