Sunday 22 October 2017

Obama turns on charm in bid to revive ailing peace process

President Barack Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands while they hold a joint news conference at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem
President Barack Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands while they hold a joint news conference at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem

Robert Tait Jerusalem

President Barack Obama has launched an overt charm offensive on Israel, casting himself as a friend of Benjamin Netanyahu in a new attempt to revive the ailing peace process and heal sharp differences on Iran.

In a change of tack from the confrontational approach during his first term as president, Mr Obama yesterday acknowledged that he had failed in his goal to achieve progress toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

"I have not always been as deft as I could have been," he admitted. "Having tried to achieve peace in my first term, I must have screwed up."

Antipathy

Mr Obama was on his first trip to Israel and his confession came in a joint press conference with Mr Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, in which the two men's famous mutual antipathy seemed to melt.

But the apparent love-in was also interspersed with statements of solidarity on issues such as the Syria civil war and Iran's nuclear programme.

Mr Obama first addressed allegations about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, saying that, if proved, it was letting the "genie out of the bottle".

On Iran, he sought to assuage Mr Netanyahu's fears by insisting that his goal was to stop Tehran getting a nuclear weapon.

The two men have frequently been at loggerheads over the issue, and even yesterday, distinctions between the two were clear.

Mr Obama said there was still time for a diplomatic solution. The Israeli prime minister insisted the sanctions regime was not working. But Mr Obama said he recognised Israel's right to take decisions in its own defence.

Mr Netanyahu hinted that he may launch a go-it-alone strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, though he said he was convinced of Mr Obama's determination to stop Iran building a bomb.

The president called Mr Netanyahu by his childhood nickname, Bibi, several times and, in one moment, the Israeli prime minister appeared on the verge of tears as Mr Obama paid tribute to his late brother Yoni, who was killed while taking part in a commando raid to free hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976.

Earlier, Mr Obama had declared the alliance between America and Israel was "eternal" after emerging from Air Force One into brilliant spring sunshine in Tel Aviv.

Greeted by Mr Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and a phalanx of Israeli politicians and dignitaries, he drew a round of applause by merely uttering the word "shalom".

The warmth of the Israeli welcome contrasted with the outright opposition among Palestinians to Mr Obama's visit. Activists in the West Bank set up a protest camp in the sensitive E1 area, where Mr Netanyahu's government last year announced plans to build settlements in defiance of international condemnation that it would damage the chances of establishing a Palestinian state.

There were also protests in Gaza, where demonstrators set fire to pictures of Mr Obama and US flags. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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