Obama and Netanyahu: In Israel, a show of warmth as region heats up

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called each other by first names in their press conference Wednesday. Syria and Iran appeared to figure prominently in their discussions.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Barack Obama hugs Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion International Airport Airport in Tel Aviv March 20.
RIch Claubaugh/Staff
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Syria’s destabilizing civil war and unconfirmed reports of a chemical-weapons attack in the fighting leapfrogged to the top of the agenda for President Obama’s trip to Israel Wednesday.

Mr. Obama, standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an evening press conference in Jerusalem, asserted that verification of use of chemical weapons would be “a game-changer” and would prompt a new level of US involvement in the 2-year-old war.

The United States is currently investigating “exactly what happened” in the attack Tuesday in northern Syria, where both sides in the conflict claim chemical weapons were used, Obama said. The confirmed use of the weapons, he said, would “let the genie out of the bottle” for even worse mass killings and the possible transfer of the weapons to terrorists.

Obama said he was aware of the mutual accusations by the opposition and the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, but he said he is “deeply skeptical of any claim that it was in fact the opposition that used chemical weapons.”

Obama and Mr. Netanyahu emerged from several hours of talks at the prime minister’s residence with little hint of the generally cool and even tense relations that characterized the past four years.

Iran’s nuclear program and the possibilities of reviving the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process were clearly also key issues in the two leaders’ discussions. But the prevailing theme, based on the comments each offered at their press conference, was Israel’s security in what Obama called a “tough neighborhood that has only gotten tougher” – and the “unbreakable” US commitment to that security.

Netanyahu, who opened his comments by addressing Obama as “Barack,” said he is “absolutely convinced the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”

Even as he addressed serious issues, Obama returned Netanyahu’s favor by repeatedly referring to him by his nickname, “Bibi.”

In answer to a question about differences between the two leaders about Iran, the Israeli leader referred to what he said is a public “misunderstanding about time” as it relates to Iran’s nuclear program.

Netanyahu called “correct” Obama’s recent statement to Israeli television that Iran would need a year or so to build a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so. But he also said, as he has in the past, that Iran could reach what Israel sees as an unacceptable “immunity zone” before it actually built a nuclear bomb.

Iran “has not yet reached the red line I described in my speech” at the United Nations last September, he said, adding that Iran is still getting closer. At the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu said Iran was on track to cross Israel’s “red line” this spring or early summer.

Instead of outlining any differences with Obama, Netanyahu underscored his appreciation of the president’s recognition of Israel’s “absolute right” to defend itself.

Following the press conference, Obama was to have dinner and more talks with Netanyahu. On Thursday, Obama will deliver a speech “to the Israeli people” – in which he said he would have more to say about the goal of a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The president will also cross over into the West Bank Thursday to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Obama repeated in the press conference what he said before leaving Washington, that this trip was to be a “listening tour” for him to get a better idea of conditions in the region and to gauge what might be possible, for example in terms of any renewed Mideast peace initiative. (His 2009 visit to Cairo for a landmark speech to the world’s Muslims predated the Arab Awakening.)

It was the reports of chemical-weapons use in Syria that have cast a shadow over the current trip and suggest it might have to be more than a “listening tour.” Israeli intelligence sources were insisting a chemical attack had occurred, even as US officials continued Wednesday to cast doubt on the reports.

Back in Washington, some congressional voices were nudging the president along, insisting that even some very minimal use of a chemical agent would warrant a swift US response. Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday there was a high probability the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, and he suggested the US should act now to take out any future ability to do so.

Despite the serious issues on their agenda, Obama and Netanyahu suggested by their lighthearted banter that they were both aware their publics were watching for signs of the much-reported tensions between them.

Obama even quipped to Netanyahu that he especially appreciated the Israel trip as an opportunity “to get away from Congress.”

It was a joke Netanyahu said he could appreciate – since the Israeli leader, having suffered a setback in January parliamentary elections, has just come out of more than a month of tough negotiations and bargaining to form a government.

The two leaders even got around to deriding each other’s physical attributes. At the press conference, Obama noted that he had had the pleasure of meeting Netanyahu’s two sons – “who clearly got their looks from their mother.”

Netanyahu quickly responded with, “I could say the same of your daughters!,” to which a grinning Obama could only add, “This is true.”

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