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President Obama Visits Israel

Aired March 20, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET



HALA GORANI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Hala Gorani, filling in for Christiane Amanpour.

President Obama arrived in Israel today and began his visit with the obligatory declaration of friendship.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our nations, to restate America's unwavering commitment to Israel's security and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors.


GORANI: But a key goal for this visit might be for the president to reaffirm his bonds with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, bonds that are badly frayed. Netanyahu all but endorsed Mitt Romney, President Obama's opponent in last year's election.

And in the run-up to Israel's election, President Obama was quoted as calling Netanyahu a, quote, "political coward," a comment he made to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, my guest later in this program, so stay tuned.

Expectations for the visit are low. The trip, after all, is being called largely symbolic by some. So far, some symbols look pretty good, like these three blue ties that bind, a bit of wardrobe coordination between Presidents Obama and Perez and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Some, not so good; here's a presidential limousine being towed from the tarmac going nowhere after it broke down before the president touched down.

But beyond the symbols, a great deal depends on the relationship between these two men. For Iran, Prime Minister Netanyahu has to decide whether Israel can afford to follow America's lead in its response to that country's nuclear program. As for Syria, new charges that a critical red line has been crossed. Has there been a chemical weapons attack across Israel's border?

If so, how will Israel and America respond? In a moment, we'll take a closer look at President Obama's visit, the policy, the politics and the symbols. But first, reporter Alex Thompson is in Damascus. He's with IPN, chasing down those reports on the chemical weapons claims that happened reportedly in the north of Syria. I spoke with him moments ago.


GORANI: Alex Thompson, thanks very much for joining us from Damascus. We've heard these reports that possibly some chemical weapons were used in an attack in Aleppo province southwest of the city of Aleppo. What have you been able to uncover in your reporting today?

ALEX THOMAS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, as ever in war, people almost lie as much as they fire bullets. So let's try and stick to what can reliably be said about this. I've spoken to Channel 4 News, spoken to an independent source. This man is a medic; he was on the ground in Han al- Assad (ph), which is the small town where this attack took place. It's just, as you say, to the west of Aleppo itself.

Now he was on the ground; he says that he personally witnessed with his own eyes as it were units of the Syrian army medical corps attending to the wounded, the injured and the dead in immediate aftermath of that attack. He further says that he went to a hospital in the vicinity shortly after the attack.

And what he says about this was that he saw a whole range of injuries which were all respiratory in nature, from people suffering the mild end (ph) blackouts right through to people who were in a state of coma and indeed, who were dead on arrival at hospital.

And in every single one of those cases, he said he'd not seen anything like it, because in not one single incident were there any conventional blast injuries on any of these people, be they alive or be they dead, i.e., they suffered no blast injuries, no lacerations, no burns, no fractures, which would be consistent with normal munitions.

So he says simply he's never seen anything like it. Clearly the injuries were respiratory in nature. People's breathing had been interfered with in some way. And he says very readily he's not a medical expert in the sense of being an expert in chemical weapons injuries. He's just saying what he saw.

We spoke to him quite independently of either rebels' organizations or, indeed, the government here in Damascus. Nobody has any way of knowing that we spoke to this man. That's what he said. He was a direct eyewitness on the ground.

GORANI: And who were the victims in this case, Alex?

THOMAS: Well, the government figures point to around 100 injured and the 26 people killed. The government is quite adamant that amongst the dead were Syrian army soldiers.

So it's perfectly reasonable to ask that the government would indeed perform postmortem operations on those soldiers to ascertain the cause of death and presumably thereby be able to confirm to the satisfaction of the international community what did, in fact, cause those soldiers to die.

As for our source, he says in hospital there were a range of civilians from children through teenagers right through to adults and older people.

GORANI: And lastly, this doctor says -- or your source says that they -- he hadn't seen anything like it. But was it possible to hazard a guess as to what might have happened, what might have made these people sick and in the worst cases, kill these individuals?

THOMAS: No, and I don't Syria's the sort of place where we should get into guesswork, particularly with something like this. I think all sides are extremely adept at lying and what, if any politician is casting any sort of guesswork on this, I think you have to treat that with a huge amount of skepticism and caution, and simply stick to what we have seen.

It worth adding Syrian television -- of course, that's very much a state-run organization -- I'm speaking from their offices right now -- they ran pictures widely and none have been seen abroad, of course, of a number of people, again, apparently showing no signs of any blast injuries, with oxygen masks on their way to and actually in hospital as well.

GORANI: Alex Thompson, thanks very much. Appreciate you being with us today.

