President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embrace at a news conference Wednesday at Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem. They have sparred many times in the past, but presented a united front on Iran. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
Jerusalem — Seeking a fresh start to a strained relationship, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday demonstrated solidarity on the key issues that have stirred tensions between them.
Obama, in Israel for the first time in his presidency, vowed he would do "what is necessary" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, while Netanyahu reaffirmed that his newly formed government seeks a two-state solution to Israel's decades-long dispute with the Palestinians.
Expectations were low for a breakthrough during Obama's visit on any of the major issues roiling the region. Instead, the president was focused on reassuring anxious Israelis that he is committed to their security, and on resetting his rocky relationship with Netanyahu. The two leaders have been at odds over Israeli settlements and Iran's disputed nuclear programs, and Netanyahu famously lectured Obama in front of the media in the Oval Office on Israel's right to defend himself.
Compared with past encounters, there was a noticeable lack of uneasiness Wednesday. They traded jokes throughout a day of side-by-side appearances. And they repeatedly referred to each other by their first names, Obama calling his Israeli counterpart by his nickname, "Bibi."
On Iran in particular, the two leaders sought to show they were united in their desire to prevent the Islamic republic from developing what Obama called "the world's worst weapons." Although preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon is a priority of both countries, Netanyahu and Obama have differed on precisely how to achieve that goal. Israel repeatedly has threatened to take military action should Iran appear to be on the verge of obtaining a bomb, while the U.S. has pushed for more time to allow diplomacy and economic penalties to run their course.
Obama said he continues to prefer a diplomatic solution and sees time to achieve it. Whether that works, he said, will depend on whether Iran's leaders "seize that opportunity."
Although Obama did not promise that the United States would act militarily against Iran if Israel decided that must be done, he offered an explicit endorsement for Israel to take whatever unilateral measures it deems necessary to guard against the threat.
"Each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action, and Israel is differently situated than the United States," he said. "I would not expect that the prime minister would make a decision about his country's security and defer that to any another country any more than the United States would defer our decisions about what was important for our national security."
Netanyahu strongly backed Obama's efforts, saying he was "absolutely convinced" the U.S. is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
"I appreciate the fact that the president has reaffirmed, more than any other president, Israel's right and duty to defend itself by itself against any threat," he said.
Obama is making a quick trip to the West Bank today to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Obama planned to visit a youth center in Ramallah before heading back to Jerusalem to deliver a speech and attend a formal dinner with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Obama seeing red lines
Red lines. When it comes to the Middle East, President Barack Obama is encountering them everywhere.
They are painted on the ground as directional markers for visiting dignitaries, and they are in Obama’s and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy rhetoric as not-to-be-crossed warnings to Syria and Iran.
As Obama prepared to tour a missile battery that is part of Israel’s Iron Dome defenses, an aide at the Tel Aviv airport directed the president to follow the red line on the tarmac.
"Bibi’s always talking to me about red lines," Obama quipped, referring to Netanyahu by his familiar name. Netanyahu has set "red lines" on Iran’s nuclear development capabilities.
Referring to the painted red lines at the airport, Obama joked that it was "a psychological ploy."
Netanyahu replied: "It was minutely planned."
Palestinians await president
When Obama visits the West Bank today, the Palestinians will send a message of music and peace.
Dozens of Palestinians will perform the traditional Dabka dance for Obama at the Palestinian Youth Center El-Bireh. Obama is set to meet with 120 youths chosen from four centers across the West Bank that are funded by the State Department’s development arm, the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Saja Abdelraheem, one of seven dancers who will get to talk to Obama, said she’ll tell him she "has a dream" of seeing the conflict with Israel end during his term.