to Israel: `We got your back'
By Anne Gearan
- WASHINGTON - In a
display of unity between allies who often disagree, President
Barack Obama assured Israel's visiting leader Monday that the
United States "will always have Israel's back," and said the
U.S. and Israel agree that diplomacy is the best way to resolve
the crisis over potential Iranian nuclear weapons.
"Both the prime minister and I prefer to solve this
diplomatically," Obama said as he and Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu began several hours of White House
consultations. The U.S. will consider all options in confronting
what it sees as the unacceptable outcome of an Iranian bomb,
"Israel and America stand together," Netanyahu said. He added
that Israel is a sovereign nation with the right to defend
itself, a pointed reference to the main question hanging over
Monday's high-stakes meeting: Whether to try to stop an Iranian
bomb by with a military attack in the next several months.
Israel must remain "the master of its fate," Netanyahu said.
Obama will try to persuade Netanyahu to slow quickening pressure
among many in his hawkish government to attack Iran's disputed
nuclear development sites. Obama is trying to avert an Israeli
strike that could come this spring, and which the United States
sees as dangerously premature.
The president is expected to tell Netanyahu in private at the
White House that although the U.S. is committed to Israel's
security it does not want to be dragged into another war. Obama
is unlikely to spell out U.S. "red lines" that would trigger a
military response, despite Israeli pressure to do so.
Obama previewed the Oval Office meeting with a speech Sunday to
American supporters of Israel, a key constituency in this
Obama said he doesn't want war but insists he would attack Iran
if that was the only option left to stop that nation from
getting a nuclear weapon.
"Loose talk of war" only plays into Iran's hands, Obama said.
U.S. officials believe that while Tehran has the capability to
build a nuclear weapon, it has not yet decided to do so. They
want to give sanctions time to pressure Iran to give up any
military nuclear ambitions. Israel says the threat is too great
to wait and many officials there are advocating a pre-emptive
Obama did not directly call on Israel to stand down, and made a
point of saying Israel should always have the right to defend
itself as it sees fit.
That was the part of Obama's speech to the American Israel
Public Affairs Committee that Netanyahu said he liked best.
Speaking to reporters in Canada ahead of his arrival in the
U.S., Netanyahu made no reference to the sanctions and diplomacy
Obama is unlikely to persuade Netanyahu that economic sanctions
and diplomacy are enough to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear
weapon, and he is unlikely to win any new concessions from
Netanyahu on peace talks, the issue that drew bad blood between
the two men in previous meetings and led the Israeli leader to
publicly scold Obama last year.
Netanyahu has not publicly backed a military strike, but his
government spurned arguments from top U.S. national security
leaders that a preemptive attack would fail.
"Now is not the time for bluster," Obama said. "Now is the time
to let our increased pressure sink in."
Israeli President Shimon Peres, who had a meeting with Obama
Sunday, said he "came out with the feeling that the man is
determined to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons."
Netanyahu was more subdued in reacting to Obama's comments
Sunday, saying, "more than everything, I value his statement
that Israel must be able to protect itself from all threats."
Obama framed military force as a last resort, not the next
option at a time when sanctions are squeezing Iran. He said just
the talk of war has driven up the price of oil to the benefit of
Although Israel says it hasn't decided whether to strike, it has
signaled readiness to do so within the next several months. The
top U.S. military officer recently called a unilateral strike
"imprudent," a mild catchall for the chain-reaction of oil price
hikes, Iranian retaliation, terror strikes and a possible wider
Mideast war that U.S. officials fear could flow from an Israeli
Israel says a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to its
existence. It cites Iranian leaders' repeated calls for Israel's
destruction, support for anti-Israel militant groups and its
arsenal of ballistic missiles that are already capable of
striking Israel. Israel also fears a nuclear Iran would touch
off an atomic weapons race in a region hostile to Israel's
Addressing the powerful pro-Israel lobby, Obama delivered
messages to multiple political audiences: Israel, Iran, Jewish
voters, a restless Congress, a wary international community and
three Republican presidential contenders who will speak to the
same group Tuesday.
At the core was his assertion that the United States will never
settle for containing a nuclear-armed Iran or fail to defend
The head of the U.N. nuclear agency said Monday his organization
has "serious concerns" that Iran may be hiding secret atomic
weapons work, as he acknowledged failure in his latest attempt
to probe such suspicions and listed recent atomic advances by
"The agency continues to have serious concerns regarding
possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program,"
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano said in
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