WASHINGTON, D.C. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear to U.S. President Barak Obama during their meeting at the White House on Monday that Israel has not made any decision on attacking Iran to stop its nuclear program.
Sources who were briefed on the meeting afterward said Obama and Netanyahu agreed to increase their coordination on Iran. Israel's Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz is to visit Washington in two weeks to discuss the issue with U.S. officials.
The meeting in the Oval Office went on for two hours; the only other people in the room besides the president and the prime minister were the U.S. and the Israeli national security advisers, Tom Donilon and Yaakov Amidror, respectively. The meeting was followed by lunch, in a larger group that also included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and others.
The Iran issue was the focus of the talks. It permeated everything from the agenda of the one-on-one meeting to Netanyahu's gift to Obama: a decorated copy of the Book of Esther, which will be read tomorrow night and Thursday morning at Purim services around the world. It recounts the story of the evil Persian King Ahasuerus and his viceroy, Haman, who tried but failed to annihilate the Jewish people.
"Then, too, they wanted to wipe us out," Netanyahu told the president.
During their meeting, Obama told Netanyahu that Israel and the United States have an identical goal with regard to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
"I have no intention of trying to contain the Iranian issue," Obama reportedly told Netanyahu.
"I think that there's time for diplomacy and in any case I am not taking any options off the table, including a military option."
Netanyahu told Obama that he had not yet made any decision about whether to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, though he made it clear he did not rule out such a move in the future. In statements to the press both before and after the meeting Netanyahu said Israel has the sovereign right to defend itself against Iran.
"When it comes to Israel's security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right, to makes its own decisions," Netanyahu said before the meeting. "My supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate."
Obama agreed that Israel had the right to defend itself, adding, "I want to assure both the American people and the Israeli people that we are in constant and close consultation ... and I intend to make sure that that continues during what will be a series of difficult months, I suspect, in 2012."
Netanyahu told Obama he believed Iran's leaders were determined to wipe out Israel.
"They mean it," Netanyahu was quoted as saying to Obama. "If this will be resolved by diplomacy, great. But we have to prepare for the worst-case scenario. The pressure on Iran has indeed increased, but time is getting short."
Afterward Netanyahu expressed satisfaction with the meeting. In a briefing to reporters he said he attributed great importance to the fact that the Iran issue has been made a top priority of Israel's dialogue with the United States and is firmly on the international agenda as well.
"We've succeeded in persuading the international community that this is a real threat to the whole world," Netanyahu told journalists. "The positions I presented on the Iranian issue were accepted with understanding in the White House. What [Obama] said outside to the cameras is what he said to me during the closed meeting."
Netanyahu and Obama also discussed ways to create a dialogue between the six powers - the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany - and Iran. The prime minister did not make demands, whether over a timetable or "red lines," in regard to this dialogue.
He did say, however, that the uranium enrichment facility in Fordo, near Qom, must be closed; that Iran must halt it uranium enrichment program, and that all uranium enriched beyond 3.5 percent must be removed from the country.
Netanyahu raised the issue of freeing convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence in a U.S. federal prison. A couple of months ago Netanyahu sent a letter to Obama asking him to grant Pollard clemency. To date, Obama has not responded, and it isn't clear whether the prime minister got any kind of answer from Obama Monday.
President Shimon Peres, who met Obama on Sunday, also raised the issue of freeing Pollard.
At a separate meeting later on Monday Netanyahu and Panetta discussed heightening U.S.-Israeli security and intelligence cooperation. Netanyahu made a number of requests regarding the purchase of advanced weapons that Israel believes it needs in order to maintain the qualitative military advantage of the Israel Defense Forces in the region
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