Jerusalem – US President Barack Obama arrived in Israel for his first visit since taking office, a highly symbolic trip aimed at rehabilitating his image with the Israeli public and papering over differences on how to approach Iran’s nuclear programme.
By the end of Wednesday, his first full day in Israel, Obama seemed to have made some progress: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seemed to delay a deadline for an attack against Iran which many analysts believed he would reach in the coming weeks.
The two men held a press conference on Wednesday night that was mostly focused on the perceived threat from Iran. Netanyahu mentioned the subject barely ten seconds into his opening statement. He went on to indicate that Israel would not unilaterally attack Iran – at least not this year.
In a speech at the United Nations last September, Netanyahu said that Israel’s “red line” – presumably a deadline for military action – would be triggered when Iran developed 90 percent of the highly-enriched uranium needed to build a nuclear weapon.
Analysts predicted that Iran would reach that point in spring or early summer of this year.
But the latest report from the United Nations nuclear watchdog, released last month, found that Iran has slowed its enrichment programme, and converted some of its uranium into solid reactor fuel, which is much harder to enrich to weapons-grade.
Obama has been working from a longer timeframe. He told Israel’s Channel 2 earlier this week that Iran would need “more than a year” to develop a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu seemed to revise his timeline to match the president’s, saying on Wednesday that he agreed with Obama’s one-year assessment. Still, he implied that the threat of a unilateral Israeli attack was not entirely off the table.
“I’m also convinced that the president is determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon,” Netanyahu said. “He reaffirmed, more than any other president, Israel’s right to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”
The UN agency has raised concerns about the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear programme, but has found no conclusive evidence that Iran is pursuing an atomic bomb. Tehran denies that it is, saying that its nuclear progamme has purely civilian aims.
Obama said that successive rounds of crippling economic sanctions were beginning to have an impact on the Iranian government, and argued that a diplomatic solution was still possible – though he left the door open to possible US military action.
“We agree on our goal. We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to a nuclear Iran,” Obama said, adding bluntly that “all options are on the table”.
Obama had far less to say on the subject of negotiations with the Palestinians. He is scheduled to travel to Ramallah on Thursday, where he will meet with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority.
He brings with him no new peace plan and no concrete proposals for restarting direct negotiations, which have been stalled since late 2010.
Early in his first term, Obama pressed Netanyahu to freeze construction in illegal settlements in the West Bank, but aides have said he will make no such demand on this visit – even though Palestinian officials have described a freeze as a precondition for resuming talks.
Asked whether his administration has not done enough to restart talks, Obama gave a vague answer and offered few specifics.
“This is a really hard problem,” Obama said of the “peace process”, calling it “a hard slog”.
Obama was greeted at the airport in Tel Aviv by Netanyahu and dozens of other dignitaries shortly after noon on Wednesday.
“I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbours,” Obama said after landing.
He closed his remarks in Hebrew, describing the US-Israeli relationship as “eternal”.
Netanyahu called Obama a “cherished guest”, and the two men sauntered across the tarmac in matching blue ties, jackets slung over their shoulders.
His speech quickly won praise from Israel’s political class, even from unlikely quarters. Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Jewish Home party, told reporters that he had “never heard a warmer speech” from an American president.
In addition to his Ramallah trip, Obama will deliver a speech to the Israeli public on Thursday and will attend a state dinner with Shimon Peres, the Israeli president.
On Friday, Obama he will visit Bethlehem and the Holocaust Museum before flying to Jordan for the final leg of his Middle East tour.