President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered a "good cop-bad cop" approach to Iran's nuclear ambitions on Wednesday, with Obama calling for more diplomacy while endorsing Israel's right to defend itself as it sees fit.
The two leaders met for more than two hours on Obama's first visit to Israel as president, part of a Middle East swing that he said was intended to assess the seemingly intractable impasse between the Israelis and Palestinians over how to live next to each other.
Other issues discussed on Obama's first foreign trip of his second term included the civil war in neighboring Syria. There have been unconfirmed reports of chemical weapons being used in the conflict, which Obama labeled a "game-changer," if true, regarding limited U.S. involvement so far.
With the visit, Obama sought to assure Netanyahu and Israelis of his commitment to their security and strengthen what has been a strained personal and working relationship with the prime minister. The two are each beginning new terms in power.
In what Netanyahu called a key development, the leaders announced new talks on extending U.S. military assistance to Israel for another 10 years past the current agreement that expires in 2017.
They also sounded united on other major issues.
Both countries have accused Iran of secretly working toward building a nuclear weapon, and Netanyahu made clear Wednesday after his talks with Obama that he believes the president is equally committed to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.
Obama pushed at a joint news conference for continued diplomatic efforts, including negotiations and sanctions, intended to get Iran to comply with international safeguards against nuclear arms.
"The question is whether the Iranian leadership will seize that opportunity," Obama said before playing off a memorable Cold War line by Ronald Reagan about the Soviet Union: "We can't even trust yet, much less verify."
At the same time, he insisted that "all options" remain open -- code for a military strike to disable the Iranian program.
Obama also made clear that Israel has the right to defend itself as it sees fit, which amounted to a diplomatic signal that Washington would not stop a unilateral Israeli strike at some future point if no progress occurred.
Netanyahu responded with thanks, saying Obama spoke of "the great transformation that has occurred in the life of the Jewish people with a rebirth of the Jewish state" that has grown from a once powerless population into a nation that has "both the right and the capability" to defend itself.
"I know that you appreciate that Israel can never cede the right to defend ourselves to others, even to the greatest of our friends, and Israel has no better friend than the United States of America," Netanyahu added.
Both leaders also said they had a "common assessment" on how much time remained before Iran could build a nuclear weapon. Though Netanyahu indicated his "red line" for action might be sooner, referring to what he called a "point of immunity" when Tehran completed enriching enough uranium for a weapon.
Iran has rebuffed calls to halt its production of enriched uranium, saying it has a right to produce peaceful nuclear energy. But the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, has said it can no longer verify any peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program.
Poll: Most Americans say Israel is a friend
Most Americans consider Israel an ally or at least friendly to the United States, according to a new CNN/ORC International poll released Tuesday. However, respondents split -- 49%-49% -- on whether the United States should support Israel if it unilaterally attacks Iranian nuclear facilities to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, the survey showed.
On Obama's first day in Israel, Palestinian activists erected a tent city outside Jerusalem in the West Bank to protest his visit and continued Israeli construction of settlements in what they consider an occupied territory. Meanwhile, demonstrators in Gaza protesting Israeli and U.S. policies toward Palestinians burned flags of both nations as well as a picture of Obama.
The topic of settlements, a sticking point in the stalled Middle East peace process, never came up at the news conference by the leaders, showing the sensitivity of the issue.
"I purposely did not want to come here with some big announcement" that might not match up with reality on the ground, Obama told reporters.
The Israeli-Palestinian dispute
Both leaders said they discussed the Israel-Palestinian stalemate and Syria, further complicated by accusations that chemical weapons were used this week.
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told CNN on Wednesday that "it is clear for us here in Israel" that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. When pressed during an interview, Livni wouldn't say whether there was evidence that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad directed their use.
She said the development poses a direct threat to Israel because "the appearance is that it's not going to be only in Syria, but that Hezbollah can reach all these chemical weapons and use them against Israel in the future."
Israelis have long been concerned that Hezbollah, Israel's foe in neighboring Lebanon, could gain possession of Syrian chemical weapons if the al-Assad regime is further destabilized.