Obama Shows Solidarity in Israel

By Wilson, Scott | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), March 21, 2013 | Go to article overview

Obama Shows Solidarity in Israel


Wilson, Scott, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


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. …

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