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Special Coverage of President Obama's Address to the United Nations

Aired September 21, 2011 - 09:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm Wolf Blitzer in New York.

We want to welcome you to our special coverage of President Obama's special address to the United Nations. We'll carry his address live. We want to emphasize just how extraordinary and just how diplomatically delicate this speech by the president of the United States will be.

He will face different audiences, several different audiences. One, of course, the international community. It's on edge right now over U.S. efforts to block full Palestinian membership in the United Nations.

Another audience he faces -- Republican challengers for the White House. They are ready to pounce at any hint that he might be backing away from supporting Israel.

This morning we've brought together an all-star panel, including our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin. She's over at the United Nations.

The former assistant secretary of state, James Rubin. He is here in New York.

Zalmay Khalilzad is a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. He's in Washington.

And our senior political analyst David Gergen. He is here with me in New York.

Here's a look at the big week ahead. The general assembly of the United Nations will hear from Iran and the United Kingdom tomorrow.

Friday, the Palestinian leadership expected to make its case. Israel will have an opportunity to respond on Friday, as well.

We'll also hear from Greece, which, of course, is dealing with a huge financial crisis right now. It's rippling throughout Europe, indeed, throughout the Middle East.

So, there's a lot happening right now.

We're also, by the way, following another developing story breaking news happening right now. Two American hikers go free after two years in Iran's most notorious prison. The men were convicted of espionage earlier this year.

But $1 million bail has now secured their release. We're continuing to monitor the situation. We'll bring it to you live as we get more developments.

But both of these hikers, Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer, have been freed. They are getting ready to fly to Oman and reunite with their family and eventually fly back to the United States. Much more on this story coming up.

But let's set the stage for President Obama's important state before the United Nations General Assembly.

Our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is outside the U.N. right now.

Jessica, this is a hugely important speech for the president and it's a diplomatic tight rope.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf. He will be addressing a broad sweep of the issues. He will address the U.S. drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden, and U.S. effort to shore up the global economy.

But the main focus of this speech will be the sweeping dramatic changes in the Middle East and North Africa since he last appeared here at the U.N. a year ago -- in Egypt, in Tunisia and especially in Libya. Libya the administration sees as an example of the kind of international cooperation the president will argue that can lead to positive regime change. And that will be a theme that he will underscore in this speech.

Of course, Wolf, we all know looming over all of this is the Palestinian quest for statehood as they make a play for that here at the United Nations and the president will make an effort to juxtapose that with what happened in a sense in Libya and make the case that the U.S. believes in a Palestinian state, but we'll explain why he does not believe that the place for that is not here at the United Nations. He will argue that the place to make a play for -- that the best way to do this is to negotiate peace between Israel and Palestine over the negotiating table, and that he thinks this is the most effective way to achieve stability, not just there, but throughout the entire region.

As you say, a very delicate dance and I'm told, Wolf, that this speech will last for about 35 minutes.

BLITZER: We have a speech expected to start right at the top of the hour.

Jessica, the president will also have separate meetings with the Israeli and the Palestinian leaders who are in New York. Those meetings, I think, are set for today. Is that right?

YELLIN: That's right. He has a meeting around 11:00 a.m. with Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Israel, and then, later, this evening around 6:00, with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

We are told these are not efforts to head of the Palestinian effort to make a play for statehood here at the United Nations, but to, in effect, look ahead at what happens next and to make sure that relationships are strong and discussions are ongoing so that after the U.N. General Assembly is over, the United States and both parties can continue their discussions to try to bring both parties back to the negotiation table regardless of what happens here at the U.N., Wolf.

BLITZER: I know you've been briefed by top U.S. officials, Jessica. And I don't know if this has come up, but is there any chance at all, as remote it may sound, of a three-way meeting involving President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas?

YELLIN: So far, we have had absolutely no indication that that would happen, Wolf. We're told schedules could always change, but zero indication that that's going to happen. I would not hold your breath.

BLITZER: Yes, that would be remote. That would be dramatic, but unlikely as you point out.

All right. Jessica, don't go too far away. We got experts here watching what's going on, as well, including the former assistant secretary of state, Jamie Rubin, the former ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad, and David Gergen, our senior political analyst and adviser to four U.S. presidents.

Jamie Rubin, I'll start with you. What is going to happen here this week? It looks potentially like it could be a huge disaster, not only for the parties in the Middle East, but for the U.S., if the U.S. is forced to actually use its veto at the U.N. Security Council and block this Palestinian state resolution.