And the Syrian regime is asking for a U.N. investigation inside its own territory, which is unprecedented, one of the things Alex Thompson also underlined during our chat just a few minutes ago. We'll keep our eye, of course, on these reports that potentially some chemical weapons were used, something that even in the United States is being treated with a great deal of caution.

With such turmoil in that region, the stakes are high for President Obama's trip to Israel. Danny Ayalon has unique insight into Israel's foreign policy and its relationship with the United States. He was Israel's deputy foreign minister up until last month and he served as Israel's ambassador to the U.S. between 2002 and 2006. Danny Ayalon joins me now from Tel Aviv.

Thank you very much for being with us.


GORANI: So you heard about these reports that potentially some chemical weapons were used. The justice minister, Tzipi Livni, told our own reporter, Jessica Yellin, today that she believes Assad -- or not Assad -- or that chemical weapons are being used in Syria based on intelligence.

What do you make of those comments?

AYALON: Well, first of all, we have to be very cautious because it has not been absolutely proven yet. And we're still trying to find out and clarify the situation together with our American friends.

I heard that President Obama just a few minutes saying the same thing, that U.S. intelligence with our allies in the region are still checking it. But indeed, if Iran, such a red line was crossed, we will certainly have to reconsider our entire approach vis-a-vis Syria.

GORANI: But, Danny Ayalon, the justice minister herself seemed to be saying with more certainty that she believed that chemical weapons were being used. Those were the terms that she used herself in an interview with CNN.

AYALON: Yes. But I think we will -- caution here is needed. And I believe that the entire international community has failed in Syria. And it is high time now to try and think outside of the box and bring in massive numbers of peacekeepers. And the peacekeepers should not come from the United States or NATO. They should come from Arab countries.

The Arab League should take leadership and responsibility. I believe this is the only way to stop the bloodletting, the bloodshed, this very, very gruesome massacre that we see. And what could have been achieved maybe a year, year and a half ago with maybe 10,000 troops, now we would need many, many more.

But I think the Arabs, the Arab League is uniquely positioned to do that. And if they could take responsibility I think we should all -- I mean, the international community kind of push them towards that goal.

GORANI: We haven't heard much from the Arab League on this.

Now to President Obama's trip and his relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, do these men like each other?

AYALON: Well, I can tell you that -- I mean, I cannot say they are real good answer for that. But since I was leading the senior strategic dialogue between Israel and the United States for the last four years, I can tell you that the cooperation, the sharing, the scope and the breadth of the relationship was such that we couldn't tell any difference who was sitting in the White House or who was occupying the prime minister's office.

And the bond and the interest sharing translates and transcends personalities. And I believe we have achieved a lot in the last four years in protecting American lives and interests, Israeli lives and interests all over the world.

And let me tell you, the way I see this visit here, it's about mostly perception or dispelled misperceptions. You know, how the diplomacy is about substance on the one hand and perception. And perception sometimes can be a reality.

And unfortunately, unfortunately there was a misperception maybe among many in Israel, maybe in the United States, that the president does not have Israel's back. This was absolutely not true. I can tell first-hand. But it is important. I think that the Israeli public will also realize that. And I think towards that end, this visit was very important, very timely. And I think so far has achieved its goal.

GORANI: We have Senator of State Kerry. He's there now. He's going to remain in Israel beyond President Obama's visit. We also have the new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel who's going to make a visit next month to Israel.

The goal to restart some sort of dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, what amount of hope do you have that anything can come out of it this time, because people around the world sort of have lost hope. They've stopped thinking that a breakthrough is possible.

AYALON: Well, this is, again, very, very unfortunate and it's about perceptions. Unfortunately, the last four years were not very successful, mostly because of Palestinian intransigence, raising the bar, putting all kinds of preconditions, not coming to the table.

But I believe that by showing this great support of the president and the United States to Israel, this will allow on the one hand the Israelis to build the trust in our best friend, the United States, and that would allow more flexibility on our part, when we have the trust, that we have the United States with us.

On the other hand, I believe all the foes in the regions, whether it's Iran or Syria or Hezbollah or Hamas, when they see this closeness of relations between Israel and the United States, also that gives them second thoughts about maybe provoking or attacking Israel.

So I believe that our mutual goals of stability has been achieved. And I hope this will also lead the way to building a some kind of trust to restart and reengage the Palestinians and the peace process.

GORANI: All right. Well, there are so many thorny issues, including settlement expansion. That's something Palestinians certainly are very unhappy about that will have to be discussed.

Regarding Iran, one of the things the prime minister said today, Israel must be able to defend itself by itself. Does this mean Israel is going to go about its strategy against Iran, potentially alone, without the United States? Is that what he's saying?

