LIVEBLOG (now closed): Obama in JerusalemCandid joint press conference with PM ends visiting president's first day

Netanyahu backs two states for two peoples; Obama keeps ‘all options open’ on Iran

Obama, on his first visit as president, has been meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Earlier, he had warm words for Israel at an all-smiles airport welcoming ceremony, and then met with, was serenaded with, and planted a tree with President Peres

US President Barack Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres are greeted by children outside the President's Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2013. (photo credit: Amit Shabi/Flash90)
US President Barack Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres are greeted by children outside the President's Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2013. (photo credit: Amit Shabi/Flash90)

President Barack Obama is making his first visit to Israel as president, the fifth serving US president to do so. He’s been in Jerusalem since early afternoon, on the working part of his trip, after an airport welcome and a tour of the Iron Dome missile defense system. (Read today’s previous liveblog, from the airport, here.) He’s met with Shimon Peres, and he’s been talking late into the night with Benjamin Netanyahu.

It’s been all smiles and goodwill so far, including the protocol-breaking site of Obama and Netanyahu taking off their jackets at the airport. As for the tree Obama brought from the US and planted with Peres, its roots are being kept encased in a plastic netting, as directed by the Agriculture Ministry, prior to a formal inspection next week as required by law — and as was known in advance to the president’s entourage.

We’ve liveblogged his afternoon and evening below. And we’ll see you again in the morning.

Obama about to leave hotel for Peres’s residence

Preamble: The Obama visit to Israel is under way in style. After warm speeches at the airport from the president and his hosts Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama visited an Iron Dome battery and then flew to Jerusalem by helicopter.

He’s taking a breather at the King David Hotel. Next stop is the President’s Residence.

Don’t miss our earlier liveblog here, with our coverage of the airport ceremony, the speeches, Obama’s exchanges with Yair Lapid, a broken limousine, John Kerry’s snatched Jerusalem lunch, and more.

Obama’s airport speech resonates, as he prepares to visit Peres

Jerusalem is eerily quiet, save for the sounds of helicopters overhead. Streets are deserted. The president is about to go meet the president.

Here’s Raphael Ahren on what’s in store: At around 4, Obama will enter the plaza at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem’s posh Talbieh neighborhood, where he will be greeted by Peres and local children waving Israeli and American flags. The two presidents will walk together down the red carpet and then enter the main hall in the residence where Obama will sign the guest book.

Three young Israelis will thank Obama for his support of Israel. One of them, Nadav, who lives near the Gaza Strip, will speak about the Iron Dome missile defense system. Another, Nicole, 17, is a participant in the Ilan Ramon science program and will thank Obama for the US-Israeli cooperation in the field of science.

Obama will plant a tree in the residence garden, before the leaders withdraw to a private room for two diplomatic work meetings — first with their senior staff and then alone.

At about 5:30, Obama will make the short drive to the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street, for marathon talks with Netanyahu. About five hours are officially allotted to talks with the prime minister, part of which will probably focus on Obama’s efforts to dissuade him from unilaterally attacking Iran. Other issues on the agenda are chemical weapons in Syria and efforts to restart the peace process.

Netanyahu's gift to Obama: a chip on a stone. (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Technion)

Netanyahu’s gift to Obama: a chip on a stone. (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Technion)

At the beginning of the meeting, Netanyahu will hand Obama what the Prime Minister’s Office called a “symbolic gift” (symbolic, presumably, because it’s full of meaning but of little practical value): a gold-coated 0.04 nano-chip bearing the Israeli and US declarations of independence, etched side-by-side to a depth of 0.00002 mm.

At around 8, the two will break for a joint press conference. They’ll then continue talking over and after a “working dinner,” which is scheduled for two hours but can last as long as its protagonists wish.

Meanwhile, TV and radio commentators continue to make much of Obama’s airport speech, with its carefully chosen phrasing underlining the Jews’ legitimacy in this part of the world.

