Israel welcomes Obama assurances on Iran

Israel welcomes assurances US President Barack Obama gave on the Iranian nuclear programme on his milestone visit to the Jewish state, a cabinet minister said on Thursday.

"The president is firmly committed to acting against Iran's nuclear programme and to strengthening military, diplomatic and intelligence cooperation between the two countries," newly sworn-in Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said.

"The president also announced the start of discussions on the extension of US military aid to Israel beyond 2017," said Steinitz, whose responsibilities also include international relations.

At a joint news conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, Obama said Washington would enter talks to renew a multi-billion-dollar military aid package for Israel after it expires in 2017.

He also said he "would not expect that the prime minister would make a decision about his country's security and defer that to any other country."

"The important thing is that aid to Israel is not conditional on Israel abandoning its right to self-defence and ability to make independent decisions on all threats, including the Iranian one," Steinitz said.

Israeli public radio said Netanyahu and Obama had "reached a deal" whereby the Israeli premier for the first time clearly said he believed in the president's commitment to not allow Iran to achieve military nuclear arms, and in exchange Obama acknowledged Israel's right to self-defence.

Western powers suspect Iran's civilian nuclear programme is a cover for a quest to achieve nuclear arms, a claim the Islamic republic denies.

According to Israeli media Obama's charm offensive to win over the Israeli public was going well.

"A joke or a little teasing, a few words in Hebrew and we're filled with huge love for the man, who for a moment looks as though he likes us," wrote Sima Kadmon in the daily Yediot Aharonot.

She said that Obama understood that "neither he nor any other American president will be able to press Israel if there is no relationship of trust, of friendship, of understanding."

Maariv daily's Shalom Yerushalmi wrote that "Obama came to settle in people's hearts, and succeeded."

"But we should make no mistake, there are no free gifts and no gestures without interests," he added.