Obama and Netanyahu play down differences

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office of the White House 5 March 2012 The two leaders played down their differences in a joint appearance at the White House

The Israeli prime minister and American president sat side by side, faced the cameras and emphasised agreement in their separate monologues.

It was a very deliberate contrast to their last awkward, tetchy meeting, when Benjamin Netanyahu lectured Barack Obama on Israeli and Jewish history.

The two men may not have warm feelings towards each other, but they don't want the embarrassment of a public falling out.

President Obama, again stressing that he "has Israel's back", is well aware of the damage a public spat with Israel could do in an election year.

Mr Netanyahu does not face an election, but there are those at home who don't like his feuding with the US president.

So there was plenty of talk of agreement. The trouble was they stressed different points of agreement.

'Controlling our destiny'

President Obama repeated that it was "unacceptable" for Iran to get nuclear weapons, and that he meant it when he said "all options" were on the table.

But that was not his main message. That was about a window of opportunity.

Start Quote

If you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you'll love Iran”

End Quote General Anthony Zinni

"I know that both the prime minister and I prefer to resolve this diplomatically," Mr Obama said.

"We understand the costs of any military action. And I want to assure both the American people and the Israeli people that we are in constant and close consultation."

The Israeli prime minister, hands splayed on his knees, listened intently, nodding from time to time. For him, the key point was the president's acceptance of Israel's sovereign right to act on its own.

"Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself against any threat; and that when it comes to Israel's security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions," Mr Netanyahu said.

"I believe that's why you appreciate, Mr President, that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself."

"And after all, that's the very purpose of the Jewish state - to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny. And that's why my supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate," he added.

It was time for the president to nod in agreement.


Both men know that a lack of unity can only benefit a common enemy. But the disagreement between them is profound.

In one sense, it boils down to their different red lines - what they will not allow.

President Obama has said Iran must be stopped from "possessing" a nuclear weapon. That probably would not happen for a couple of years.

The Israeli government's red line is apparently when Iran has enough enriched uranium to make a bomb (and when they hide it deep underground). Analysts say the Iranians could achieve that later this year.

One Israeli journalist has written that the plan is to drag the US into a war just before the presidential elections in November.

But this is not just about when to go to war. President Obama has stressed his reluctance to go to war at all. The US military feels this even more strongly.

In 2009 US General Anthony Zinni said an attack on Iran would lead to boots on the ground and, "if you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you'll love Iran".

Sources with close links to US intelligence have told the BBC: "After a decade of wars in the extended Middle East, there's not much appetite for another one that directly destabilises the last effort [Iraq] and otherwise stresses an army that's badly in need of reorganisation and repair.

"Until there is clear evidence Iran has decided to work on a bomb - and the intelligence community does not think the decision has been taken - there is no justification for a US military attack. "

The unity on display today is paper-thin, and President Obama's real aim will be to stop Israel talking up the possibility of war.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    #311 "But the point is their motivation is understood and the Israelis are ignoring it, virtually welcoming war."

    They are not ignoring it. They are rejecting it. It's not the same thing. Israel is not buying Iran's posturing (especially over the pretext of the Palestinians) as a valid interest in international politics. It's up to Iran to choose what they want for their posturing. Bombs or peace

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    #310 JClarkson - their US favouring government will not be in control for very long. Things are changing very quickly. Have you not noticed that the biggest Taliban attacks are coming from Pakistan under the noses of the armed forces.

    As for Iran, I'm sure they react for a number of reasons. But the point is their motivation is understood and the Israelis are ignoring it, virtually welcoming war.

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    #307 "... how do you think a rapidly radicalising Pakistan will react?"

    More strongly than when the "Christian crusaders" are stomping on the heads of their "brother Muslims" (Taliban) right next door to them? I doubt that they will do anything. 1) They are heavily dependent on US aid. 2) Their gov. at least pretends to be secular-like.


  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    (cont) its own standing in the "Muslim" world and the Palestinians are just the convenient pretext for Iran's posturing. Cynical? Hehe...maybe not.
    During the first Gulf War, Saddam tried the same. He claimed that he would withdraw from Kuwait, if Israel would withdraw from the occupied territories (as if the two were somehow connected). You know what? For a couple of weeks, he was an Arab hero :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    #304 "Of course a Muslim State run Iran is going to agitate."

    Is it as a forgone conclusion as you make it sound? There are at least a dozen other Muslim states, some even closer than Iran, who are not agitating even 10% as much as Iran is...:) Here is what I think is really happening. I think Iran doesn't give a damn about the Palestinians. What Iran does give a damn about is (cont)


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