JAMES RUBIN, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, yes. Nothing good for the United States expected in the next week or two. The key question is whether the United States can muster enough votes in the Security Council to avoid having a veto, if the Palestinians push this to an actual vote.

You need nine votes to pass a resolution. If the Palestinian side got those nine votes, the U.S. would veto. So, I think that's going to be one aspect of the president's efforts.

And the second thing I think would be called damage limitation. It's crucial in both his meetings with the Palestinians and Israelis that after this is over they don't take self-defeating actions.

For example, he should be urging and I hope will be urging President Abbas to make clear to his people that even if they get some positive vote in the General Assembly, that he would say publicly that they recognize that actual statehood, the actual implementation of this can only happen at the negotiating table, and telling the Israelis that as much as this will make them feel isolated, such a vote or such an action, that they shouldn't cut off ties with those Palestinian security services the Israeli defense forces work with to protect the Israeli people. So, don't cut your ties with Abbas just because you don't like the outcome of this vote.

BLITZER: Ambassador Khalilzad, some U.S. officials have suggested to me that their best hope right now is to convince the Palestinian leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, to let it go to the United Nations Security Council as some sort of resolution, but then to table that resolution for all practical purposes, not have any formal vote for weeks, if not months. And see if they could resume the peace process in the meantime.

Is that at all likely given the stakes involved?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: Well, I think it depends on what we are able to do in terms of either having a number of countries on the council supporting that effort so that if they push for a vote, if the Palestinians push for a vote, they do not have the nine votes, or if we get some agreement with the Palestinians and Israelis about some initiative that could start right away and, therefore, the vote on the statehood and the Security Council could be put on hold.

I think it's very much depends on our diplomacy in the coming few days. I think we need to work with our friends on the Security Council. Perhaps maybe work on some language changes in the text that could also provide room for negotiations that will take much longer in the next couple of weeks. Or see what you can achieve, what we can get between Israelis and Palestinians that could lead for Palestinians to delay this.

I think we ought to be working both the Security Council side and the bilateral Palestinian/Israeli side.

BLITZER: And, David Gergen, if it weren't complicated enough, further complicating all of this is a presidential election next year here in the United States. All of a sudden, this has become a hot, political issue facing the president.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLTICAL ANALYST: It sure has. The Republican candidates jumped into this yesterday, Wolf. Mitt Romney is saying that the president has been throwing Israel under the bus. Rick Perry is coming out even harder and harsher and his condemnation of the president's policies, calling him weak and naive. And both saying they have failed.

So, the president, in fact, find himself on two -- politically find himself in two chess boards today.

One is the domestic one, where he is in danger of alienating a lot of the Jewish community. Losing or splitting the Jewish vote in 2012 and that could hurt him at some key congressional districts. We just saw this district of New York, with a heavy Jewish population, a lot of conservative Jewish population, that that seat for the first time since 1923 went to Republicans.

So, the president is in a situation where he not only needs to make sure Abbas doesn't do the right thing, but he doesn't want to walk away from Israeli supporters here at home. That's not even to talk about the international chess board which is quite complex.

BLITZER: And let me just asked a technical question to Jamie Rubin since you worked that United Nations for quite a while, Jamie. Assuming the Security Council sort of tables it and they don't have a formal vote, there could still be a separate vote in the general assembly and an overwhelming majority who would vote for a Palestinian state.

But would that do the job? Would that provide the Palestinians with full state membership at the U.N.?

RUBIN: No, it wouldn't, Wolf. But it might be sufficient to justify moving on. In other words, the Palestinians feel like they've been on the losing end for years and years and years. And in many respects, this is a final act of desperation by President Abbas.

Going to the Security Council, I think he knows, everybody knows, is not going to yield statehood for the Palestinians. The U.S. has made clear it will veto it. They may not even get nine votes.

If they took this to the general assembly, which they can do, as you mentioned, and won an overwhelming victory for what's called "enhanced observer" status, meaning upgrading their ability to participate in international organizations, in the International Criminal Court and other institutions, and did it in a large victory, in a political victory for the Palestinians, that might be enough for them to allow the U.N. Security Council vote to be set aside for possibly being picked up at some later date, and avoiding, which is what the United States desperately want to avoid, actually having to wield its veto and destroy much of the goodwill that President Obama has been trying to build in the Middle East.

BLITZER: Yes, and U.S. veto at the U.N. Security Council could spark anti-American feelings in much of the Arab and Muslim world. And that's a deep concern I've been told by top U.S. officials.

All right. Everyone stand by, we're awaiting the president of the United States getting ready to address the United Nations General Assembly. This is a live picture of the U.N. right now, probably around the top of the hour, the president will begin his speech. As you heard from Jessica Yellin, he'll speak for half an hour, maybe a little bit more.

