JERUSALEM - Seeking a fresh start to a strained relationship, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday demonstrated solidarity on the key issues that have stirred tensions between them. The U.S. president vowed he would do "what is necessary" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, while Netanyahu reaffirmed that his newly formed government seeks a two-state solution to Israel's decades-long dispute with the Palestinians.
Obama, in Israel for the first time in his presidency, also pledged to investigate reports that Syria had used chemical weapons for the first time in its two-year civil war. And he sternly warned Syrian leader Bashar Assad that use of such weapons would be a "game-changer," one that could potentially draw the U.S. military into the conflict for the first time.
"The Assad regime must understand that they will be held accountable for the use of chemical weapons or their transfer to terrorists," Obama said, standing alongside Netanyahu at a nighttime news conference.
President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tour the Iron Dome Battery defense system, at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday.
Expectations were low for a breakthrough during Obama's visit on any of the major issues roiling the region. Instead, the president was focused on reassuring anxious Israelis that he is committed to their security, and on resetting his rocky relationship with Netanyahu. The two leaders have been at odds over Israeli settlements and Iran's disputed nuclear programs, and Netanyahu famously lectured Obama in front of the media in the Oval Office on Israel's right to defend himself.
Compared with past encounters, there was a noticeable lack of uneasiness Wednesday, the first time the two leaders have met publicly after both survived elections that will leave them stuck with each other for the foreseeable future. They traded jokes throughout a day of side-by-side appearances. And they repeatedly referred to each other by their first names, Obama calling his Israeli counterpart by his nickname, "Bibi."
On Iran in particular, the two leaders sought to show they were united in their desire to prevent the Islamic republic from developing what Obama called "the world's worst weapons."
Although preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon is a priority of both countries, Netanyahu and Obama have differed on precisely how to achieve that goal. Israel repeatedly has threatened to take military action should Iran appear to be on the verge of obtaining a bomb, while the U.S. has pushed for more time to allow diplomacy and economic penalties to run their course.
Obama said he continues to prefer a diplomatic solution and sees time to achieve it. Whether that works, he said, will depend on whether Iran's leaders "seize that opportunity."
Although Obama did not promise that the United States would act militarily against Iran if Israel decided that must be done, he offered an explicit endorsement for Israel to take whatever unilateral measures it deems necessary to guard against the threat.
"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," he said. "I would not expect that the prime minister would make a decision about his country's security and defer that to any another country any more than the United States would defer our decisions about what was important for our national security."