President Barack Obama kicked off a trip to the Mideast on Wednesday with his first visit to Israel as president, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and projecting a nearly united front on threats posed by Syria’s ongoing civil war and Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.
The two men appeared chummy during the visit, joking easily and saluting one another in a sharp departure from the often frosty rapport they’ve exhibited in the past. They met privately at Netanyahu’s residence, then again over a working dinner into the evening, with reports of a chemical weapon attack in Syria and continued fears of Iran’s nuclear program topping their agenda.
On Syria, Obama said the U.S. is investigating reports of a chemical attack this week, but he was not yet ready to confirm whether it had occurred or whether it had been launched by the government as rebels said or as Israel said it had confirmed.
But Obama dismissed the thought that the rebels could have done so – as the regime has charged – and warned that the use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer.” The administration has resisted efforts to intervene military in Syria and Obama wouldn’t say what action the administration would take if it finds chemical weapons had been used.
But, he said, he believed once “you let that genie out of the bottle, then you’re looking potentially at even more horrific scenes than we have already seen in Syria, and the international community has to act on that additional information.”
Israel fears the regime’s considerable cache of weapons could fall into the hands of its enemies, and Netanyahu said he believes the best way to prevent that was to work with the U.S.
The remarks came at a press conference midway through a round of talks between the two leaders that also included the possibility of restarting peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Obama said he arrived without a specific plan because he wanted to “spend some time listening.”
On Iran, Netanyahu said he’s “absolutely convinced” that Obama is determined to prevent Iran from securing a nuclear weapon and said the two share a similar assessment of Iran’s capabilities – that it could produce a nuclear weapon in about a year. Netanyahu had warned at the United Nations last fall that Iran could need just six months.
Netanyahu maintained that Israel has the right to defend itself, without approval from the United States, and Obama agreed.
“There is not a lot of daylight between our countries’ assessments in terms of where Iran is right now,” Obama said, before adding that “each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action. And Israel is differently situated than the United States.”
Obama has resisted a push for confrontation and decried saber rattling, saying he believes there is time for sanctions and diplomacy to work and convince the regime in Teheran – which denies it’s pursuing nuclear weapons – to give up its quest.
Obama’s trip, which also will include stops in the West Bank and Jordan, is aimed partly at shoring up his standing among skeptical Israelis. He earned an early round of applause, telling attendees at a red carpet arrival ceremony at the airport in Tel Aviv in Hebrew that it was “good to be back in the land of Israel."
And he sought to hit the right notes after disappointing Israelis in 2009 with his speech in Cairo that appeared to suggest that Israel was created in response to the Holocaust. Instead, he pointedly called Israel the “historic homeland of the Jewish people” and noted a history that dates back “more than 3,000 years.”
He pledged a lasting partnership, saying that the U.S. relationship with Israel is in both countries’ national security and economic interests.
“I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever,” Obama said, repeating the word in Hebrew, lanetzach.
With both starting new terms, it was evident that Obama and Netanyahu were trying to find a way to work together. At one point, as Obama quoted a letter from Netanyahu’s late brother, Yoni, an Israeli commando who died in the raid on Entebbe in 1976, Netanyahu appeared visibly moved.
“You need, you see, a second term as president and a third term as prime minister,” Netanyahu said in response to a question about why the Israeli public hadn’t embraced Obama. “That really fixes things.”
Obama heads Thursday to Ramallah in the West Bank, where Palestinians are increasingly gloomy about the prospects for peace in part because of the rapid expansion of Israeli settlements across land the Palestinians want for a state. Neither Obama nor Netanyahu mentioned the settlements or border disputes in their remarks, sticking mostly to broad calls for peace.
Though peace talks stalled in 2010, Obama defended his effort at the press conference, calling the issue “really hard” and noting that it has lingered for 60 years.
“The parties involved have some profound interests that you can’t spin, you can’t smooth over,” Obama said. “It is a hard slog to work through all of these issues.”
Peace between he and Netanyahu appeared easier as they worked from the start of the visit to set a new tone. Netanyahu was the first person Obama embraced as he stepped off the plane, and at one point the cameras caught the two of them shedding their suit jackets and walking across the tarmac together, wind ruffling their nearly identical blue ties.
They joked about who had a harder time: Netanyahu pulling together a coalition government or Obama working with Congress. They lauded each other’s wives and complimented the handsomeness of their children. The jokes even extended to the red line that Netanyahu has pressed Obama to draw more sharply against Iran. Walking to tour the Iron Dome anti-missile system at the airport, Obama joked that “Bibi” is "always talking to him" about red lines.
Israel’s U.S. Embassy unveiled a new video on the eve of the visit, making fun of the press focus on the pair’s relationship. It shows them laughing at a newspaper headline that questions their relationship, as the theme from The Golden Girls’ “Thank You for Being a Friend” begins playing.
“It’s high time that the new government in Israel and the newly elected administration in D.C. coordinate policy and synchronize clocks on all three issues . . . Iran, Syria and Israeli-Palestinian relations,” said retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog.
McClatchy special correspondent Sheera Frankel contributed from Tel Aviv.
Video: Obama's Israel Visit: Reassurance and Red Lines