President Obama in his first visit to Israel as commander in chief said his administration will investigate whether Syria’s government used chemical weapons against rebels in its civil war.
The question of whether Syria had crossed a so-called “red line” that would provoke U.S. military action dominated the president’s first day in Israel, which included a meeting and joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game-changer,” Obama said as Netanyahu looked on. “And I won’t make an announcement today about next steps because I think we have to gather the facts.”
Obama has repeatedly come under pressure from some congressional Republicans to take tougher actions against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, though lawmakers from both parties at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday were divided on what actions should be taken.
Tuesday’s attack at a town near Aleppo left more than two dozen dead, and prompted dueling accusations from the Assad regime and the rebels over who had in fact used chemical weapons.
Obama said he was “deeply skeptical” that the opposition had launched a chemical attack, and he noted that the Syrian government had the capacity to carry out such an attack and had “expressed a willingness to use chemical weapons if necessary to protect themselves.”
Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerFormer House leader Bob Michel, a person and politician for the ages Former House GOP leader Bob Michel dies at 93 Keystone pipeline builder signs lobbyist MORE (R-Ohio) said Wednesday that Obama should consult Congress before launching military action against Syria.
“I do think that the threat that Syria used chemical weapons is a serious one,” BoehnerJohn BoehnerFormer House leader Bob Michel, a person and politician for the ages Former House GOP leader Bob Michel dies at 93 Keystone pipeline builder signs lobbyist MORE said in an interview with CNN. “I would hope that as the president is making his decision with what our reaction will be, that he will, in fact, consult with the bipartisan leaders in the Congress, something that didn't happen before our involvement with Libya.
"This is an important part of the process, and I would hope that he would reach out to the Congress so that we could be part of that process," he added.
The crisis in Syria confronts Obama in the midst of his highly symbolic trip to Israel. It is the first time Obama has visited Israel as president and is his first foreign trip of his second term.
While Syria has leapt to the top of the agenda, it must share space with Iran, the foreign policy issue that has caused friction between Obama and Netanyahu.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Netanyahu reiterated that he does not believe sanctions pushed by the Obama administration have so far stopped Iran’s nuclear program, and said that Israel will defend itself if needed.
But he also added that he was “absolutely convinced that the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”
Obama said that he still thinks there is time to resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute diplomatically, which is his preference.
“If it can't [be resolved diplomatically], then I've repeated to Bibi what I've said publicly, and that is that we will leave all options on the table in resolving it,” Obama said.
When Obama has used military action in the past, he has been reluctant to launch military strikes unilaterally.
In Libya, Obama helped build a consensus in 2011 among Western countries and played a more supportive role as NATO helped the Libyan opposition forces oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from power.
In Syria, the president has stepped further back from that, as the U.S. has declined to give arms directly to rebel forces — only providing humanitarian aid.
Pressed on why the Obama administration hasn’t done more in Syria to this point, Obama defended his strategy, calling the crisis a “world problem” that needs consensus from the international community.
Israel is concerned about Syria’s chemical weapons falling into the hands of groups like Hezbollah that could try to use them on Israeli soil, a point Netanyahu made Wednesday.
Ahead of Wednesday’s joint press conference, Israeli officials were adamant in saying it was “clear” that chemical weapons were used in Syria.
While the reports about chemical weapons have stepped up calls from members such as Sens. John McCainJohn McCainA guide to the committees: Senate Webb: The future of conservatism New national security adviser pick marks big change on Russia MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamA guide to the committees: Senate Cheney to intro Pence at Jewish GOP event CEOs come to defense of border tax plan MORE (R-S.C.) for action, many lawmakers remain concerned about providing the rebels with arms, as the opposition remains fractured.
“Too many questions remain about who the rebels are and with whom they will swear allegiance. The unknown can be dangerous, and the vetting of the opposition is not enough when it comes to providing lethal aid that could be used against our allies, such as Israel, or the United States in a post-Assad era,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the former Foreign Affairs chairwoman.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl LevinCarl LevinSilencing of Warren another example of hyperpartisan Senate GOP going nuclear over Gorsuch might destroy filibuster forever Obama to preserve torture report in presidential papers MORE (D-Mich.) and House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), however, have joined McCain and Graham in calling for more U.S. involvement.
Obama and Netanyahu also spoke about the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which Obama had hoped to re-start in his first term — without much success.
Netanyahu said that Israel is “fully committed” to a two-state solution.
“We extend our hands in peace and in friendship to the Palestinian people,” Netanyahu said. “I hope your visit along with the visit of Secretary of State [John] Kerry will help us turn the a page in our relations with the Palestinians.”
Asked why he wasn’t able to cover more ground on the peace process in his first term, Obama said Mideast peace was a “hard slog.”
“Some of it is just because it is hard,” Obama said. “And people disagree. And it takes, I think, a confluence of both good diplomatic work, but also timing, serendipity, things falling into place at the right time.”
Obama said that he plans to touch on the peace process further in a speech he will give in Jerusalem on Thursday.
—Julian Pecquet, Justin Sink and Amie Parnes contributed.
This story was posted at 3:08 p.m. and updated at 6:07 p.m.