US and Israel talk tough on Iran during Obama visit

Video highlights of President Obama's trip to Israel

Barack Obama and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu have stressed their shared, tough stance towards Iran, as the US leader makes his first visit to Israel as president.

Speaking in Jerusalem, the two leaders said they agreed that Israel had the right to "defend itself by itself".

The leaders also reaffirmed their commitment to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

On Thursday, Mr Obama meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

Mr Obama arrived in Tel Aviv on Wednesday afternoon, as was greeted at Ben Gurion airport by Mr Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres.

He was taken immediately to see a missile battery that forms part of Israel's Iron Dome defence system against rocket attacks, before visiting Mr Peres at his official residence.

Analysis

The Israeli and American leaders were at pains to point out how much they now respect each other. Indeed day one of this historic visit has been full of words and images designed to erase those awkward scenes of three years ago when the two clearly did not see eye to eye on many issues.

It sort of worked but was all rather forced. On at least five occasions Obama referred to the Israeli Prime Minister as "Bibi". It is a nickname and was perhaps overused by a sometimes uncomfortable American leader, anxious to appeal to normal Israelis.

As for substance, there is still clearly one major difference of opinion - Iran.

Mr Netanyahu mentioned it in his first sentence and again and again. He also reminded us more than once that Israel has the right to self-determination and to defend itself. The obvious implication there is that he thinks President Obama still holds out hope for a diplomatic solution which will prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.

On other issues, there is more convergence. Especially on Syria and the wider region there is a shared American/Israeli view that this is an increasingly volatile place, a threat to global stability. As for the Israeli Palestinian peace process, the American president wouldn't expand but hinted he may have something more substantial to say on the topic in a major speech tomorrow.

On Thursday, he will visit the West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, before delivering a major speech to Israeli students in Jerusalem. He will leave for Jordan on Friday.

'Turn a page'

Following talks in Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu said the fact the US president had made Israel the first foreign visit of his second term was "deeply, deeply appreciated".

He thanked Mr Obama for "the investment you have made in our relationship and in strengthening the alliance between our countries".

Mr Netanyahu praised the president for his stance on Iran, saying he was "absolutely convinced" that Mr Obama was determined to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear armed state.

He said they agreed it would take Iran about a year to produce such a weapon, and Mr Obama said there was "not a lot of daylight" between their assessments of Tehran's nuclear programme.

On Syria, Mr Netanyahu said he and President Obama shared the same goal of seeing a stable and peaceful country emerge, and that they were determined to prevent Syria's chemical weapons from falling into "terrorist hands".

'Turn a page'

He said he knew there had been questions over what policy his new government - only sworn in two days ago - would take towards the Palestinians, but said it remained "fully committed to peace and the solution of two states for two peoples".

"We extend our hands in peace and friendship to the Palestinian people," he said, adding that he hoped Mr Obama's visit would "turn a page" in relations with the Palestinians.

Mr Obama, meanwhile, said America's commitment to the security of Israel was "a solemn obligation".

"Our alliance has never been stronger," he said. "That's the sturdy foundation we built on today as we addressed a range of challenges."

He said discussions would begin on extending US military assistance to Israel, and that Washington would give a further $200m (£132m) to fund Iron Dome.

US President Barack Obama in front of part of Israel's Iron Dome defence system at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, 20 March 2013

But a central element of securing a lasting peace in the Middle East "must be a strong and secure Jewish state where its security concerns are met, alongside a sovereign and independent Palestinian state," he said.

On Iran, he said: "We agree on our goal - to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

"We prefer to resolve this diplomatically, and there's still time to do so," he said, but added that Iran's leaders "must understand they have to meet their international obligations".

He reiterated his often-aired view that the US "will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from gaining the world's worst weapons".

The BBC's Wyre Davis in Jerusalem says the leaders were at pains to erase previous perceptions that they did not see eye to eye on issues and to show they now respected each other.

But there was still clearly disagreement over whether or not the Iranian issue could be resolved with diplomacy, our correspondent adds.

Barack Obama in Middle East

  • Wednesday: Meets Benjamin Netanyahu
  • Thursday: Meets Mahmoud Abbas, addresses Israeli students
  • Friday: Visits Bethlehem's Church of Nativity and later departs for Jordan

Security for Mr Obama's three-day visit is tight, with thousands of Israeli and Palestinian security officers on duty in Jerusalem and the Palestinians' de facto capital in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Both Israeli and Palestinian groups have staged protests in the run-up to Mr Obama's visit.

There were clashes in Hebron in the West Bank between pro-Palestine protesters calling for an end to "apartheid" and Israeli settlers, and in Gaza City protesters burned US flags outside UN offices.

Meanwhile, Israelis have staged protests in Jerusalem demanding Mr Obama free Jonathan Pollard, imprisoned in the US in 1987 for spying for Israel.

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