President Obama Meets With Prime Minister Netanyahu to Discuss Iran Problem

A day after speaking at the AIPAC Policy Conference, President Obama welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel deliver statements to the press prior to their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, March 5, 2012. Photo: Lawrence Jackson/The White House

The two men, who have had a strained relationship, sought to present a united front in the Iranian nuclear standoff as they held White House talks. But their public statements revealed differences over how to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, tells Reuters.

Behind closed doors, however, Netanyahu confirmed to Obama what the president has already stated publicly – that Israel has yet to decide whether to hit Iran’s nuclear sites but retains the right to resort to military action, a source close to the talks said.

The president and prime minister are linked by the history and necessity of their nations’ deep alliance, if not much personal warmth, and both sought to steer the Iran agenda on their terms.

“I know that both the prime minister and I prefer to resolve this diplomatically,” Obama said. “We understand the costs of any military action.”

Netanyahu, who has made clear that Israel is operating on a shorter timeline than the United States, said in public that Israel was entitled to “defend itself, by itself.” Israel sees Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to its existence, though Tehran insists it has only peaceful purposes.

“We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue,” Obama said, even as he sought to convince Netanyahu of U.S. resolve against Iran.

According to The Huff Post, Israel has not yet decided whether to launch a unilateral strike on Iran, a point underscored in the White House meetings.

There was no sign from Monday’s talks that Obama’s sharpened rhetoric against Tehran and his calls for restraint by Israel would be enough to delay any Israeli military plans against Iran, which has called for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Despite that, the body language between the two leaders was a stark contrast to their last Oval Office meeting in May 2011 when Netanyahu lectured Obama on Jewish history and criticized his approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Senior Obama administration officials said the talks at the White House left the two sides closer than they were a week ago. The Israelis walked away with prominent statements from Obama that he would not stand for containing a nuclear-armed Iran, and that the crisis was in the United States’ interests to solve.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.

Netanyahu emphasized that Israel must defend itself from an Iranian nuclear threat.

He said after his talks with Obama: “I think I was listened to and understood.”

Obama’s encounter with Netanyahu was considered crucial to preserving the trust of America’s closest Middle East ally, which fears that time is running out for an effective Israeli strike on Iran, and to counter election-year criticism from Republican rivals who question his support for the Jewish state.

Both leaders see a nuclear-armed Iran as a nightmare that could threaten Israel’s survival and potentially allow terrorists to grab unthinkably deadly power. Their difference is not over whether force may be needed – Obama has been specific on his willingness to use it – but whether the time for such a drastic step is nearing.

“The United States will always have Israel’s back when it comes to Israel’s security,” Obama said. Netanyahu took it further.

He said Americans know Israel is their only reliable democratic ally in the Mideast, and that Iran sees the two countries as inseparable enemies.

“For them, you’re the Great Satan, and we’re the Little Satan,” Netanyahu said. “For them, we are you and you’re us. And, you know something, Mr. President – at least on this last point, I think they’re right. We are you, and you are us. … Israel and America stand together.”

Netanyahu’s visit came one day before the pivotal “Super Tuesday” round of Republican primaries, with Obama’s Republican rivals seizing on the chance to accuse him of being weak in backing a staunch ally and in confronting a bitter foe.

GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich will speak to the pro-Israel group AIPAC on Tuesday.

Relations with Netanyahu have thawed over the past year as Obama has taken a tougher line on Iran while refraining from any new Middle East peace drives.

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