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Obama and Netanyahu Press Conference Preview; Fed Cuts Outlook

Aired March 20, 2013 - 14:00   ET


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. Don Lemon here. I want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world.

At any moment now U.S. President Barack Obama will hold a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It will happen in Jerusalem. The president is on his first trip to Israel as commander in chief. He arrived there this morning, 6:12 Eastern Time, just after noon in Tel Aviv.

Right now I want to turn things over to Wolf Blitzer, he is in Washington, to get us to that news conference.

It should begin at any moment, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's a very important news conference, Don. They're going to be taking questions from reporters, but opening up with formal statements.

Let's go to Jerusalem right now. Jessica Yellin is standing by. John King is standing by.

John, first to you. Give us a little sense of what has happened so far in the hours since the president arrived.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in the hours since he arrived, we've seen the optics that both governments very much want, and that is a friendly, happy, upbeat reception. People talk in Washington, people talk here in Jerusalem and across Israel about the frosty personal relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. You would have no hint of that from watching the last few hours unfurl.

Air Force One landed in Tel Aviv. A big celebration. Even a joke from the prime minister that maybe he and the president should go out bar hopping. He said he would give the president a despise. The president went to -- President Obama went to the residence of the Israeli president, Shimon Peres. Schoolchildren singing there.

And now he's in the private meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu. And that is the key question. In those private meetings, can they make progress on working cooperation when it comes to the Iran nuclear program? Now, what is their assessment of the Assad government and the potential for chemical weapons used in Syria? Can the president nudge this prime minister, and tomorrow when he goes into the Palestinian territories, the Palestinians back into a peace process? So what we've seen so far is the celebration and the pomp and the friendliness. The friendliness. The warm relationship. What we're about to hear is whether these leaders got any important business done.

BLITZER: And some of the most important business, Jessica, is going to involve Iran, its nuclear program. But over the past 24 hours, a lot of confusion as far as Syria and the use of chemical weapons, either by the Syrian military or by the rebels. What exactly are you hearing from U.S. officials traveling with the president?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I'm hearing two very different stories. One from U.S. officials and the other from Israeli officials. U.S. officials, with the president, are insisting that this is something they're still examining. They are not willing or ready to say whether or not they know of chemical weapons being used in Syria. They're aware of all the reports and they are studying it.

They continue to maintain that the president holds the same position. We have heard him articulate all along that if chemical weapons are used, they find that they've been used by the Assad regime, that is a red line and the president will hold him accountable. And that means some sort of action by the administration, although they won't specify exactly what that means.

Now, that's the public, official U.S. position. I spoke this morning to an Israeli official, Tzipi Livni, a minister in the Israeli government, who told me that Israelis have evidence. They believe that there were chemical weapons used in Syria. She would not say that they have linked it to the Assad regime, but that Israelis believe it was chemical weapons.

And so, of course, the Israelis have more reason to say that they think it's chemical weapon and, of course, they have a much more motivation because it's right across the border for them. It's a greater threat. And they want action and they want to pressure the president to do something. They want the U.S. to press for some sort of at least international coalition to take action. But you see a little bit of distance on this between the U.S. and the Israeli position. It's what you see between the U.S. and Israel also in Iran. And on a number of issues, some daylight, but overall a larger shared view that something needs to be done.


BLITZER: And I just want to remind our viewers, we're standing by for this news conference. The president of the United States, the prime minister of Israel.

And, Jessica, I just want to be precise. They will open with opening statements and then there will be two questions from each side. Two questions from Israeli journalists and two questions from American journalists traveling with the president. Is that right?

YELLIN: That's correct. Two and two, we say. So you're correct. And so you'll get four questions total. But we all know the U.S. journalists try to squeeze as many questions into each of theirs as they can. Compound questions. That's the trick.

KING: And the Israeli journalists aren't shy either.

YELLIN: That's a good point. Yes. And Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister Netanyahu, has a tendency to be a little long-winded too. So we could hear --

KING: You think?

YELLIN: Yes, we could hear a very -- this could go on for a while.

BLITZER: All right, so we're going to, obviously, have live coverage here on CNN. Stand by for a moment.

Getting a lot of attention is President Obama's open mic comment to the Israeli prime minister just moments after arriving in Israel earlier today. Listen to this.



BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: Get to rest for these next two days.

OBAMA: Get away from Congress.



BLITZER: Good to get away a little bit from Congress, the president's overheard saying. Now, a CNN exclusive. Our own Jake Tapper sat down with the House speaker, John Boehner, and he specifically asked the speaker about what the president was overheard saying.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: President Obama arrived in Israel today. He had some interesting comments for Prime Minister Netanyahu on the tarmac. He said it's good to get away from Congress. Netanyahu laughed and said, believe me, I know. Any reaction?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: So much for the charm offensive.

TAPPER: That -- but does a comment like that actually have any impact, you think, or --

BOEHNER: No, not really. You know, the president's meeting with the president of Israel. He's got his legislative issues. The president's got his. Comes with the territory.