“I know that in stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people,” Obama said. “More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish state of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption, unlike any in history. Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages: to be masters of their own fate in their own sovereign state. Just as we have for these past 65 years, the United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend.”

Those are extraordinarily potent words of friendship, and are being widely appreciated as such.

Peres welcomes Obama to President’s Residence

Back from the airport, ToI’s Matti Friedman has filed a color piece: “The receiving line included a few American ladies in power outfits and carefully arranged Beltway hairdos, Cabinet ministers, and local religious dignitaries in a colorful collection of hats and costumes — an Armenian in a pointed black hood, a Catholic in a pink robe, and a man in an unseasonal fur hat who might have been Circassian; no one seemed quite sure. Obama and Netanyahu smiled at each other and shared a few jokes. In case anyone was wondering, they are best friends.”

Read the whole article here.

Channel 2’s Rina Matzliah says the whole goal of the trip from Obama’s point of view has been “to show the people of Israel that he’s with us.” Hence the words of Hebrew at the airport, the lengthy chats on the welcome line, the meetings with Israeli kids at the President’s Residence any minute, and the main speech in Jerusalem to students tomorrow.

The president’s motorcade is on the move. Peres, waiting, is shaking hands with the young children who have been waiting for hours for this moment.

The presidential limo drives into the residence.  Here’s Obama. A hug for  Peres. The kids, waving US and Israeli flags, sing “Hevenu Shalom” — “We’ve brought peace to you.”

Obama shakes hands with the kids, and Peres draws him in to pose for photos with the children.

Obama serenaded with ‘Tomorrow’ in three languages, plants tree

Obama signs the presidential guest book, writing at length as Peres looks over like a proud teacher.

President Barack Obama at the President's Residence (Channel 2 screenshot)

President Barack Obama at the President’s Residence (Channel 2 screenshot)

Now come those mini-speeches of appreciation. And now “Tomorrow,” from “Annie,” sung in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

Obama smiles, claps, shakes hands.

Peres leads him out into the presidential garden. The stills photographers are clicking away merrily.

US President Barack Obama plants a tree at the President's Residence in Jerusalem with President Shimon Peres (photo credit: Channel 2)

US President Barack Obama plants a tree at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem along with President Shimon Peres (photo credit: Channel 2)

Obama is now planting a tree — a magnolia he brought with him from the US — with some assistance from Peres. “It’s an incredible honor to be able to offer this tree in this beautiful garden,” says Obama, also praising Peres as “a champion on behalf of the Israel people” and a champion of peace.

The two men head back inside for talks.

‘I thought I was going to faint,’ says one of the young singers

With every gesture under the microscope, even the fact that Obama took off his jacket during the airport ceremonies is remarked upon. So, too, the fact that Netanyahu quickly did the same — so that the president wouldn’t be the only one to break protocol, according to this Facebook post.

Jackets off: Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama at the airport (Photo credit: by Avi Ohayon/GPO / FLASH90)

Jackets off: Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama at the airport (Photo credit: by Avi Ohayon/GPO / FLASH90)

What with all the emotion, the preparation, the waiting, “I thought I was going to faint,” says Romi Aviram, one of the young girls who serenaded the US leader at the President’s Residence. The only screw-up, she says, fetchingly missing a few teeth, was that the two presidents came toward them from the wrong side. Apart from that, “everything went fine.”

Jewish Home minister: He’s here ‘to enchant us’

Uri Orbach, the right-wing Jewish Home’s new minister for Senior Citizens, says Obama is “here to enchant us,” and to assure us that he really cares about us — which is something, Orbach claims, “not all Israelis are convinced of.”

Isaac Herzog (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Isaac Herzog (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Labor MK Isaac Herzog is far more upbeat. “He’s here to embrace us,” but “I also hope,” says Herzog, that tomorrow in his speech to young Israelis, Obama makes clear “that we’re going to be committing suicide” if we can’t separate from the Palestinians.

