Israel and the United States share a determination to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons, if necessary by taking military action, President Barack Obama said Monday as he opened talks with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mr. Obama called Israel “an island of democracy and one of our greatest allies.”
The President said he understood “that it’s unacceptable from Israel’s perspective to have a country with a nuclear weapon that has called for the destruction of Israel.”
But he also added that “it is profoundly in the United States’ interest as well to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Mr. Netanyahu, whose own relationship with Mr. Obama has sometimes been rocky, said the bond between the two countries was unshakable.
Even the Islamic regime in Tehran realizes that, he joked, as the two leaders sat in the Oval Office at the beginning of private sessions that will include a working lunch.
To Tehran’s ruling theocracy’s, “You’re the ‘Great Satan,” we are the ‘Little Satan,’” Mr. Netanyahu said.
The Israeli leader voiced effusive praise for Mr. Obama’s vow to back Israel.
“Israel must reserve the right to defend itself,” Mr. Netanyahu added, making clear the Jewish state would, if necessary, take unilateral military action against Iran. In an unambiguously pro-Israeli speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee on Sunday. Mr. Obama had decried “loose talk of war” that, he said, only helps Iran’s ruling mullahs.
Mr. Obama reiterated his vow to keep the Islamic regime from adding nuclear warheads to their arsenal – even if it means U.S. military action.
“There should not be a shred of doubt by now: when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back,” Mr. Obama said to applause.
Mr. Obama, widely regarded by many Israelis as the least-supportive American president in decades, made repeated efforts to establish that he was, and would remain, a loyal ally and reliable friend.
“Over the last three years, as President of the United States, I have kept my commitments to the state of Israel. At every crucial juncture – at every fork in the road – we have been there for Israel. Every single time,” Mr. Obama said.
In the speech, there was no mention of testy spats with Mr. Netanyahu nor unwelcome demands for an end to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, nor the controversial call Mr. Obama made last spring for Palestine’s boundaries to be drawn “based on 1967 lines with mutually-agreed swaps.”
Those – plus Mr. Obama’s considerable outreach to the Arab world, the evidently-chilly relationship with Mr. Netanyahu and the President’s pointed omission of Israel from his foreign visit list – had provided fodder for his political opponents.
Republican front runner Mitt Romney, for instance, said Mr. Obama “threw Israel under the bus” and “emboldened Palestinian hardliners.”
Newt Gingrich vowed to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem if he becomes president. And Rick Santorum says Mr. Obama has “betrayed Israel at almost every turn,” most recently, according to the Tea Party favourite, by disclosing Israeli plans to attack Iran.
“If during this political season you hear some question my administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts,” Mr. Obama said in his speech to AIPAC, widely regarded along with the National Rifle Association as the most influential lobby group in Washington.
Shoring up his pro-Israeli stand is important in an election year.
While a majority of Jewish Americans usually vote Democrat, any fall-off in turnout or shift to the Republicans could be vital in key swing states, notably Florida.
Without naming then, the President also decried his Republican rivals and Israeli hawks beating the drums of war for pre-emptive attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” he said, adding, “such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil.”
Instead, he said, “now is the time to heed that timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: speak softly, but carry a big stick.”
Only days earlier Mr. Obama made his most explicit public comments about using military force, if needed, to keep Tehran’s mullahs out of the nuclear-weapons’ club. “As President of the United States, I don’t bluff,” he said, adding that “both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”
But previous presidents, both Democrat and Republican, made similar threats about North Korea yet failed to take military action while Pyongyang defiantly built and tested a nuclear device.
Israel, which has its own, undeclared, nuclear weapons, has backed up its threats to deny them to others in the region. Israel warplanes attacked and destroyed nuclear sites in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.
But an Israeli attack against the widely dispersed and deeply buried Iranian nuclear sites would likely take weeks and might not be militarily achievable without at least tacit U.S. support given the distances and difficulties of a full-blown bombing campaign.
Determining just where the ‘red lines’ are drawn that would trigger Israeli or American attacks on Iran’s murky and controversial nuclear program is expected to dominate Monday’s talks.
The two have sparred publicly and privately.
It is their first meeting since November when Mr. Obama was caught caustically complaining about the Israeli leader. After French President Nicolas Sarkozy said: ‘Netanyahu, I can’t stand him. He’s a liar,” Mr. Obama, unaware his comments were picked up by media microphones, replied: “You are sick of him, but I have to deal with him every day.”