TAPPER: Comes with the territory.

BOEHNER: I'd rather be heckled than ignored. Or as I like to say, you only tease the ones you love.


BLITZER: Jake's full interview with the speaker coming up for our North American viewers on "The Lead." That's at 4:00 p.m. Eastern.

Let's go back to Jessica and John.

John, a lot of us remember some of the tense moments during the first four years between the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the president, Barack Obama, especially that meeting they had in the Oval Office when the prime minister seemed to be lecturing the president. There was an irritation over what the president said about Israel's need to go back to the pre-1967 lines with mutually agreed adjustments. That was not well received by the prime minister. I take it they've repaired their relationship since then.

KING: They're in the process, I would say, of repairing their relationship. Look, Wolf, I talked to a top U.S. official the other day who said, yes, this is a frosty relationship. Reminded me, look, President Obama's left of center. Prime Minister Netanyahu is right of center. They have disagreements over policy. They have different political philosophies.

But, at the moment, this official said, they're stuck with each other. They're both beginning new terms in office. They both have a huge focus on Iran. They both have to worry about Syria. They're both wondering, as the world is, about what happens with this Arab Spring. This president would like to have the Palestinian peace process resume.

We always talk about reviving the peace process. There is no process right now. It has completely collapsed in mistrust and distrust and worse. And so the president has his legacy to think about. Prime Minister Netanyahu has his legacy to think about. And in any relationship, both sides insist in those four years, despite all those disagreements, and there are even many more than you mention, that the working relationship has always been pretty good. When they have to do business, they put the personal stuff aside and they do business.

But as you well know, Wolf, you know this region as well as anyone, if you know each other and if you trust each other and you have more of a personal bond, it's a little easier when you get to the hard stuff. And that's why the Israelis often talk about, where is Bill Clinton? Well, he came here four times as president. He was so deeply involved -- as you remember, we were both covering the White House in those days, in the Camp David process and others. The Israelis say they miss that. A guy who can draw the maps, who can tell you how far it is from an Israeli settlement to a Palestinian community.

President Bush didn't get that involved. President Obama hasn't gotten that involved. Plus, he and Netanyahu, they're just very different people, both personally in how they carry themselves, politically in their philosophies. But you do see some evidence. You could tell right away the prime minister, in cracking jokes when the president landed, was trying to say, I'm trying. And now we're going to see at this press conference is the president is trying.

BLITZER: Want to get back to you, Jessica, in a moment. But I want to bring Tom Foreman into this conversation. This trip comes at a time when so many Israelis feel increasingly vulnerable due in large part to some of the major political changes occurring in the region in their neighborhood. Tom is taking a closer look at that region.

What are you seeing, Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. You know, John has made references of being able to draw the map there. It is important to bear in mind the map here, Wolf. If you look at where the president is visiting here, he is going to really a small part of a small area, but a very important part as you know, with stops over here in Jordan, here in Israel, the yellow part in here and in the West Bank here. In this time he's obviously going to be grappling with many of these issues he's been talking about between the Palestinians and the Israelis, showing where our support is behind the Israelis and, to a degree, wants to show the Palestinians that he understands their circumstance. That's what he has to grapple with in this period of time while being sensitive to issues about things that have happened in here, like the possibility of missile strikes. And they go back and forth between the two sides, Wolf. That's just issue number one, though, Wolf, really, because this whole region, as you mentioned, is full of issues.

BLITZER: And it's a very, very small neighborhood when you think about what's going on in that area, Tom, when you think about what's happening in Gaza and in Egypt there, Lebanon, and certainly in Syria, Jordan, but not too far away as Iraq and Iran. That whole North Africa/Middle East region seems to be pretty much in political turmoil right now.

FOREMAN: Absolutely. I mean, look at this. This is where the president is visiting right down here. This is really a very short distance away, by car or by plane, to get up into Syria, where we've had this whole struggle going on between the Assad regime and the rebels there. All this talk in the past 48 hours about possible chemical weapons being used. This is very close to where the president is going to be.

And then, if you go beyond this and you move over here to Iran, look, here is Israel over here, here's Syria, here's Iraq, here's Iran over here. Iran is about the size of Alaska. You may notice that this point is all out here. Sort of reddish looking. The reason it's red is he talks about Iran's nuclear program here. And as the president said the other day, they may be a year away from having a nuclear weapon. The reason all of this is red is, this is the range of the Shahab-3 missile from Iran. And you can see, it easily reaches over here to Israel.

And that's important to bear in mind because all this is happening in the small place. And here's a simple way to describe it. If you went from Tehran directly over to Tel Aviv, this is the distance from Boston to Chicago. You cross only four or five states in the United States to cover all that ground and all of these issues, Wolf, are happening in this really relatively small area. And as we pointed out, right in the middle, here's Iraq, here's some of the turmoil that's happened that's involved Turkey and some of the issues up there. This is a tremendous amount of stuff happening in a very small space and it's -- you have to appreciate it in terms of the geography and the map to understand all the competing forces that the president is facing when he visits this area right down here.


