Israel’s right to “defend itself by itself” was a common theme in the press conference held jointly by U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier today, during the former’s first trip to Israel as U.S. President.
“Your first task is to keep the people of Israel safe,” said Obama to Netanyahu, referring to him by his nickname “Bibi” throughout the duration of the conference. On this point he said, “the Prime Minister and I agree.”
Answering questions about their respective approaches to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, differences once again emerged. “If Iran decides to manufacture a weapon, to go for a weapon that would take them about a year,”Netanyahu said, agreeing with an earlier assessment by the President. “Iran right now is enriching uranium,” he said, adding, “Iran gets to an immunity zone when they get through the enrichment process in our view.” President Obama by contrast stressed only that the United States was opposed to the Iranian completion of an actual nuclear weapon.
Responding to a string of questions from NBC’s Chuck Todd about his track record in dealing with Israel and the lack of progress towards Middle East peace under his administration, Obama acknowledged that there were a “host of things I could have done that would have been more deft and created better optics.”
Obama pledged to continue extending military aid to Israel for advanced missile defense systems, promising to “take steps to ensure no interruption in funding for Iron Dome.” Obama also pledged to open talks on a schedule for Israel aid for the next ten years, a point that Prime Minister Netanyahu stressed and offered thanks for later on in the conference. “We will help to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge,” promised Obama, “so that Israel can defend itself by itself.”
Obama also spoke about Syrian chemical weapons and the “peace process,” and expressed a wish to prevent Gaza based terror group Hamas from rearming.
Pushed by a reporter from Israel’s Channel 2 about his administration’s record in dealing with the Syrian civil war which has resulted in an acute humanitarian crisis, Obama stressed that “Assad has lost his legitimacy to lead,” and that he shared concern with the Israelis over the possibility of a transfer of chemical weapons to Lebanese based terror group Hezbollah.
Asked about recent reports that Assad’s army had actually already used chemical weapons, crossing a red line that Obama has previously set, he said, “we intend to investigate thoroughly what happened […] I instructed my teams to find out precisely if chemical weapons were used.”
“Once we establish the facts,” he said, “I have made clear that it is a game changer.”
Obama defended his policy of withholding military intervention in Syria by saying, “it is a world problem,” and “we will continue to work in an international framework.”
“We agreed that a nuclear armed Iran would be a threat to Israel (and) a threat to the world,” Obama said addressing an issue that is a central focus for both the Israeli and U.S. governments, saying however that “our policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
“We believe there is still time for diplomatic solution,” added Obama, but in the event that it fails Obama promised, “all options are on the table, we will do what is necessary.”
“My main goal on this trip is to have the opportunity to speak directly to the Israeli people,” said Obama, “and let them know that they have a friend in the united states.”
“To bring this to some sort of clear settlement, a solution that would allow Israelis to feel as if they have broken out of the current isolation they are in, in this region […] for Palestinians to feel that they too are masters of their own fate […] that kind of solution we have not yet seen,” Obama concluded.
The press conference wasn’t without its light moments. Remarking on having met Netanyahu’s wife and two sons earlier in the day, Obama said,” I informed the prime minister that they are very good looking young men who clearly got their good looks from their mother.” The comment elicited laughter from the audience and a smile from Netanyahu, who responded, “well, I could say the same of your daughters.”