WASHINGTON -- Israel's prime minister told a massive pro-Israel gathering Monday night that time was running out to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, though he stopped short of calling for immediate action that would directly clash with President Barack Obama's diplomatic strategy.
"For the last decade, the international community has tried diplomacy -- it hasn't worked," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told an audience at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee gala. "For six years the international community has applied sanctions -- that hasn't worked either. Israel has patiently waited for the international community to resolve this issue. We've waited for diplomacy to work, we've waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer."
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu met with Obama in a terse and closely watched meeting that many hoped would offer clues on the possibility of military action against Iran. Obama has repeatedly said that diplomacy and sanctions should be given more time to work, while the Israelis have pressed the urgency of preventing Iran from acquiring even the capability to produce a nuclear weapon.
“We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue,” Obama said in brief remarks to reporters after the meeting.
The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported on Monday that Netanyahu assured Obama during the meeting that he had not decided whether to go to war with Iran. But if the prime minister left the meeting persuaded by Obama's view, he showed little hint of it Monday night.
In his American Israel Public Affairs Committee speech, heard by more than 13,000 attendees at the gala, including most of the U.S. Congress and much of the Obama administration's top Middle East staff, Netanyahu began with warm remarks for the president, who he has not been known to have a comfortable relationship.
But after pronouncing that "Israel has exactly the same policy" as the U.S. when it comes to a nuclear Iran, Netanyahu laid out ways his perspective differs from Obama's.
"Amazingly, some refuse to acknowledge that Iran's goal is to develop nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said. "They say, Iran is cruel, but it's not crazy. It's detestable, but it's defer-able. Responsible leaders should not bet the security of their countries that the world's most dangerous regimes will not use the world's most dangerous weapons, and I promise you that as the prime minister of Israel, I will never gamble with the security of the State of Israel."
"If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then what is it? It is a duck -- but this duck is a nuclear duck," Netanyahu joked at one point, referring to the hints that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, something the U.S. intelligence community does not believe Iran has decided to do.
The prime minister's occasional jocularity was interpreted by some as a sign that Netanyahu was not immediately planning military strikes against Iran.
But he also reached into raw history, digging up old letters between American military officials and leaders of the Jewish community from World War II, in which Americans doubted the utility of air strikes against the concentration camp in Auschwitz. He concluded that Israel would not allow its security to be dictated by American interests or desires.
"Never again will the Jewish people be supplicants. Never again," Netanyahu said. "We deeply appreciate the alliance between our two nations, but when it comes to Israel's survival, we must always remain the masters of our fate."
When Obama addressed the conference on Sunday, he emphasized the diplomatic effort, but also made clear he would not hesitate to take military action if necessary.
"I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say," Obama said. "That includes all elements of American power. A political effort aimed at isolating Iran, a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored, an economic effort to impose crippling sanctions, and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency."
Senior Obama administration officials who spoke to reporters after Monday's meeting on background and on the condition of not being named, highlighted the enormous costs and consequences associated with a military effort.
The officials also emphasized that there is still plenty of time to allow diplomatic solutions, or to make decisions about military options. Were Iranian leaders to try to build a nuclear weapon, it would take about a year to complete, American officials said.
On these points, Netanyahu on Monday seemed to disagree with Obama, even if he did not characterize his perspective that way.
"There's been so much talk about the cost of stopping Iran," Netanyahu said. "I think it's time to start talking about the cost of not stopping Iran."
Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.