U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to project a united front yesterday, affirming an unbreakable alliance between their two countries even as differences persist on Iran and restarting peace talks with Palestinians.
The two leaders used a news conference in Jerusalem to deliver a joint message that even as they pursue sanctions to cripple Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the military threat against that country remains real. Both said they shared the concern that Syria’s chemical weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists.
From the moment Obama touched down on Israeli soil, the two leaders used their public statements and repeated embraces to demonstrate that their sometimes tense relationship over the past four years won’t interfere with a shared approach to what they see as the region’s most urgent issues.
Iran’s nuclear program and the turmoil in Syria were two of the main topics for Obama, 51, and Netanyahu, 63, as they met for several hours at the prime minister’s residence. Obama, on his first visit to Israel as president and the first foreign trip of his second term, is emphasizing the close cultural and policy links between the U.S. and Israel as well as his personal commitment to the country’s security.
Two rockets fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip hit Israel near the southern town of Sderot early today, Israel police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said by phone. One rocket caused damage to a courtyard, he added.
Obama yesterday recalled his visit to Sderot as senator, saying he met there “children who simply want to grow up free from fear.”
On Iran, Netanyahu said his government’s intelligence backs the Obama administration assessment that it would take about a year for the Islamic Republic to build a nuclear bomb. Obama said there are “not a lot” of differences between the U.S. and Israel on that timetable.
Netanyahu indicated some differences in approach to Iran. While thanking Obama for mobilizing international support for diplomatic and economic pressure on the country, he said those measures “so far have not stopped Iran’s nuclear program,” and must be backed by “a clear and credible threat of military action.”
Israel is concerned that Iran may reach a point with uranium enrichment that it enters “an immunity zone,” after which stopping the Islamic republic from building a weapon would be much more difficult and require military action, he said.
Obama repeated that “all options are on the table,” and that the U.S. would do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.
“We prefer to resolve this diplomatically, and there’s still time to do so,” the president said.
Iran was the No. 6 producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in February and sanctions have been aimed at squeezing its exports. Rising tensions would hit oil markets. West Texas Intermediate oil for May delivery was at $93.33 a barrel, down 17 cents, in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange at 10:21 a.m. Sydney time.
Obama said he is “deeply skeptical” of claims by Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria that rebels fighting against it used a chemical weapon this week. The U.S. intends to “investigate thoroughly” what happened.
“We know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical weapons attacks,” Obama said. “Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game-changer.”
He declined to specify what action the U.S. might take as a response.
The other major topic the two leaders discussed was stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Obama is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas today and Jordan’s King Abdullah II tomorrow.
Netanyahu said his government is “fully committed to peace and to the solution of two states for two peoples.”
Obama said his goal was to spend time listening to regional leaders, to help understand how the U.S. can play a role in restarting negotiations.
Neither man mentioned the expansion of Jewish settlements in Israeli-occupied Palestinian areas, one of the main points of contention between Israel and the U.S. in dealing with the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu instituted a partial settlement freeze that expired in 2010 and he has refused to stop construction since.
Since then, “we haven’t gone forward,” Obama said. “We haven’t seen the kind of progress that we would like to see.”
Obama’s program in Israel includes visits to the Israel Museum housing the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. The centerpiece of the trip will be a speech today, primarily to young Israelis, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at email@example.com