US President Barack Obama signaled he did not come to Israel to rein in Jerusalem on Iran, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu unequivocally came out in favor of a two-state solution at a press conference Wednesday night following the first of a number of planned meetings over the next two days between the two leaders.
Obama arrived on his long-awaited visit to Israel in the afternoon, and after an upbeat welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport and a colorful reception at the President’s Residence, he went to the Prime Minister’s Residence for marathon meetings with Netanyahu.
After the first part of those meetings, which focused on Iran, the two men held a press conference where they took pains to praise the other, and to play down any possible disagreements.
There was no mention of settlements or a different timeline on Iran.
Netanyahu praised Obama for the steps he has taken to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, saying, “I appreciate your forthright position on this point.”
However, he said, notwithstanding “our joint efforts, and your great success in mobilizing the international community, diplomacy and sanctions so far have not stopped Iran’s nuclear program.”
Click here for full JPost coverage of Obama's visit
The prime minister reiterated that to stop the Iran, diplomacy and sanctions needed to be augmented by “a clear and and credible threat of military action.” In this regard, he said, he wanted to thank Obama for making it clear that Israel must be able “to defend itself, by itself against any threat.”
He stressed this a number of times, as if signaling to Iran that Obama was not reining him in. Obama echoed this sentiment, saying that “each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to its decision to engage in any kind of military action. And Israel is differently situated from the US, and I would not expect the prime minister to make a decision about this country’s security and defer that to any other country.”
Netanyahu thanked Obama for his comments at the welcoming ceremony at the airport, for saying that Israel was the fulfillment “of the old age dream of the Jewish people to be masters of our own fate.” He said that comment touched on the essence of Israel, and “that is why I know you appreciate that Israel can never cede the right to defend ourselves to others, even to the greatest of our friends, and Israel has no better friend then the United States of America.
“I am absolutely convinced the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and I appreciate that,” the prime minister said.
Obama said Israel and the US agreed on the threat Iran posed, and the goal – to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. He said there was, however, still time to achieve this diplomatically. The US president said his country would continue to consult with Israel on next steps, “and I will repeat, all options are on the table, we will do what is necessary to keep Iran from getting the world’s worst weapons.”
Obama said, however, that the most permanent solution to the Iranian nuclear problem would be if Tehran would decide on its own to stop development of nuclear capabilities. “But I don’t know if they will take that step,” he said.
Obama said Israel and the US’s military and intelligence cooperation was unprecedented, and there was “not a lot of daylight between our countries’ assessments in terms of where Iran is right now.”
Regarding the Palestinian track, Netanyahu came out clearly, and without any equivocation, just two days after his new government was sworn in, and said he remained committed to the twostate solution.
“I know there were questions regarding what the policy of the new government will be towards peace with the Palestinians. So let me be clear,” he said. “Israel remains fully committed to peace and to the solution of two states for two peoples. We extend our hands in peace and friendship to the Palestinian people.”
He said he hoped Obama’s trip will help the two sides achieve “the historic compromise that will end our conflict once and for all.”
Obama was careful to nod to Israel’s security needs, and added that “they are truly unique.” Just as his first responsibility was to protect US citizens, Netanyahu’s first responsibility, the president said, was to protect Israeli citizens.
He said that for that reason he made clear as president that America’s commitment to the security of Israel is a “solemn obligation,” and that its security is nonnegotiable.
He stressed that America’s support for Israel’s security “is unprecedented, and the alliance between our nations has never been stronger.”
He announced that during the meeting the two leaders agreed to begin talks on extending the military aid package to Israel that ends in 2017, and that the teams have been directed to extend that package.
“I am also pleased to announce that we will take steps [to ensure] that there is no interruption in funding for the Iron Dome,” and that Israel will receive $200 million for the Iron Dome in this fiscal year, and work with Congress for future funding, the US president said.
Obama said he welcomed Netanyahu’s words about a two-state solution.
“A central element of a lasting peace, must be a strong and secure Jewish state, where Israel’s security concerns are met, alongside a sovereign and independent Palestinian state,” he said, noting that last year was a milestone in that it was the first time in four decades that no Israeli was killed from terrorism emanating from the West Bank. He said this was a reminder that Israel has a profound interest “in a strong and effective Palestinian Authority.”
As the new government begins its work, he said, “We will continue to look for steps that both Israelis and Palestinians can take to build trust and confidence on which lasting peace will depend.”
Regarding Syria, Obama said that President Bashar Assad has lost his legitimacy by attacking his people with almost every conventional weapon in his arsenal, including Scud missiles.
“We have been clear that the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people would be a serious and tragic mistake,” he said.
Obama said the US shared Israel’s concern about these weapons being transferred to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah.
Asked whether chemical weapons were used in Syria earlier this week, he said the US will “investigate thoroughly” what happened. He disputed, however, claims that the opposition used the chemical weapons. He also rejected the claim that the US has done nothing to stop the carnage in Syria, saying it has helped to mobilize the isolation of the Assad regime, supported and recognized the opposition, and provided hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid.
The two men joked together at the press conference, and at the airport where Obama was told to follow the red lines to inspect an Iron Dome battery, and said Netanyahu was always talking about red lines.
At the press conference he also joked about Netanyahu’s sons, saying they were “very” good looking young men, and clearly got their looks from their mother.”
To which Netanyahu reciprocated, “I can say the same about your daughters.”
Obama retorted: “Our goal is to improve our gene pool, by marrying women who are better than we are.” He also joked about the difficulties Netanyahu had in coalition building, saying that he only had to find consensus among two main parties, while Netanyahu needed to find consensus among many more.
Netanyahu referred to Obama at the outset as Barack, and Obama throughout called him “Bibi.”
Netanyahu seemed surprised, and moved, when Obama quoted a passage from his fallen brother Yoni Netanyahu’s book, when the president said that in one of his letters home he wrote, “Don’t forget: Strength, justice and staunch resolution are on our side."