When we come back, we'll also speak with the key member of the United States Congress who says the United Nations needs to make some serious reforms right now or and she is warning, she is the chair of the foreign affairs committee, the U.S. needs to start thinking serious about cutting its funding to the United Nations.

Much more of the breaking news coverage coming up right here in the CNN NEWSROOM.


BLITZER: Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff is speaking right now. She is speaking and immediately after she completes her remarks, the President of the United States, the host country, the United States of the United Nations, President Obama will speak.

We expect that to begin in about 15 minutes or so. We'll, of course, have live coverage of the President's address. He's expected to speak about several issues, including the very tense situation in the Middle East that's unfolding right now.

I want to bring in Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and she's the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She's watching the United Nations very closely.

Congresswoman, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Before I get to an issue that's very close to your heart, U.S. funding for the United Nations, what about funding for the Palestinian Authority? I know there is a huge debate in Congress right now about potentially having the United States eliminate or cut dramatically U.S. assistance to the Palestinians on the West Bank.

Where do you stand on that?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I stand very clearly on the side that says the U.S. assistance to the Palestinians in any form should be cut off because look at the provocative actions that the Palestinians are taking in the United Nations and that's just indicative of the provocative actions they take against the Israel every day.

Israel wants a partner for peace and until the Palestinians are willing to sit down and negotiate a two-state solution with Israel, why should U.S. taxpayer money keep funding the Palestinians when they are not doing anything to advance the peace process? We can use the money in better ways and we're talking millions of dollars that U.S. taxpayers are contributing to the Palestinians.

Let other nations take up the slack. We can foster a peace process with Israel in a better way.

BLITZER: Because I've heard many top Israelis say this money is very important for Israel's -- from Israel's perspective because it strengthens the Palestinian security services of the West Bank who are cooperating with the Israeli military and the Israeli security services themselves. They fear if that money went away, then that would further antagonize the Palestinians and -- and make them even more resistant to cooperation with the Israelis.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I respect the Israeli position and I respect the Palestinian position, but I represent constituents in the United States of America. And so what I think about and what I worry about is -- is the U.S. taxpayer dollars, are they being used in the correct way? In this tight and difficult economic times with the unemployment numbers going down, down, down, we really need to think carefully about U.S. funding to outside groups.

Is this the best use and what are we getting for -- for our money? And look at the U.N., $7.7 billion, Wolf. That's b, billion dollars to the U.N. last year. And you have groups like Cuba on the Human Rights Council and you had Cuba and North Korea cheering the committee on disarmament.

North Korea which is such as proliferator of nuclear arms, you have Iran sitting on the Commission on the status of women. In Iran they stone women to death.

So the days of a free pass and an open checkbook are over. I understand Israel may want this funding for the Palestinians or that funding for Israel, I'm worried about the U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. philosophy and U.S. principle. Let's stand for helping people become free and helping foster democracy but not funding extremist organizations.


BLITZER: All right, just to be precise on the funding --


ROS-LEHTINEN: And now remember the Palestinians --

BLITZER: -- Congresswoman on the funding for the United Nations, you say the United States is providing -- what -- about $7 billion a year to the United Nations.

What -- what number would you like that, the appropriate number to be?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I would like for the funding for the United Nations to be changed from a mandatory assessment to a voluntary assessment. What do I mean by that? We get to select which organizations, which committees are working, which we should not fund organizations like Durbin Three, which is a hate fest for the U.S. and Israel.

We should not fund the Committee on the Council on Human Rights. We should not fund all of these councils and committees that really are anti-democracy. We should not fund a Palestinian government that is now in cahoots with Hamas. Hamas wants to destroy Israel.

So let's -- I'm not saying no funding for the Palestinians ever, I'm saying that if you are in a hybrid government, which it is now, Palestinians with Hamas, an entity that wants to destroy Israel, why should U.S. taxpayer dollars go to the Palestinians? Tell Mahmoud Abbas to divorce himself from the Hamas and then we can talk about how much aid should go. And just like the U.N. let's take it to programs that work, UNICEF is a wonderful program, that's funded by voluntary assessment.

We have many refugee assistance programs that are funded on a voluntary basis so they work, and it has been proven in the past, voluntary assessments is what makes the U.N. reform.

But if they're going to get our $7.7 billion and not have to change a thing, it's going to be business as usual, count on it.

BLITZER: Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee --


ROS-LEHTINEN: Thanks Wolf.

