Netanyahu, Obama temper rancour over Iran

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have given vastly different views on how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions, while at the same time trying to play down a rift in bilateral ties.

A day before the Israeli leader delivered his contentious address to Congress, both sides were eager to say ongoing tensions were just a small bump in the road.

Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) conference in Washington on Monday, Mr Netanyahu targeted criticisms of the address that had brought him to the US capital.

"My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both," Mr Netanyahu said.

"My speech is also not intended to inject Israel into the American partisan debate. An important reason why our alliance has grown stronger decade after decade is that it has been championed by both parties and so it must remain."

The planned address - which took place overnight - sparked friction because it was organised outside normal diplomatic protocol.

Mr Netanyahu accepted an invitation from Republican House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress, without informing the White House.

Observers saw it as a slap in the face for the Obama administration from a key ally.

Still, during an interview on Monday, Mr Obama struck a conciliatory note.

Asked by Reuters about the harm done, Mr Obama emphasised that the bond between the two nations is "unbreakable" and that they both want to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

"I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu is sincere about his concerns with respect to Iran.

And given Iran's record and given the extraordinarily disruptive and dangerous activities of this regime in the region, it's understandable why Israel is very concerned about Iran. We are too," he said.

It was evident nonetheless that the two are no closer to finding common ground.

On Monday, both leaders doubled down on their differing points of view, with Mr Obama stressing that diplomacy needed to be given a chance to work, and Mr Netanyahu warning that a soft approach to Iran exposes Israel to an existential threat.

Talks with Iran involve imposing strict limits on its production of nuclear fuel for a decade and frequent inspections in exchange for an easing of sanctions. Iran maintains it needs to produce nuclear energy for power.

Israel wants the complete destruction of Iran's nuclear capabilities, and worries that any lifting of sanctions would allow Teheran to build up resources to fund more nuclear development.

"Iran vows to annihilate Israel. If it develops nuclear weapons, it would have the means to achieve that goal. We must not let that happen. And as Prime Minister of Israel, I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there's still time to avert them," Mr Netanyahu told the primarily Jewish audience at Aipac.

Mr Obama, in turn, claimed that the ongoing talks with Iran are making progress. He said Israel had been wrong about its opposition to the 2013 interim deal.

"Netanyahu made all sorts of claims. This was going to be a terrible deal. This was going to result in Iran getting US$50 billion worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement. None of that has come true," he said.

Mr Haim Malik, deputy director of the Middle East Programme and at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said that where ties go from here may depend on the outcome of the upcoming elections in Israel.

This article was first published on Mar 04, 2015.
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