WASHINGTON -- Published reports say President Obama tried to soften the blow of the Iran nuclear deal for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by offering new U.S. military aid to the Jewish state, but a senior Obama administration official denied a specific package is on the table.
Citing anonymous sources, the newspaper reports assert that in a phone call with Netanyahu, Mr. Obama proposed to bolster the Israeli Defense Force with increased military aid. According to the reports, Netanyhu hasn't yet accepted the offer.
However, a senior administration official refuted the report, saying, "There is no specific package," according to CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller. But the U.S. has offered Israel "intensive consultations" between national security teams, and the president himself has offered the consultations to Netanyahu on "their last few calls." Israelis, the official said, "have made clear privately and publicly that they do not want to engage in this conversation at this juncture."
The offer still stands, however, and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's Israel visit next week is meant to reinforce the defense relationship between the two countries. No discussion along these lines is expected to commence during Carter's visit, but the administration says it is ready to begin "as soon as the Israeli leadership decides to engage."
President Obama, in an interview with the New York Times' Thomas Friedman, said he thought he understood Netanyahu's opposition to the consultation:
I think given his opposition -- and in fairness to him, I think there's been widespread opposition to the deal inside of Israel -- it may be that it requires this to play itself out. He perhaps thinks he can further influence the congressional debate. And I'm confident we're going to be able to uphold this deal and implement it without Congress preventing that. But after that's done, if that's what he thinks is appropriate, then I will sit down, as we have consistently throughout my administration, and then ask some very practical questions: How do we prevent Hezbollah from acquiring more sophisticated weapons? How do we build on the success of Iron Dome, which the United States worked with Israel to develop and has saved Israeli lives.
Netanyahu has been the most aggressive critic of the nuclear agreement with Iran, slamming it as an "historic mistake" and telling CBS News' Scott Pelley that it will only make it easier for what he called the "terror machine" of the Iranian regime to develop an atomic bomb.
On Wednesday, Mr. Obama held a news conference addressing critics of the nuclear deal.
"Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation or it's resolved through force, through war," Mr. Obama said.
CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett says the president argued that Iran was close to a nuclear weapon now -- two to three months away, according to experts -- but would be kept at least a year away from that capability for the next decade if the deal is implemented.
"Even if everything the critics were saying was true, they won't be at a breakout point that is more dangerous than the breakout point they're in right now," he said.
Netanyahu has attacked the maximum 24-day waiting period international weapons inspectors must endure before gaining access to suspected covert nuclear sites in Iran.
Mr. Obama said the risk was minimal.
"This is not something you hide in a closet," he said. "This is not something you put on a dolly and kind of wheel off somewhere," he said, referring to the advanced technology -- namely hundreds of centrifuges -- that would be needed by Iran if it did decide to "break out" and pursue a nuclear weapon.
"Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content, with all of the fanfare around this deal, to leave the conscience of this nation, the strength of this nation, unaccounted for, in relation to these four Americans?" Garrett asked.
"The notion that I am content, as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails... Major, that's nonsense, and you should know better," Mr. Obama said. "Now, if the question is why we did not tie the negotiations to their release -- think about the logic that that creates; Suddenly Iran realizes, 'you know what, maybe we can get additional concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals.'"