BLITZER: -- a powerful committee, thanks Congresswoman very much for coming in.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to assess what we just heard from you. We're awaiting the President of the United States who's getting ready to address the United Nations General Assembly.

This is the leader of Brazil speaking right now Dilma Rousseff. Immediately after she completes her remarks, the President of the United States will begin speaking at the U.N. General Assembly.

We're also following the breaking news out of Iran, where American hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer they have now been released. Our producer is standing outside the prison waiting to speak to them. Hoping they'll speak to -- find a way to speak to them.

We're going to go there and see what's going on and much more of the breaking news coverage out of Iran as well.


BLITZER: We're only a few minutes away from the top of the hour, that's when we expect the President of the United States to address the United Nations General Assembly. The President is expected to speak about a whole bunch of issues especially the seismic change -- the seismic change happening in North Africa and throughout the Middle East right now.

This is the President of Brazil speaking. When she's done, the President will speak -- the President of the United States.

But there's also breaking news we're following here in the CNN NEWSROOM. Let's bring in Kyra Phillips on the latest. The dramatic word that those two American hikers, Kyra are free.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: That's right, we're talking about Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, Wolf. And we just want to bring our viewers up to speed. As you know, they have been locked up by Iran for two years now and they were convicted of spying, entering the country illegally, but $1 million bail was paid, $500,000 for each hiker and now we are told that possibly they have walked out of that prison.

We want to get to our CNN producer that is there in Iran. Shirzad Bozorgmehr, is just outside the Evin prison. Shirzad, have you been able to confirm if or not they got into those two cars that got through security and headed up to the gate?

SHIRZAD BOZORGMEHR, CNN PRODUCER: Nobody saw the actual two hikers, but the Omanis cars that went inside the prison to get them out came out with police escort and left. And then the Swiss ambassador's car followed. So as far as we can tell, it is confirmed that they have been released, and being taken by the Omanis in their car and the Swiss ambassador is following and we are trying to follow them and see if they're going to the airport or going to the Swiss ambassador's resident or to the Oman Embassy.

We don't know yet. We're trying to figure that out.

PHILLIPS: Ok so Shirzad, you have actually left then the prison and you are now following this entourage of cars, the Swiss ambassador and two other you said cars driven by Omanis, possibly with the two American hikers inside those vehicles.

BOZORGMEHR: Possibly but it's almost certain because everyone left.

PHILLIPS: Everyone left the prison?

BOZORGMEHR: The Swiss Ambassador, the Omanis, everybody. So that is an indication that it is the confirmation of their release because they were -- the Omanis went in there to get them out and when they came out nobody could see them but everybody is certain that -- that they -- they were in the car.

PHILLIPS: All right and so what --


BOZORGMEHR: But nobody has seen them.

PHILLIPS: Ok. And what we've learned, they will go from Oman and then from Oman straight back to the United States. Shirzad, please keep us updated.


PHILLIPS: Once again that's our producer there in Iran. Apparently the two American hikers have left that prison and are in a convoy of sorts right now headed toward possibly the airport. Our CNN producer following that convoy, trying to get a glimpse to see, Wolf Blitzer if those two American hikers are in those cars headed for home.

BLITZER: I hope they are. All of us hope they are. It's about time, two years, enough time in that Iranian prison. Kyra, thanks very much. We'll check back with you.

Meanwhile we're waiting for the President of the United States to begin speaking over at the United Nations General Assembly, we've got an outstanding panel of experts watching what's going on.

Our own Jessica Yellin is over at the U.N., also joining us are the former assistant Secretary of State, Jamie Rubin, he's in New York; Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.; and our senior political analyst, David Gergen.

Zalmay Khalilzad, you're a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., you heard what Ileana Ros-Lehtinen just told us. She's the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee basically saying cut U.S. aid to the United Nations and basically cut or even eliminate all U.S. aid to the Palestinians right now. I wonder what you think about that?

KHALILZAD: First I believe that the United Nations is important for the United States, the U.N. is very helpful to us, has been on very important issues such as in Afghanistan when and I also was there as ambassador and then in Iraq when I was there. I think we do need the United Nations and the United Nations needs the United States.

But the Congresswoman does have a point regard to reforms. There is a lot of resources that get wasted in the U.N. and reforming the U.N. is very difficult and sometimes we do use the leverage of, threat of cut off of resources or delay of giving the resources to bring about reform.

But what happened with regard to particular decisions that she referred to, Iran being on this committee or being on that committee, that really is not so much the U.N. as such, that is the membership and it really is more of a challenge for our diplomacy and working with others to block some states from taking important positions in the U.N. that is not the U.N. itself, but the organization as such.