Obama Says Israel Has Right to Defend Against Iran Threat

President Barack Obama said the U.S. will do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon and echoed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that Israel has the right to “defend itself, by itself.”

Iran’s nuclear program and the turmoil in Syria were two of the main topics after the two leaders met for several hours at the prime minister’s residence. The U.S. is investigating claims that a chemical weapon had been used in Syria and that it would be a “game changer” if that was verified, Obama said at a press conference alongside Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu said he was “absolutely convinced” of Obama’s resolve in preventing Iran from building a nuclear bomb, adding that diplomatic and economic pressure must be backed up by a “clear and credible threat of military action.”

“Each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action,” Obama said. “Israel is differently situated than the United States, and I would not expect the prime minister to make a decision about his country’s security and defer that to any other country.”

Obama arrived in Tel Aviv today for his first visit to Israel as president and the first foreign trip of his second term. By visiting Israel, the U.S. president was seeking to reassure Israelis about his commitment to their country’s security following tension with Netanyahu over Jewish settlements, the peace process and dealing with Iran.

Military Aid

Obama and Netanyahu, who were meeting for the 10th time in the past four years, focused on areas of agreement regarding Iran and the peace process and highlighted the U.S. commitment to continuing military aid to Israel amid cuts to the U.S. budget.

The two leaders said they were in accord on the timeline for Iran’s progress toward being able to build a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu said he shared the U.S. view that it would take about a year for Iran to build a nuclear bomb. Obama said there “is not a lot of daylight” between the U.S. and Israel.

Common Assessment

“We do have a common assessment on the schedules,” Netanyahu said. Israel is concerned that Iran may reach a point with 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.

Netanyahu thanked the U.S. leader for mobilizing international support for diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, adding that those measures must be backed up by a credible threat of military force. Iran presents an existential threat, he said, and “Israel can never cede the right to defend ourselves.”

He said he appreciated Obama’s repeated warnings to Iran of military action and his statements of support for Israel’s right and capability to defend itself. Netanyahu said Obama has reaffirmed that right more than any other president.

“We prefer to resolve this diplomatically, and there is still time to do so,” Obama said. “The question is will Iranian leadership seize that opportunity.”

‘Deeply Skeptical’

On Syria, Obama said he is “deeply skeptical” of claims by Bashar al-Assad’s regime that opposition forces used a chemical weapon. The U.S. intends to “investigate thoroughly” what happened.

Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, accused “terrorist groups” of firing a rocket laden with chemicals, whose “thick smoke” killed 25 people and injured 110 in the Khan al-Assal area in Aleppo province.

“We have to make sure we know exactly what happened, what was the nature of the incident, what can we document, what can we prove?” Obama said. “Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer.”

He and Netanyahu expressed concern that Syria’s chemical weapons might fall into the hands of terrorist groups.

The other major topic they discussed was stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. While Obama’s four-day agenda in the Middle East doesn’t include specific goals for reviving negotiations, Obama is also scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas tomorrow and Jordan’s King Abdullah II on March 22.

Obama’s Goal

Obama said his goal was to spend time listening to regional leaders. That way, he’d have a better understanding of the constraints and interests of the various parties and how the U.S. could play a constructive role in restarting negotiations.

“Ultimately this is a really hard problem that has been lingering for over six decades,” Obama said.

To reinforce Obama’s commitment to Israel, symbolic gestures planned during his visit may be as important as the discussions he’s having. He will view the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum; visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial; and lay wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

At the arrival ceremony in Tel Aviv, Obama, Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres were all dressed in dark suits and wore blue ties with their white dress shirts, mirroring the colors of the Israeli flag. Together they observed a U.S.-funded Iron Dome missile-defense battery that was brought to Ben Gurion Airport to highlight the U.S.-Israel security partnership.

Tree Planting

Later in the day, Obama planted in Peres’s garden a magnolia tree brought from the U.S. to signify the strong roots of the relationship between the U.S and Israel, administration officials said.

The centerpiece of Obama’s time in Israel will be a speech he is set to deliver tomorrow, primarily to young Israelis, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. With Obama at the start of his second term and Netanyahu having just formed a new government, the U.S. president has an opportunity to reintroduce himself and ease lingering doubts -- that extend also to some American Jews -- about his commitment to Israel.

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