Obama to reassure Netanyahu he is not soft on Iran

US leader will discuss Iran’s nuclear ambitions, unrest in Egypt and the civil war in Syria

Students of Estella's school for bakery and pastry making, work on an image depicting U.S. President Barack Obama made out of chocolate in Givat Shmuel, central Israel, Monday, March 18, 2013. Obama's trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank will take place March 20-22, and it is the U.S. leader's first trip to the region as president, and his first overseas trip since being reelected. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Students of Estella's school for bakery and pastry making, work on an image depicting U.S. President Barack Obama made out of chocolate in Givat Shmuel, central Israel, Monday, March 18, 2013. Obama's trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank will take place March 20-22, and it is the U.S. leader's first trip to the region as president, and his first overseas trip since being reelected. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

 

Barack Obama will use his first trip to Israel as US president, and his first foreign excursion of his second presidential term, to reassure Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu that he is not soft on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The president has ruled out containment as a means of thwarting Tehran’s nuclear proliferation but he will press Netanyahu to stick with the US administration’s go-slow diplomatic approach on Iran before  Jerusalem rushes to a pre-emptive strike on Tehran to tackle unilaterally what it sees as a fast-growing threat.

The White House has sought to play down expectations of any breakthrough developments to quell simmering tensions in the Middle East so as to allow the Israelis and Americans to speak frankly and repair cool relations between Obama and Netanyahu. Relations have been frosty since the Israeli leader publicly sided with the president’s Republican challenger Mitt Romney in last year’s election.

Mr Obama will seek to find common ground with Mr Netanyahu that might encourage the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. They will also discuss ways of easing political unrest in Egypt and the civil war in Syria. The US president will use his 24-hour visit with Jordan’s King Abdullah, a key ally for the US, to discuss how to end the two-year conflict in Syria, which has driven more than 450,000 into Jordan.

Netanyahu has called into question Mr Obama’s commitment to frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions, including the US appetite for military action against Iran. Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security adviser, said last week that the president’s preference is for a peaceful resolution while at the same time drawing a “red line” at which the US will act – not allowing Tehran to build a nuclear bomb.

Nuclear weapons
Israel and the US have differing views on when that might happen. Mr Netanyahu told the United Nations last September that Iran was about six months away from being able to build a bomb, while Obama told an Israeli television station in recent days that it would take Tehran over a year to develop a nuclear weapon.

The president’s trip starts tomorrow with his arrival in Jerusalem, soon after Obama receives a bowl of shamrock from the Taoiseach in the White House. He will try to patch up relations with Netanyahu not long after the Israeli leader agreed a deal with rival parties to create a government.

During this three-day visit to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, Obama has unusually chosen not to speak to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, but will address the Israeli public directly in a speech.

Shortly after his arrival on Israeli soil, the president will visit the US-funded Iron Dome missile defence battery, a stop on his trip that will reinforce US support of Israel’s military capacity.

The president will also hope that the Israeli trip will silence Republican critics at home who have sought to paint his failure to visit Israel any earlier as showing less support to the Jewish state, even though his predecessor George W Bush waited until his final year in office to visit Israel.