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Obama, Netanyahu talk unity, underline differences

Tuesday - 3/6/2012, 1:26am  ET

By BEN FELLER
AP White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) - Taking sharply different stands, President Barack Obama on Monday urged pressure and diplomacy to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized his nation's right to a pre-emptive attack. Even in proclaiming unity, neither leader gave ground on how to resolve the crisis.

Seated together in the Oval Office, Obama and Netanyahu at times tried to speak for each other, and other times spoke past one another. The president and prime minister are linked by the history and necessity of their nations' deep alliance, if not much personal warmth, and both sought to steer the Iran agenda on their terms.

"I know that both the prime minister and I prefer to resolve this diplomatically," Obama said. "We understand the costs of any military action."

If he agreed, Netanyahu said nothing about sanctions or talks with Iran, or Obama's position that there still is time to try to deter Iran peacefully. Instead, Netanyahu drew attention back to Obama's acknowledgement that Israel is a sovereign land that can protect itself how it sees fit.

"I believe that's why you appreciate, Mr. President, that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself," Netanyahu said.

Israel, he added, must remain "the master of its fate."

Israel has not yet decided whether to launch a unilateral strike on Iran, a point underscored in the White House meetings.

Across days of comments, speeches and interviews, Obama and Netanyahu left no doubt about where they stand on Iran. Far less clear is whether they have done anything to alter each other's position in what has become a moment of reckoning over Iran, and an important foreign policy issue in the U.S. presidential race.

Both are adamant Iran must not develop a nuclear bomb. Obama's aim is to keep Israel from launching an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, fearing that would do little lasting good toward the goal and engulf the region and the United States in another war.

Senior Obama administration officials said the talks at the White House left the two sides closer than they were a week ago. The Israelis walked away with prominent statements from Obama that he would not stand for containing a nuclear-armed Iran, and that the crisis was in the United States' interests to solve.

In turn, Israelis did acknowledge privately they would prefer a diplomatic solution, despite enormous skepticism about the Iranian government, officials said. And there were no demands that Obama set a new "red line" of what it would take for a U.S. strike _ the U.S. position remains that Iran must not get a nuclear weapon.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.

Netanyahu emphasized that Israel must defend itself from an Iranian nuclear threat.

He said after his talks with Obama: "I think I was listened to and understood."

The last time the two men met in the Oval Office, in May, Netanyahu lectured Obama in front of reporters as differences over Mideast peace unfolded. This time, their body language as they spoke was not so glaring but still telling: Obama addressed the media; Netanyahu spoke directly to Obama and locked on him.

Both leaders see a nuclear-armed Iran as a nightmare that could threaten Israel's survival and potentially allow terrorists to grab unthinkably deadly power. Their difference is not over whether force may be needed _ Obama has been specific on his willingness to use it _ but whether the time for such a drastic step is nearing.

Israel fears it may soon lose its window to take out Iran's nuclear facilities; Obama sees a longer period for intervention, based on Iran's current nuclear capability and the toll of growing sanctions. He has put increasing emphasis on the political, economic and potential death toll that could come with opening a new Mideast war.

There are other election-year stakes for Obama.

He is under pressure from Republican rivals, and even some Democratic allies, over his backing for Israel. That perception, in turn, can play an important role in swing states such as Florida, where there are many Jewish voters, and in Obama's ability to raise money for his campaign.

"The United States will always have Israel's back when it comes to Israel's security," Obama said. Netanyahu took it further.

He said Americans know Israel is their only reliable democratic ally in the Mideast, and that Iran sees the two countries as inseparable enemies.

"For them, you're the Great Satan, and we're the Little Satan," Netanyahu said. "For them, we are you and you're us. And, you know something, Mr. President _ at least on this last point, I think they're right. We are you, and you are us. ... Israel and America stand together."

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