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Published: Tuesday, 3/6/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Give diplomacy time, Obama urges Israel

NEW YORK TIMES

WASHINGTON — With Israel warning of a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, President Obama urged Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House Monday to give diplomacy and economic sanctions a chance to work before resorting to military action.

The cordial session failed to resolve basic differences between the two leaders over how to deal with the Iranian threat, a U.S. official said.

Mr. Netanyahu, the official said, reiterated that Israel had not made a decision on striking Iran, but he expressed skepticism that international pressure would persuade Iran’s leaders to forsake the development of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Netanyahu said the West should not reopen talks with Iran until it agreed to a verifiable suspension of its uranium enrichment activities — a condition the White House says would doom talks before they began.

Mr. Obama maintained that the European Union’s impending oil sanctions and the blacklisting of Iran’s central bank could yet force Tehran back to the bargaining table — not necessarily eliminating the nuclear threat but pushing back the timetable for developing a weapon.

“We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue,” the President said as Mr. Netanyahu sat next to him in the Oval Office before the start of their three hours of talks.

Mr. Obama also assured the Israeli prime minister that the United States “will always have Israel’s back” when it comes to security.

Both leaders agreed to try to tamp down the heated debate about Iran in their countries, officials said.

Mr. Obama said the talk of war is driving up oil prices and undermining the effect of sanctions on Iran.

Mr. Netanyahu expressed frustration that statements by U.S. officials about the negative effects of military action could send a message of weakness to Tehran.

Despite their sometimes acrimonious relationship over the Middle East peace process, the two leaders were in sync about the need to stop Iran from joining the ranks of nuclear states.

“My policy here is not going to be one of containment,” Mr. Obama said before the meeting Monday. “My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.”

“When I say all options are on the table, I mean it,” he said.

Mr. Netanyahu, noting that Iran’s leaders vilify the United States as the “Great Satan” and Israel as the “Little Satan,” said there was no difference between the two countries.

“We are you, and you are us,” he said. “We are together.”

The prime minister thanked Mr. Obama for affirming, in a speech Sunday, that “when it comes to security, Israel has … the sovereign right to make its own decisions.”

A U.S. official said the President was trying to avoid the perception that he was publicly pressuring the Israeli leader, although supporters of Israel interpreted it as a signal that the United States recognized Israel’s right to make its own decision on military action.

Whether Israel could, in fact, carry out an effective strike on Iran without U.S. support is unclear.

Israeli officials said they were gratified by the President’s explicit reference to military force as an option, his rejection of a containment policy, and his reaffirmation of Israel’s right to make decisions on its national security.

Beneath the shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity, the differences in their views were on display in their statements before the meeting.

Mr. Netanyahu said nothing about diplomacy and the sanctions that Mr. Obama advocates.

The President repeated his vow that “all options are on the table” to halt Iran’s pursuit of a weapon, but he did not mention military force.

Nor has the President embraced another crucial Israeli demand: that military action come before Iran acquires the capability to manufacture a bomb, as opposed to before it actually builds one.

The two men did not close the gap on this issue, an official said.

Mr. Netanyahu also did not push Mr. Obama to lay down sharper conditions that would prompt U.S. action, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

The Israelis seemed most gratified with Mr. Obama’s explicit refusal to follow a policy of containing a nuclear-armed Iran.

The President said Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would ignite an arms race in the Middle East, raise the specter of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, and allow Iran to behave with impunity in the region.



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