Herzog, like so many Israelis interviewed in the past couple of hours, highlights how strongly Obama, in his airport speech, stressed Israel’s connection to this land — a theme strikingly absent from his speech in Cairo four years ago.

Hanegbi: It was PM’s speech on Iran at UN that prompted this visit

Tzachi Hanegbi, a very close Netanyahu confidante, asked on Channel 2 why the president is here right now, says Obama decided to come “on the day he heard Netanyahu’s speech” to the UN last fall, in which the prime minister set out his thinking on how to stop Iran.

Tzachi Hanegbi (photo credit: Flash90)

Tzachi Hanegbi (photo credit: Flash90)

Iran is the key reason for the visit, says Hanegbi, and the key section in Netanyahu’s airport speech was the early paragraph when the prime minister said: “Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself by itself against any threat. Thank you for enhancing Israel’s ability to exercise that right through generous military assistance, revolutionary missile defense programs, and unprecedented security and intelligence cooperation.”

Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren says Obama “always broadcasts warmth” to Israel.

President Barack Obama's entry in the guest-book of the President's Residence in Jerusalem (photo credit: Channel 2)

President Barack Obama’s entry in the guest-book of the President’s Residence in Jerusalem (photo credit: Channel 2)

What Obama wrote in Peres’s guestbook, as far as we can read it: “It is a great honor to visit Israel and reaffirm years of friendship between our countries and our people. It is also my honor to be hosted by President Peres, who has contributed to every aspect of Israeli society. Barack Obama.”


Peres to Obama: We trust you on Iran

Hanegbi again: Netanyahu will be making the point to Obama, when they meet later, that “words don’t stop missiles.” In Hebrew that works better: “Milim lo otzrim tilim.”

Peres and Obama are back out in public now. Peres says he’s confident that “your version can transform the Middle East.”

Peres thanks him for the long days and sleepless nights that you spent caring for our country. “There is a common vision uniting us: to confront the dangers, to bring peace.”

On Iran, “We trust your policy which calls to try by nonmilitary means with a clear statement that other options remain on the table.”

On the Palestinians “we have already agreed” that there is no better solution than two states for two peoples.” Peres says Israel considers Mahmoud Abbas “a partner in that effort to stop terror and bring peace,” but warns of the dangers posed by Hamas, by Hezbollah which “is destroying Lebanon.”

Fortunately, the Syrian nuclear capacity was destroyed,” Peres says, but there is still the danger of Syrian WMD.

The Arab spring “may bring peace to the region, freedom to the people… We pray it will become a reality.”

For the skeptics on peace, “your voice will encourage belief” in the “possibility” of peace. “Your vision is a historic step in that direction.”

Obama: Young Israelis deserve a future free of terror

Obama thanks Peres for his “very generous words.” He speaks again of the eternal city of Jerusalem.

US President Barack Obama smiles at his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, during a joint presentation at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, Wednesday (photo credit: Channel 2)

US President Barack Obama smiles at his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, during a joint presentation at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, Wednesday (photo credit: Channel 2)

He speaks of young Israelis’ desire to be safe from rockets and terror. “That’s the future that they deserve.”

He speaks of “the perils of a nuclear armed Iran” and the “imperative” for peace with the Palestinians.

He praises Peres for his “incredible vision” but also for his practical capacity. “The state of Israel will have no greater friend than the United States” in facing its challenges. It’s an “obligation to future generations,” he says.

Relating to the tree he just planted, he parallels that with the need to tend the seeds of progress toward a better future. The US couldn’t wish for a “more wise” partner in that process.

Obama meets with the Netanyahus

Silvan Shalom, newly installed as a senior cabinet minister, says there isn’t much difference now between Israel and the US “as regards timing on Iran.”

Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

So, does Israel “trust Obama on Iran,” as Peres just said, Shalom is asked on Army Radio? “We trust ourselves,” Shalom says.