AYALON: Well, Hala, I'm not sure. I think it has to be abundantly clear that the issue of Iran is not just a challenge to Israel. Sometimes it's kind of easy to put it as a duel between Tehran and Jerusalem. This is not the case. Iran is a threat to the entire international community, to the Middle East, to the Sunni governments in the region, to the United States, to Europe, to all of us. And we very much trust the leadership of the United States and I take the president at his word when he says that all options are on the table because the United States will act on its own interests. And it is the United States vital interest not to have Iran possess or develop a nuclear capabilities. So I think that the coordination, the consultation, the sharing of strategies, of tactics and, of course, intelligence will continue and ultimately the key is in Tehran. If they will continue to defy the entire world, then they are accountable.

GORANI: All right. Perhaps the same end goal, not the same timetable. Danny Ayalon, thank you so much, joining us live from Tel Aviv.

We'll be right back. Stay with us.




GORANI: Welcome back to the program. I'm Hala Gorani, filling in for Christiane.

Continuing our coverage of President Obama's trip to Israel, the first of his presidency, is it a trip heavy in symbolism or does it have more substance? It's been given a name, in fact, Unbreakable Alliance: President Obama and Israel 2013. Few doubt the strength of the strategic national alliance, but the personal relationship could use some work.

Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have a notoriously frosty relationship. It was fun looking at the body language today, even. Now they have both won reelection and are putting on a happy face. The Israeli embassy in Washington even put out this trailer for the president's visit. Take a look.




GORANI: Well, they may be best friends in that clip, but does the trip mean anything substantive this time?

Joining me now are two journalists who've followed the leaders closely, Alana Dayan is Israel's top investigative TV journalist; she joins me from Tel Aviv.

Jeffrey Goldberg from "The Atlantic" magazine, whose interview, by the way, with Jordan's King Abdullah, is making waves. I'll ask him about that in a little bit. He joins me now from Jerusalem.

Alana, I want to start with you. What's going to come out of this trip? What's the goal in the first place? Is it just symbolic?

ALANA DAYAN, ISRAELI INVESTIGATIVE TV JOURNALIST: It's friendship, I guess. I would love you to ask me the question that you asked Danny Ayalon: do these two guys love each other?

GORANI: And do they?

DAYAN: Presumably they don't. If you try to think of a -- I'm afraid -- I'm afraid they don't. That's the simple and true answer. And Jeffrey Goldberg has had an impressive report just before the elections here in Israel, reporting about (inaudible) President Obama was talking about to his close aides, telling his, you know, piece of his mind about Benjamin Netanyahu.

They are doing their best now to put up a great face on this visit and their relationship between them. But one cannot forget that if there's something that these guys were really adamant about, none of them wanted the other one to be elected. That was very clear.

So now I think the basic -- the basic purpose of this trip is, one, for Obama to reach out to Israelis, not only towards the leaders -- because you can see, you know, the small talk and the mikes are on and you see the small gestures and the jackets are off. And the guys are talking and (inaudible) Netanyahu is having a small, you know, small talk and so does the child of the prime minister.

You have all these gestures, and it's very ceremonial, and you'll have President Obama tomorrow and the day after tomorrow in Mt. Herson (ph), in honor of the -- you know, the great architect of the Zionist vision.

And you'll have him on the tomb of the late prime minister Rabin. And you'll have him trying to reach out to Israelis. So if you ask me what's the purpose of this trip, I guess if you -- we had to capture it in one sentence, it is to restart, to reignite, to reset the relationship between President Obama and the Israeli sentiment, the Israeli psyche, the Israeli people, the Israeli soul.

GORANI: Yes. Well, and he has work to do, because here's a poll: among Israelis, 38 percent view Obama and the word used is "hostile" towards Israel, Jeffrey Goldberg.

What is the goal as far as President Obama is concerned during this visit?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE ATLANTIC": Look, President Obama has a very distinct goal. People think that this is kind of the "Seinfeld" trip. It's about nothing.

But, actually, it's about trying to create conditions in which he could operate on the peace front. I mean, in a weird way, he -- this is almost like an advance trip for a future trip by a secretary of state. Usually it's the opposite. Usually the secretary of state goes first.

But this is a kind of way of resetting this relationship, as Alana said, resetting the relationship, building some space for him with the Israeli middle, with the Israeli public. And you know, I was at this press conference -- we're doing a two-man tonight -- it was -- it was a love fest.

You know, the prime minister went out of his way to praise President Obama's commitment to Israel and its security. And the president was very warm, even quoting from the letters of the prime minister's slain brother, which is a sure way to his heart.

And so, you know, I think if this continues the way it's going, he might -- the president might actually achieve what he set out to do, which is to create that kind of space. Later comes the difficult stuff. But now it's about -- it's about giving him some maneuverability.

