US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have addressed regional threats as well as their country’s diplomatic ties at a press conference. The visit is Obama’s first to Israel as president.
Both leaders focused their statements during a joint press conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday on the key challenges of how to handle Iran’s nuclear drive, the growing threat from Syria and peace with the Palestinians.
The long-awaited visit, the first foreign tour of Obama’s second term, comes just days after the installation of a new rightwing Israeli government.
Obama shared his committment to Israel’s security and future, despite criticism from home and abroad of his motives.
Obama has said the purpose of his trip was to listen rather than propose new peace plans, and White House officials have tried to play down any expectations of a diplomatic breakthrough.
Concern about Iran
Iran’s nuclear potential was discussed by both sides during the press conference. Iran is viewed by Israel as an existential threat because of its alleged nuclear weapons ambitions. Israeli officials have expressed skepticism over whether Iran can be persuaded to halt its atomic program through diplomatic means or sanctions.
Netanyahu said he was “absolutely convinced” that Obama was determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, which he said could take a year to build.
In response, Obama said, “We prefer to resolve this diplomatically, and there is still time to do so.” But he added that “all options are on the table” if diplomacy were to fall short.
“Each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action,” Obama said adding that he does not expect the Jewish State to defer to Washington on the issue.
During the press conference both leaders also addressed the recent allegations of chemical weapons being used in Syria, pledging a thorough investigation.
“We have been clear that the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people would be a serious and tragic mistake,” Obama said adding that he was “deeply skeptical” about claims that the rebels had used chemical agents.
When asked about peace talks with the Palestinians, Netanyahu restated his commitment to resolving the decades-long conflict with a two state solution.
“Israel remains committed to the solution of two states for two peoples,” he said.
Earlier, during a joint press conference with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Obama said that his administration would pursue peace in the Middle East.
“In this work, the state of Israel will have no greater friend than the United States,” the Obama declared.
Peres, in turn, said he welcomed Obama’s clear message that “no one should let skepticism win the day, a vision that says clearly that peace is not only a wish, but a possibility.”
Visiting sites, leaders
“The United States of America stands with the state of Israel because it’s in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel,” Obama said shortly after arriving in Israel on Wednesday. “It makes us both stronger, it makes us both more prosperous and it makes the world a better place.”
Obama went on to view Israel’s US-funded Iron Dome missile defense system, which gained widespread notoriety during Israeli’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip in November.
The system reportedly intercepted 80 percent of rockets from Gaza, however that number has been challenged recently, with some experts saying the interception rate could be as low as 5 to 10 percent.
The White House has pushed the Iron Dome as an example of the American commitment to Israel. The US provides $3 billion (2.33 billion euros) in military aid to Israel annually.
On Thursday Obama will travel to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Also on Thursday, in what is expected to be the centerpiece of his visit, Obama will give a speech to a group of Israeli university students.
Obama will then go to Jordan on Friday, where he will hold talks with King Abdullah II.
Newly-appointed Secretary of State John Kerry will also travel with Obama to Jordan but return to Israel on Saturday for further talks.
hc/kms (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)