So if Obama asks Netanyahu to hold his fire? “On the central issues, the most essential, the most critical to Israel’s security, and I say this on good authority, President Obama was there. And he was there big time,” says Shalom. He’s not up for reelection, yet here he is, on this visit.

Obama has moved on speedily to the Prime Minister’s Residence, for photos with Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, and another guestbook. “It is a great honor…” he begins to write left-handed, like the prime minister — then breaks off for a conversation with Sara about the slightly awkward way he holds a pen.

Barack Obama with Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Residence (photo credit: Channel 2  screenshot)

Barack Obama with Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Residence (photo credit: Channel 2 screenshot)

The prime minister praises Obama for knowing “exactly when to come” to Israel — once a government had been formed.

Obama is seated at a small round table, with Netanyahu seated facing him. Sara stands to her husband’s left. Now she escorts him toward the other waiting dignitaries, including Secretary of State Kerry, Ambassador Dan Shapiro, and Netanyahu’s aides including Yitzhak Molcho and Ron Dermer. A brief chat with Netanyahu’s son, Yair, apparently talking about army service. What do you plan to study? “International relations.”

Arm in arm, Obama and Netanyahu walk into a closed meeting room with Sara and Yair. All the officials, advisers and ministers wait outside. Exchanges of gifts, we think.

Obama. Still. A. Hunk.

Notes ToI’s Matti Friedman:

Some reporters watching Wednesday’s visit by Obama to the President’s House in Jerusalem might have been reminded of his last visit nearly five years ago.

The Israeli president was the same Shimon Peres. The flag-waving children looked the same, but weren’t — the ones who serenaded Obama this time might have been born around the time of that visit, in July 2008, or not too long before.

But Obama himself has changed. At the time, he was merely a senator who was hoping to be president. His motorcade and security detail were a fraction of the size.

There was no white in his hair then, and he looked not five but perhaps ten years younger.

During that visit, one of Peres’s young female staffers emerged from a closed meeting between Peres and Obama, came over to two reporters waiting outside, waved her right hand as if to fan herself and said, “He. Is. Such. A. Hunk.”

In 2013, this older Obama’s charisma still appears to be working. Rina Matzliach, a veteran Israeli TV reporter, was thrown off and seemed quite starstruck when Obama greeted her personally as he walked by; she interrupted her broadcast to reply, “Hi,” and had trouble calming down for a little while after that.

Visit already exposing contradictions within Israel’s new coalition

Amir Peretz, the new environment minister, says he hopes the Obama visit will give “a start-up” to peace efforts with the Palestinians.

Amir Peretz in the Knesset, December 2011 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASh90)

Amir Peretz (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Just six hours into this visit, it’s already exposing the contradictions in Israel’s leadership. Peres calls Abbas a partner; Peretz and Livni, from the center-left Hatnua, speak of peace hopes. But Jewish Home’s Bennett says the talk of a Palestinian state is “surreal” — in a bad way. His colleague Uri Orbach says lots of Israelis aren’t sure Obama really cares about them. Peres says Israel “trusts” Obama on Iran. Is Netanyahu prepared to say that?

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg posts his belief that Obama, in his speech to young Israelis tomorrow, “may use the upcoming Passover holiday — which appears to be his favorite holiday (he holds a Seder in the White House every year) — to begin to raise questions about Israel’s overall direction… What interests Obama a great deal about Passover is the questioning that is embedded in the Haggadah… Questioning, and doubting, are integral to the Jewish tradition, and it would certainly be clever of Obama to use this tradition to his advantage. He has been trying for years, without success, to encourage Israelis to ask themselves how exactly the West Bank settlement project squares with their desire to maintain Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy. This speech, this visit, and this holiday, all provide him with the opportunity to raise the question again.”

Palestinian rap clip asks Obama, ‘Can you do anything for us?’