GORANI: And what about the Israeli -- I mean, if part of the -- as Ilana was saying, part of the goal is to reconnect with Israeli sentiment as well, what does President Obama need to do to do that? And also why is he so unpopular in Israel, because one of the criticism is that he didn't visit Israel during his first term. But you have many presidents who never visited Israel at all who were perceived as friendly toward that country. Why is he not liked?

GOLDBERG: Right. Well, I mean, I think it's overstatement at this point to say that he's not liked.

One of the things that we -- one of the things -- well, let me just finish, Ilana, one of the things that you have to understand is that there is a very, very deliberate campaign in the United States by certain Republicans, by certain non-Jewish and Jewish. Remember, most Jews actually support President Obama in America.

There's a very deliberate campaign to frame President Obama as hostile to Israel, as a means of trying to turn Israel, which is an issue generally of bipartisan support in Washington and outside of Washington, into a partisan issue. So a lot of -- a lot of the damage that was done to President Obama's reputation in Israel was done on purpose.

And then you have other issues. People who were used to George W. Bush, then you have a president coming in, who has a -- whose middle name is Hussein. That was going to cause some qualms.

And you know, in fact, the president did not start off well in Israel. He made some unilateral demands that weren't met well. And then he didn't follow them up. And so he kind of soured his reputation a little bit among the Palestinians. So this really is about resetting something that probably could have been avoided. But there was this campaign. You have to remember that.


And Ilana, also there are going to be difficult issues regardless of how reset the relationship is. And those are the issues with the Palestinians, the settlements, what kind of state, a future Palestinian state might look like. These are all issues that really have, in the end, very little to do with how much two leaders like each other.

DAYAN: I'm not sure it doesn't have to do. I think -- and I want to pick up from where Jeffrey just left it, and I think, A, I'm not sure Obama is as unliked within the Israeli public as the polls show. And, two, I think we are so easy to be taken by an American president.

If you -- you know, almost all Israelis remember those two words of Bill Clinton, "Shalom (inaudible)," they will remember this visit of President Obama. They will remember that he took the effort to say some words in Hebrew. They will remember that he went to speak to Israeli students. They will remember his smile. They will remember his effort to reach out.

And then you have, as you said, the tough questions. But as Jeffrey just said, this is kind of trying to establishing the conditions for the dynamics to be reignited.

And I'll tell you what. I think, you know, when a colleague of mind, whom Jeffrey knows very well, Ari Shavita (ph), (inaudible) a columnist for Haaretz, wrote once and a sentence which I think is worth quoting, "There is no nation more occupied than the Palestinians and there is no nation more threatened than the Israelis."

If President Obama acknowledges the threats and the sense of victimhood and the sense of fear and the nationally historic traumas of Israelis, the Israelis are easy to be taken by.

And then since most of us know the end game, I think that there is a chance for something to happen. It will not happen in the foreseeable future. It will be tough. It will be difficult. It will be long. But there is a chance for something to happen.

GORANI: And Jeffrey Goldberg, I want to end by asking you about that interview that you conducted with Jordan's King Abdullah, things you said about leaders in his neighborhood. Morsi, I was trying to explain to him how to deal with Hamas, how to get the peace process moving -- speaking of a peace process -- there's no depth to the guy.

And this interview was really created an uproar and there were denials, et cetera. What -- why was he so frank? This is something that is really very rare among leaders in that part of the world.

GOLDBERG: Well, you know him and he's always been a very candid person. He would make an excellent political analyst, I think, because he has a very acute sense of what's going on. But remember, I mean, you know, people think, oh, maybe he overstepped here.

But I tend to think that, you know, if he's crazy, he's crazy like a fox. He was making certain points that he wanted to get out. The dominant one is the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood to governments like his, you know, a modern Western-looking monarchy. I mean, he's extremely worried about the influence of Turkey and of Egypt and of the rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood.

He warned me of the rising Muslim Brotherhood crescent he called it. That's that sort of shadowing the Middle East. And so he has these feelings. And one of the interesting things, just to close on this point, it's important: the interesting thing is when President Obama visits King Abdullah on Friday, he's going to have dinner with him in Amman.

I think that one of the things that King Abdullah is going to press him on is this Muslim Brotherhood issue and sort of tell him don't be, you know, don't be fooled by President Morsi. Don't be fooled by these guys. They are not Democrats. They do not want what you want and they do not want what I want.

GORANI: Jeffrey Goldberg --

GOLDBERG: -- it's an important message from him.

GORANI: -- thank you so much, Jeffrey Goldberg, Ilana Dayan, pleasure having you both on CNN. We'll be right back.



GORANI: And that's going to do it for us for this program. Stay tuned to CNN. The news continues.