Obama, Netanyahu publicly concur on key issues
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JERUSALEM -- President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed an unusual degree of solidarity Wednesday on a set of shared national security concerns that have divided them in the past, signaling either a turn in their vital, if volatile, relationship or a cool tactical display of diplomatic theater.
The leaders' joint appearance concluded a tone-setting first day of Mr. Obama's first presidential trip to Israel, a visit celebrated with military ceremony, children's serenades and a rare personal chemistry with a hard-line Israeli leader with whom he has often bickered publicly.
In particular, Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, appearing at an evening news conference, reached what seemed to be a consensus regarding their views of Iran's uranium enrichment program. Iran denies that the program is designed to develop a nuclear weapon, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama, who advocates a diplomatic solution to the matter, have disagreed over how much time remains before a military strike against Iran is necessary to slow the program.
Mr. Obama recently said he thinks Iran is a year from achieving a nuclear weapons capability, a timeline that has differed from Israeli assessments. On Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu moved closer to Mr. Obama's timeline -- and even softened his certainty about Iran's intent -- to allow more space for diplomacy. "I think that there's a misunderstanding about time," the Israeli leader said. "If Iran decides to go for a nuclear weapon -- that is, to actually manufacture the weapon -- then it will take them about a year."
Mr. Obama, in turn, reiterated his support for Israel's right to self-defense. He pledged to seek additional funding for the Iron Dome system, which he saw when he swung by an anti-missile battery after his Ben Gurion International Airport arrival. The system, which shot down hundreds of Gaza-fired rockets in November, will get $200 million in U.S. funding this fiscal year. Mr. Obama said he and Mr. Netanyahu will begin talks to extend the U.S.-Israeli military aid pact beyond its current 2017 expiration.
"Israel's security needs are truly unique, as I've seen myself," Mr. Obama said. "And flying in today, I saw again how Israel's security can be measured in mere miles and minutes."
The warm Obama-Netanyahu display comes against the backdrop of a rapidly changing Middle East, now shifting politically and culturally through war, protest and elections. It is too soon to tell whether the two leaders have overcome past differences, which have played out in venues as public as the Oval Office. But signs of a stronger U.S.-Israel relationship may apply new pressure on Iran's leaders, who Mr. Obama said Wednesday must be convinced that it is not in their interest to pursue a nuclear weapon.
Mr. Obama's visit to the prime minister's official residence featured a surprising levity between two men whose public posture together has more often than not been dour, angry and hectoring. Upon arrival at Mr. Netanyahu's residence, the president invited the prime minister's wife, Sara, to stand between the two for a photo. "A rose between the thorns," Mr. Obama joked.
When Mr. Obama teased Mr. Netanyahu during the news conference that his "handsome sons" got their looks from their mother, a grinning Mr. Netanyahu replied, "I could say the same thing about your daughters."
Mr. Obama is packing a lot into his three-day trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank, where he is to meet this morning with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The trip, on which he is accompanied by his new secretary of state, John Kerry, is a mission of remedial diplomacy after a difficult first term with the closest U.S. Middle Eastern ally and a deeply disillusioned set of Palestinian leaders.
Mr. Obama's early demand that Mr. Netanyahu cease settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem -- areas, along with Gaza, that Palestinians consider part of their future state -- created a rift that became a bitter campaign issue in last year's U.S. election. In his 2009 address to the Islamic world in Cairo, Mr. Obama said he would not accept the "legitimacy" of continued Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories, activity that many legal experts say violates international law.
His decision not to stop in Israel after that speech -- he instead visited the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany to highlight Jewish suffering during the Holocaust -- raised concern among many Israelis that Mr. Obama did not understand their nation's biblical roots.
Immediately upon arrival, Mr. Obama began to address those lingering concerns, which had stirred resentment even among a slice of the Israeli electorate that supports creation of a Palestinian state. As he spoke from the airport tarmac, Mr. Obama began with a simple "Shalom," the common Hebrew salutation, which, literally translated, means "peace."
"More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people prayed here, tended the land here, prayed to God here," he said at the welcome ceremony. "And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish state of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history."
In addition to the Iranian nuclear program, Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu said they agreed on perils posed by the widening civil war in Syria. The president defended his policy toward Syria, where an estimated 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war, citing international sanctions he helped organize against President Bashar Assad's government. But he also said chemical weapons use by Syria's government, which Syrian rebels alleged occurred Tuesday, would be a "game-changer" prompting a more direct, if unspecified, U.S. response.
Mr. Netanyahu's hard-line Likud Party lost seats in January's elections, and he now heads a governing coalition more moderate and secular than his last. Whether that will translate into a new peace process is unclear, as Israelis focus on domestic issues around which much of the campaign was fought.
Mr. Obama said he will speak today with Mr. Abbas about to reviving direct Israeli-Palestinian talks and tonight to young Israelis in a Jerusalem speech.
Except for a brief period in the fall of 2010, direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been dormant for more than four years. But Mr. Obama received a boost Wednesday from Mr. Netanyahu, who in the past has endorsed creation of a Palestinian state with so many caveats that Palestinian leaders have dismissed the notion as a ploy. In his opening statement, the prime minister said, "Israel remains fully committed to peace and to the solution of two states for two peoples." It was one of his strongest public comments in favor of a Palestinian state.
Mr. Obama acknowledged that he is not bringing new ideas for how to begin those talks, saying he "purposely did not come here with some big announcement that did not necessarily meet the realities on the ground." Regarding his first-term Middle East efforts, he mused: "I'm absolutely sure that there are a host of things that I could have done that would have been more deft and would have created better optics. But ultimately, this is a really hard problem."
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First Published March 21, 2013 12:00 am