Netanyahu and Obama are in full talks mode now. Tom Donilon and Kerry are among those with the president. The prime minister’s group includes Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Livni and the new international relations minister, Yuval Steinitz, will join later.

Before they got going, Obama apologized to the Netanyahus for bringing “so many people” into their house, and says Michelle “wanted to come.” Yair Netanyahu was told by the president that he’s a “good-looking boy.”

Ahead of tomorrow’s Ramallah leg, Middle East analyst says the atmosphere is “sour.” A local baker has patented “O” shaped bagels for the occasion, and Palestinian security chiefs are saying the president is a welcome visitor, but minor demonstrations are continuing, with pictures of the president defaced and burned. And a local rap group has produced a clip asking Obama, “Can you do anything for us?”


Esther Pollard: It’s Obama’s duty to release Jonathan

Esther Pollard tells Channel 2 that Peres gave Obama a petition signed by 200,000 Israelis calling for the release of her husband Jonathan, serving life for spying for Israel.

Esther Pollard (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Esther Pollard (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Oded Ben-Ami, the anchor, asks her: What about argument that Pollard is a criminal, and that this whole affair should be handled by lawyers and not heads of state?

Esther responds: “With all due respect, some of the best lawyers in the US sat with White House lawyers and it wasn’t resolved. This was during the Bush era. Unlike then, many American officials support releasing Pollard. [Obama’s] duty is to release him.”

She adds: “Jonathan has many health difficulties. I think the only thing keeping him alive is this campaign [to release him]. He feels remembered… Obama came here to connect to the Israeli people, to listen to them, to embrace Israel. When you have so many people backing this, the president, the prime minister, what better way to show us than by telling us ‘We forgive’?”

Asked if she is optimistic, Pollard says: “We are in the middle of the visit, we still don’t know what the outcomes will be of talks with the prime minister and the president.”

Silvan Shalom, a former foreign minister, is invited to weigh in: “So much time has passed — 28 years,” he says. “Israel is not an enemy of the US; there are other prisoners who did worse things and actually harmed US security. Many Israeli officials have brought up this issue with US administrations, as have I. But recently, we see a change where former US security officials now say directly that he should be released.”

Washington Post’s Rubin: Pretty speeches won’t do it

Commentators are beginning to weigh in on the visit so far.

Here’s Jennifer Rubin, pretty withering on Obama in the Washington Post: “The words now are better; the speechwriters are more adept. But the problems remain because the president’s actions over the past few years have conveyed another message, one that does not respect the elected government of Israel and assumes it is the barrier to ‘peace.’ He will need, by words and deeds, to change course if he is to repair the relationship between the two governments. Moreover, he will need to convey that the United States and Israel share the same concern and have the same approach to both Iran and its junior partner, Syria.”

The piece is headed, “Obama in Israel: Pretty speeches won’t do it,” and it concludes: “In short, Obama’s rhetoric has gotten better, but his behavior is at the root of the region’s difficulties and the strain between the United States and Israel. The region, and most especially Israel, requires an effective, vibrant American presence, a well-thought out U.S. approach to the spread of jihadism and an America that engenders respect and, from its foes, fear. Right now, none of that exists. Hence, Israel’s dilemma remains and the region edges closer to total chaos, humanitarian upheaval and a nuclear arms race. But still, it was a very nice speech Obama gave.”

From a very different perspective, here’s ex- Haaretz reporter Akiva Eldar in Al-Monitor: “Obama is coming here to try and salvage what’s left of US standing in the region. An America that abandons the Israeli-Arab conflict to its fate is not worthy of the title ‘world power.’ Giving up the leading role in the play entitled ‘The Peace Process’ is a declaration of bankruptcy by US foreign policy. One can assume that Obama knows the status quo between the occupier and occupied cannot go on forever… The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate does obviously not want the third intifada, signs of which are emerging on the ground, to be named after him.”

