Meeting Netanyahu, Obama tries to tamp down war talk

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In a show of solidarity, President Obama sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to reassure him that the U.S. would always be there for Israel, even as he continued to try to tamp down talk of a military strike against Iran.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu met in the Oval Office for sensitive talks amid growing concerns about Tehran’s nuclear program and after weeks of speculation that Israel might go it alone and launch a military strike on Iran, which has vowed to wipe Israel off the map.

The president stressed his administration’s “unbreakable” commitment to Israel, noting the two countries’ mutual interest in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He also took a swipe at Republican presidential contenders who have criticized his approach to Iran and accused him of not being as pro-Israel as previous presidents.

“Our commitment to the security of Israel is rock solid,” Mr. Obama told reporters at the top of the meeting. “The United States will always have Israel’s back.”

Mr. Obama also said there is no daylight between his and Mr. Netanyahu’s approach, saying both men want to solve the issues with Iran diplomatically but are keeping all options on the table.

“When I say all options are at the table, I mean it,” Mr. Obama said. “Having said that, I know that both the prime minister and I prefer to resolve this diplomatically. 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.”

Mr. Netanyahu told Mr. Obama that “Israel and America stand together,” but he also seemed to push back a bit on the issue of whether Israel would take military action, noting that his country must be the “master of its fate.”

Israel must have the ability always to defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” Mr. Netanyahu said in brief but passionate comments at the start of the meeting. “After all, that is the very purpose of the Jewish state, to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny.”

The two leaders took no questions from reporters and kept their remarks to 10 minutes before aides ushered cameras out the door, likely an effort to keep both leaders, who have had a strained relationship in the past, on script during delicate discussions about Iran.

Unlike their first meeting in May 2009 or their testy interaction last year at a news conference in the Oval Office, Mr. Netanyahu didn’t look surprised or angry at anything the president said during the statements preceding their meeting.

In a speech to the pro-Israel lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday, Mr. Obama argued that “loose talk” of war by Israelis and pro-Israel hawks in the U.S. was only aiding Iran. He urged Israel and its supporters to allow for more time for sanctions to work before using military action.

Washington fears that a pre-emptive strike from Israel could prompt a fierce reaction from Iran and stoke more turmoil in the Middle East and ensnare the U.S. in another war in the region. There are also concerns that Israel isn’t capable of destroying Iran’s underground nuclear facilities, and thus any attack would only set back the program a few years.

Republican leaders, including presidential contender Newt Gingrich, were more explicit on Monday in expressing support for the Israelis.

The Associated Press reported that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the U.S. must be prepared to use “overwhelming force” to ensure that Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons.

“If Iran, at any time, begins to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level, or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States will use overwhelming force to end that program,” Mr. McConnell said, according to an advanced text of the speech.

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