By Steve Weizman / AFP
WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu go into key talks on the Iranian nuclear stand-off on Monday, with each publicly seeking to stake out some common ground.
While Obama in an address to the powerful pro-Israel lobby on Sunday criticized “loose talk of war” he also gave a strong nod to Israel’s refusal to contemplate a nuclear-armed Iran.
“No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction,” he said, to applause from members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Obama also acknowledged “Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs,” drawing a swift vote of thanks from Netanyahu.
“I appreciated the fact that he said that Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” he told reporters in Ottawa on Sunday, during a weekend stopover in Canada on his way to Washington.
“I very much appreciated the fact that President Obama reiterated his position that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and that all options are on the table,” Netanyahu added.
The Israeli premier arrived in the US capital late on Sunday evening and will meet Obama in the White House on Monday morning, addressing AIPAC himself later in the day.
While Obama does not rule out the use of US military force against the Islamic republic as a last resort if diplomatic and economic pressure fails, Israel fears that the time until Iran reaches a stage where it is too late to take out its nuclear facilities is running out.
Israeli officials reserve the right for their country to stage its own attack on Iran if they see no alternative, although Israeli analysts say a strong assurance of US readiness to act would encourage restraint, at least in the short-term.
Obama on Sunday sought to calm the fears of Israel and its supporters.
“I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said. “As I’ve made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
Analysts believe that Netanyahu will be seeking more precise guarantees in his private talks with Obama, while the president will want to retain room to maneuver.
“Obama doesn’t want to wake up one morning and to hear that Israeli attack planes are hovering over Iran,” top-selling Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot wrote on Sunday.
“He… will explain that if the day arrives and there is no longer any choice, he will prefer to send the US army to fight against Iran over the options of allowing the Iranians to have nuclear weapons.”
Speaking at the AIPAC conference before Obama, Israeli President Shimon Peres insisted that Israel “shall prevail” if forced to fight Iran, which he called “an evil, cruel and morally corrupt regime” bent on controlling the Middle East.
The stand-off has pushed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict far into the background, although US efforts to revive stalled peace talks are sure to be discussed in the Oval Office.
In January, five rounds of “exploratory talks” between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators ended without a deal to continue discussions or return to direct negotiations.
Obama’s speech to AIPAC acknowledged the hurdles.
“Of course, peace is hard to achieve. There’s a reason why it’s remained elusive for six decades,” he said. “But as hard as it may be, we should not, and cannot, give in to cynicism or despair. The changes taking place in the region make peace more important, not less.”