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US-Israel see most things ‘eye-to-eye,’ Netanyahu tells Saban Forum

Prime minister is last speaker at Washington conference, day after Obama calls Israeli demands on Iran deal unrealistic

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the Saban Forum, December 8, 2013 (photo credit: Saban Forum screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the Saban Forum, December 8, 2013 (photo credit: Saban Forum screenshot)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is addressing increasingly fraught US-Israeli relations Sunday, a day after President Barack Obama endorsed uranium enrichment on Iranian soil.

He began by stressing the importance of Israel-US ties, and the depth of bilateral cooperation.

Acknowledging that the two governments “can have different perspectives,” he said nonetheless that on most matters “we see eye to eye.”

He then set out his thinking on Palestinian peace prospects and on the imperative to thwart Iran’s nuclear weapons drive.

Watch Netanyahu’s speech here.

Netanyahu was originally scheduled to be interviewed by PBS News host Charlie Rose at 5 p.m. the last of four speakers at the Saban Forum’s 10th annual session on US-Israeli ties.

On Saturday, Obama indicated that all-or-nothing demands by Israel that Iran be kept from having any domestic nuclear program were unrealistic.

“You’ll hear arguments, including potentially from the prime minister, that we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil. Period. Full stop. End of conversation,” said Obama. “In an ideal world,” he said, “Iran would destroy every element and facility, you name it.” But, he went on, “We have to be more realistic.”

With that in mind, the president said, “We can envision a end state that gives us an assurance that even if they have some modest enrichment capability, it is so constrained and the inspections are so intrusive that they, as a practical matter, do not have breakout capacity. Theoretically they might still have some [breakout capacity]]. But frankly, theoretically, they will always have some because, as I said, the technology here is available to any good physics student.”

Tensions between Jerusalem and Washington have ramped up in recent weeks following the signing of an accord between Iran and six world powers, including the US, that eases some sanctions in return for curbs on enrichment and more robust international oversight.

The US has tried to downplay the difference of opinion as tactical, and maintains that it has Israel’s security at heart in talks with Iran.

Asked about the differences between him and Netanyahu over the tactics for thwarting Iran in general, and over the interim deal in particular, Obama acknowledged it was “probably a good bet” that he and the prime minister would analyze the deal differently — a “more than 50-50″ likelihood, he said with a broad smile. He spoke of “occasionally significant tactical disagreements” between the two as they work “to reach the same goal.”

Addressing recent tensions between his administration and the Netanyahu government over the interim deal reached in Geneva last month, which has been harshly criticized by the prime minister and other Israeli officials, Obama dismissed as wistful dreamers those who “imagine a world” in which Iran’s nuclear program was “all gone,” quipping to audience laughter that he could also envision a world “in which Congress passed every one of my bills.”

He also dismissed critiques of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s UN performance as a “charm offensive,” arguing that “those who say Hassan Rouhani is just Ahmadinejad but more charming understate the shift in Iran politics.”

The forum also saw US Secretary of State and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman spar over Israeli-Palestinian peace talks’ chances for success.

On Friday, Liberman said he thought talks should continue, but didn’t see much chance for success.

“To speak frankly,” said Liberman, “I don’t believe it is possible in the next year to achieve [a] comprehensive solution, to achieve some breakthrough, but I think it’s crucial to keep our dialogue, because we live in the same region, we’re neighbors. It’s important at least to think about coexistence.”

However Kerry, speaking Saturday, said that a two-state solution was the path to making Israel more secure.

“We are convinced that the greatest security [for Israel] will actually come from a two-state solution that brings Israel lasting peace, shared prosperity throughout the region, good relations among neighbors, peace of mind for the people of Israel and for Palestinians alike. None of this is possible without addressing Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and ensuring that as a result of peace, Israelis feel more secure, and are more secure, not less,” he said.

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