Meanwhile, outside the Israel-Obama bubble, in the Middle East-as-usual, Abbas is said to be considering firing his prime minister, Salam Fayyad.

And French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy has been banned from Libya — being Jewish and all.

Oh, and Turkey’s Erdogan wasn’t being anti-Semitic when he called Zionism a crime against humanity. He was just criticizing Israeli policies.

They’re digging up Obama’s tree? No, but it’s roots are in plastic netting, ahead of inspection

Ynet is reporting that by order of the Agriculture Ministry, the magnolia tree brought from the US by the president and planted by Obama and Peres earlier this afternoon is being dug up. Not so, says the president’s spokeswoman Ayelet Frisch. Rather, it’s roots are in a plastic netting, not touching the ground, prior to inspection next week by the Agriculture Ministry. Plants cannot be brought in from abroad “without undergoing a check” by the ministry, the Ynet report quoted the bureaucrats as saying. Frisch says the president’s people were kept informed of all this in advance.

As the Netanyahu-Obama talks near their mid-evening break — there’ll be a press conference in 20 minutes or so, and then a working dinner — Ambassador Michael Oren is asked whether, for all the nice words thus far, Obama isn’t going to say, sooner or later: What about ending the occupation?

Michael Oren (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-Anne Mandlebaum)

Michael Oren (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-Anne Mandlebaum)

Ever the diplomat, Oren ignores the wording and reiterates that Israel wants to talk to the Palestinians, with no preconditions, right away.

If these two leaders differ on Iran and the Palestinians, they don’t seem to disagree on the Syrian chemical weapons threat — a real front-burner issue given the unclear reports about the possible use of chemical weapons on the other side of the northern border yesterday. Doubtless, that’s being discussed right now.

Channel 2 analyst Amram Abramovitch says “it’s a foregone conclusion” that Obama is demanding a settlement freeze. That’s central to any new negotiations, he asserts.

“It would be a mistake to go down that wrong path,” responds Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett, alongside him in the studio.

The “deadlock” of the last government was a mistake, says Tzipi Livni, joining the debate. And you have indications that that is going to change? Yes, she replies.

Former Israeli ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman says this trip “is all about building a relationship… They have to work together… They won’t get another chance” to establish good chemistry.

Netanyahu supports for ‘two states for two people’

Obama and Netanyahu begin their press conference.

Netanyahu says he hopes the Israeli people have helped Obama feel at home.

He mentions Iran’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons. Despite the sanctions and the international pressure, he says there’s a need for this to be augmented by “a clear and credible threat of military action.”

He again praises Obama for reiterating Israel’s right to self-defense, and notes that Israel has “both the right and the capability” to defend itself.

Israel can “never cede” the right to defend itself to others — even to the best of its friends, and the US is the best of friends, he notes. He says they’ll be discussing this further.

Netanyahu talks about the terrible civil war in Syria, with the deaths of over 70,000 people and the danger of the deadly non-conventional weaponry there falling into rogue hands.

On the Palestinians, he says “Israel remains fully committed to peace and to the solution of two states for two peoples.” We stretch out our hand in friendship to the Palestinian people, he says. We hope your visit will help us “turn the page” and enable us to “sit down at the negotiating table and achieve “a historic compromise” and end our conflict “once and for all.”

Obama says Netanyahu’s good-looking sons get their looks from their mother. Netanyahu shoots back that the same goes for Obama’s daughters.

Obama mentions Israel’s “unique” security challenges.

He promises “no interruption” in funding for Iron Dome.

He says Israel has an interest in “a strong, effective Palestinian Authority” and talks about future steps toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

He says they discussed ways to ensure Israel’s security amid the change in the region.

On Syria, the US is working to end the violence in Syria. The US shares Israel concern over the possible transfer of weaponry to Hezbollah. THe Assad regime will be held responsible.

