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Netanyahu: Putting politics aside

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Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu says Sharon's illness is a time to put politics aside.

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief rival in the March elections has told CNN he is not campaigning or focusing on politics as Sharon lies in a medically induced coma following a severe stroke.

"This is one of the moments you have to put politics aside, however briefly. You do what is right and decent for the country," said former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, in his first interview since Sharon's stroke last week.

Netanyahu also denied reports that he has expressed support for a possible pre-emptive strike on Iran.

Instead, he insisted he supports "diplomatic and other ways" to prevent Israel's neighbor from posing a nuclear threat that could endanger Israel's future.

Netanyahu was part of Sharon's cabinet, but quit in anger over the prime minister's unilateral pull-out of Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza.

In November, Sharon left the Likud Party to form a new centrist party called Kadima. With Sharon at the helm, the party attracted other major Israeli figures and was expected to easily win March elections.

Now it's unclear what the future holds, although a poll suggests Kadima would get the most votes even without Sharon.

Netanyahu said for now, he is focusing on Sharon's health, and "we are all united in prayer that he succeeds." He touted Sharon's military feats as a top Israeli general, and cited his "resolve, courage, and determination."

Netanyahu would not say whether he has changed his mind about the Gaza withdrawal, but said that in the end "I don't think time will judge Sharon harshly. ... I think history will judge him as the great leader that he is, notwithstanding the differences of opinion that existed."

"You see the strength and resilience of Israeli democracy," he said, adding that rivals shelve their differences at such times.

Strike denial

The Israeli daily newspaper Maariv reported last month that Netanyahu expressed support for a possible pre-emptive strike on Iran.

The paper said he referred to a 1981 attack ordered by then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin that destroyed a nuclear reactor in Iraq.

"I will continue the tradition established by Menachem Begin, who did not allow Iraq to develop such a nuclear threat against Israel, and by a daring and courageous act gave us two decades of tranquility," Netanyahu was quoted as saying. "I believe that this is what Israel has to do."

But Netanyahu told CNN he has not said Israel should consider a pre-emptive strike.

Instead, Netanyahu said he has argued that "Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons is something that is dangerous to Israel and dangerous, in fact, to the world. And I think we have to find the ways -- which could include diplomatic and other ways -- to prevent that from happening."

Iran has fought to restart its nuclear reactors, but insists it is not trying to build nuclear weapons. The United States and others have expressed concern that Tehran is trying to operate a covert nuclear weapons program under the guise of a nuclear energy program.

Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also issued a series of statements calling for the end of Israel's existence, setting off a series of condemnations from international leaders including U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

"Not only does he (Ahmadinejad) want to erase Israel, he wants to erase 3,000 years of Jewish history and our presence and our belonging to this particular land. I mean, where is the Bible coming from, where is the whole of Jewish history, what is it all about? Yet we're supposed to be this foreign implantation that has no connection to this land," Netanyahu said.

Iran does not subscribe to the view that Israel and its neighbors must find a way to live in peace, he said.

Netanyahu said if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it would endanger not only Israel, but also the West and moderate Arab regimes as well. Steps should be taken to "prevent that danger from materializing," he said.

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