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, North America editor Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    The key issue is Israel's continued occupation of Palestine and no one should be distracted by the war drums being sounded. When Israel at last changes behaviour in respect of umpteen UN mandates it has ignored, only then should we feel obliged to work with them. Who is taking care of the Palestinian's defence?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    It is hard to imagine the US being to willing to trust previously flawed intelligence if nuclear weapons were being developed in Mexico or Cuba. It is an amazing disconnect and really very cynical to insist that a country's future be dependent on the same intelligence apparatus that stated catagorically that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Any human, group or country causing grief to any person is a criminal. Iran has not attacked any neighbouring country in the last two centuries. It was Iraq under Saddam who was egged on by USA to attack Iran, hence Iran had to defend at very heavy loss of human, money and materials. While Zionists instigate, provoke, target important people and launch 'so called' pre-emptive strikes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    If Israel feels it's security is threatened, then it must act. But Israel's security is not the US's problem, despite the large and vocal Israel lobby. The US's reputation was badly damaged by the fiasco in Iraq, a war based on incorrect 'intelligence' of WMD. Israel is now trying to get the US to do it's dirty work, to both participate in the attack and to defend Israel from the fallout.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Israel has every right to defend itself. The Palestinians have every right to defend themselves, likewise the Iranians. To start a war is not self-defense, it's agression. The occupation of Palestine is not self-defense, it's agression. Israel does not have the nuclear bomb for self- defense, but to continue its illegal occupation of Palestine. ....


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