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Obama pledges to stop nuclear Iran, but says he still ‘prefers’ diplomatic resolution

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2013

JERUSALEM — In Israel for the first time in his 4-year-old presidency, President Obama tried to reassure the Israeli public Wednesday that he is determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

"We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to a nuclear Iran," Mr. Obama said at a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But he added, "We prefer to resolve this diplomatically, and there is still time to do this."

The two leaders have clashed often about the urgency of stopping Iran's suspected weapons program with military force if necessary. Mr. Netanyahu has pressed Mr. Obama for stronger action, while the president has favored sanctions to compel Iran to allow international inspections.

After a two-hour meeting with Mr. Obama, Mr. Netanyahu said they agree on the need for further action.

"Diplomacy and sanctions so far have not stopped Iran's nuclear program," Mr. Netanyahu told Mr. Obama. "I want to thank you once again for always making clear that Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat."

Mr. Netanyahu said he agreed with the U.S. that it would take Iran about a year to develop a nuclear weapon but said, "Whatever time is left, it's not a lot of time." He agreed that Israel and the U.S. share a "common assessment" of the timetable needed for Iran to build a bomb.

The Iranian threat was high on the agenda as Mr. Obama arrived in Israel for his first presidential visit, and the first foreign trip of his second term. The president also discussed with Mr. Netanyahu the civil war in Syria and prospects for reviving peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.

Mr. Obama said he's hopeful for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, although "we haven't seen the kind of progress that we would like to see."

Looking to hit the restart button on his administration's relationship with the United States' biggest Middle East ally, Mr. Obama immediately set about his effort to win over a largely disaffected Israeli public and reaffirm his relationships with Israeli leaders as the two countries seek solutions to major issues such as Iran, Syria and a Palestinian state.

At the arrival ceremony Wednesday at Ben Gurion Airport, the president began his speech by saying in Hebrew, "Good to be here again.

He ended by saying, "Our alliance is eternal" — a powerful statement from an American leader, especially when he used the Hebrew word "lanetsach" for "eternal."

Despite the large-scale financial assistance he has provided Israel and the support he has given Israeli leaders at the United Nations, Mr. Obama has been regarded by much of the Israeli public as unenthusiastic, and sometimes annoyed, by the Jewish state.

A poll published this week shows that 51 percent of the Jewish public in Israel sees him as neutral in his attitude toward Israel and the Arabs, while 10 percent see him as downright hostile. Most said they do not see him safeguarding Israel's interests.

In his remarks Wednesday, Mr. Obama showed that he had taken under advisement past criticism about his seeming coolness, including complaints that he seems to regard Israel as a post-Holocaust refuge rather than as a state with an ancient connection to its territory. He did not mention the Holocaust at the airport.

Instead, he referred to the Jewish people's 3,000-year-old history in the area and called today's Israelis "the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah."

Although officials in both camps have lowered expectations, the weighty regional issues facing the countries make it unlikely that the three-day visit will pass without substantive talks.

Topping the agenda is Iran. Mr. Netanyahu, who last year said that the "red line" concerning Iran's nuclear program will be reached this spring or summer, heard a different assessment last week from Mr. Obama, who put it at a year or more.

Mr. Netanyahu is expected to press Mr. Obama for reassurances that the United States will act well before Iran has turned the last screw in a nuclear device.

Mr. Obama, in turn, will want reassurances from Mr. Netanyahu that Israel will not launch a pre-emptive strike on its own.

The two leaders and their aides also will discuss possible scenarios regarding Syria. It is believed that Mr. Obama may ask for Israeli gestures of good will toward the Palestinians, but it is doubtful that he will seek a resumption at present of serious peace negotiations, given the fractured state of the Palestinian camp.

In moving down the reception line at the airport, Mr. Obama paused before two liberal ministers — Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni — and said he looks forward to working with them.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, in his airport address, said he looks forward to the creation of a prosperous and independent Palestinian state — a sentiment not shared by right-wing ministers shaking Mr. Obama's hand.

Initial reaction to Mr. Obama's visit from ordinary Israelis appeared positive, but most said they would reserve their opinion until his visit is over.

"I've been suspicious about him," said Mary Ann Wolinksy, a Jerusalem housewife. "I've felt that he thinks the other side — the Arabs — have not been given a fair shot. I believe that's not correct. The Arabs just will not accept us. But I'm glad that he came. If he sees this close up as a democratic and vibrant country, it may change some of his thinking."

Reuven Schindler, a sociology professor at Bar-Ilan University, said that he always has regarded Mr. Obama as a friend and that his visit will allow skeptical Israelis to look at him anew.

"He was very relaxed and seemed to be enjoying himself," Mr. Schindler said. "He comes across as being quite sincere. Israelis haven't seen that before, face to face."

The president's four-day trip will also take him to the West Bank, where he will meet with leaders of the Palestinian Authority, and to Jordan.

• Dave Boyer reported from Washington.

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