On Iran, we agree on the goal. “Our policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” Diplomacy is preferred. The pressure will continue. The US will consult with Israel. “All options are on the table. We will do what is necessary to prevent Iran getting the world’s worst weapons.”

Israel has “the unwavering support of the United States” on its side.

On Iran, Obama keeps ‘all options open,’ while PM asserts right to self-defense

Obama answers, at length, a question about the failure to intervene in Syria, essentially justifying the policy he has been following.

The two are asked now about Iran. We had a joke about red lines on the tarmac, says Netanyahu. But Iran’s nuclear drive is a grave strategic threat. “I’m absolutely convinced that the president is determined to thwart Iran,” says Netanyahu. And he restates, appreciatively, Obama’s reassertion of Israel’s right to defend itself. “Iran is a grave threat to Israel… to the world.”

Obama adds: “Our intelligence cooperation on this matter… is unprecedented.” And “there is not a lot of daylight between our countries’ assessments… of where Iran is now.” Israel is “differently situated” from the United States. It’s for “Bibi” to make decisions for Israel. “We will leave all options on the table.”

In answer to another question, Obama says his “main goal on this trip” is to assure Israel of his friendship and of America’s bonds with Israel. He wants to be sure “there are no misunderstandings” on Iran.

On the peace process, “we haven’t gone forward” in the last year or two, says Obama. The PA “has worked effectively… to do its part on maintaining security in the West Bank.” The sought-for settlement would allow Israelis to feel they’re breaking out “of their isolation” and for the Palestinians to feel that they too are “masters of their fate.” We’ve not yet seen that solution, the president says. Hence he’s been hearing from Netanyahu today and will hear from Abu Mazen tomorrow. “I didn’t want to come here and make some big announcement” — but rather “to listen before I talk,” as his mother always told him to do. He wants to go back home with a better understanding of the constructive role the US can play toward a two-state solution.

There’s some joking about multiple questions. And then, did Obama fail on the peace process in his first term, and why haven’t Israelis embraced Obama?

Obama rejects the notion that he “screwed up” in failing to achieve peace in his first term. It’s a hard problem, that’s been “lingering” for six decades. “It’s a hard slog to work through all of these issues.”

“It’s hard, and people disagree.”

He believes, he says, that “Israel’s security will be enhanced” and the Palestinian people will benefit, and the region will flourish, with a resolution to this issue.

Netanyahu says there’s a “misunderstanding” on Iran and time. If Iran decides to go for a bomb, it will take about a year. But the Iranians can defer that final push, and keep enriching uranium along the way. They’ve not crossed his red line. But they’re getting closer. They’ll reach “an immunity zone” when they get through the enrichment process. There’s not a lot of time left. There’s a common US assessment on this, the prime minister says.

On Israelis ostensibly not taking the president to their hearts: “People should get to know President Obama,” says Netanyahu warmly, noting that Obama has announced he wants to begin talks on another 10 years of US military aid. Israelis will judge Obama on the basis of steps like these, he says.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama end their press conference in Jerusalem on March 20, 2013. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama end their press conference in Jerusalem on March 20, 2013. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And that’s the presser wrapped up. The two men go back to a working dinner, and more talks.

Among the key themes, perhaps, Netanyahu’s assertion of Israel’s right to defend itself as a signal of a right to intervene in Iran. And the prime minister’s explicit support for “two states for two peoples.” Peres had said to Obama earlier: I trust you on Iran. Netanyahu essentially says: I appreciate your stance on Iran, and reserve the right to act independently.

Finally, the earlier Hebrew media reports that the presidential tree was being dug up are firmly denied by Peres’s staff. Next week, the Agriculture Minister will inspect Obama’s gift in situ — as required by law, and as told to the Americans ahead of time, says spokeswoman Ayelet Frisch. Until then its roots are being kept covered in plastic netting, not touching the ground. Glad we’ve cleared that up.

Thanks for being with us through the day on this liveblog. We’ll see you again tomorrow.

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