BLITZER: Yes, I don't remember a time when there's been so much political uncertainty in the Middle East, North Africa, south Asia, you to Pakistan and Afghanistan as well.

Tom, stand by.

We're getting some breaking news as we await the president and the prime minister. I want to go to CNN's Ali Velshi. He's got some news from the Federal Reserve.

Update our viewers, because lots at stake on this front as well.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Interest rates are staying the same right now. Fed interest rates have not moved. They will be zero to a quarter of a percent. Add 3 percent on to that and you have the prime rate. So all of your interest rates that move along with Fed rates are staying the same. That's not the same as your mortgage rates, though. We've seen mortgage rates start to tick up.

The Federal Reserve has said that economic activity is now picking up moderately, but they are going to continue, Wolf, to inject $85 billion a month into the economy until they see things change substantially. And what they're talking about in terms of substantial change is the unemployment rate going down to 6.5 percent. But the Federal Reserve, they have regular meetings, they give regular statements on what they're going to do.

Today was one of those regular meetings that was scheduled. We were not expecting a change in rates. Obviously with rates as low as they are, the only option would be to raise rates. And you don't typically raise rates, Wolf, unless you're trying to slow an economy down. If you raise rates, it makes it harder, more expensive for people to borrow money. They spend less. They borrow less. We're not at that point right now.

So rates are staying exactly where they were. The Federal Reserve will continue to print and pump $85 billion into the economy. The way they do that, Wolf, is they buy bonds back from banks, treasuries and mortgage-backed securities that gives banks more money to lend to businesses and individuals for their mortgages or for their business expansion, and that puts more money into the economy. They're going to stay on that track.

So as of now, if you look at the Dow behind me, it's up a little bit on the news. It's not a record. We did set another high earlier today. But the Dow and markets do seem to like that news. It is, by the way, the low interest rate policy, as you know, Wolf, that's helping that market out because it makes it the only way in town that you can actually make money since you can't get interest in your bank account anymore.


BLITZER: Because the markets are doing great. Wall Street is doing great. The Dow Jones Industrials doing record highs, as you point out.


BLITZER: But economic growth in the country is still modest, to put it mildly.

VELSHI: Very (ph).

BLITZER: And unemployment is still too high.

VELSHI: Yes. Right. So they are saying that they're seeing improvement. They foresee improvement in unemployment. They see that rate coming down a little faster. But when you talk about economic growth, we measure that by GDP. Their forecast is still for 2013 a little weaker than we expected. And still relatively modest for 2014 and 2015. So they're sticking to their guns that sometime in 2015 and 2016 we're going to start to see this economy walk on its own, without that life support that it's getting to the tune of $85 billion a month from the Federal Reserve.

You know, we spent a lot of time talking about these European bailouts in Cyprus. We've got a bailout of our own going on every month when the Fed puts that money into the economy. That's why we've got those low interest rates. That's why we're seeing a bit of a housing boom right now because money is cheaper than it's been in years.

BLITZER: It's a huge economic stimulus package from the Federal Reserve and the chairman, Ben Bernanke.


BLITZER: Ali, thanks very much for that report.

VELSHI: You're welcome.

BLITZER: We're going go back to Jerusalem. We're awaiting the president of the United States, the prime minister of Israel. They're getting ready for a news conference, talk about their meeting, talking about Iran, its nuclear program, Syria, what's going on there, and will the U.S. intervene? Has a red line been crossed in Syria as a result of reports that perhaps chemical weapons have been used? Our coverage continues right after this.


LEMON: We'll get back to that press conference happening in Israel in just a moment. But first, we need to get you caught up on some news making headlines right now.

Your right to chug big sugary drinks and eat gigantic portions of food now protected in Mississippi. Governor Phil Bryant signed the anti- Bloomberg law on Monday. It forbids counties and towns from passing restrictions on food and drink. Only Mississippi's state legislature can do that. The law stems from outrage over New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's attempt to ban big sugary drinks.

A secret document from Osama bin Laden's compound reveals a strategy to hit targets in Europe and the U.S. Al Qaeda considered attacking underwater pipelines, bridges and dams along with love parades -- gay and lesbian summer events in Germany. A senior al Qaeda planner wrote the letter to bin Laden in 2010. He suggested recruits get jobs with companies transporting gasoline and wait to strike.

A camera that was set up to watch over a seal colony on a San Diego beach has captured something unthinkable. Two young women seen here kicking, punching and even sitting on top of mother seals and their pups. San Diego's mayor says he's appalled.


MAYOR BOB FILNER, SAN DIEGO: People just seem to get a joy out of abusing animals. They're being hit, they're being sat upon, they're being slapped. I mean this is unacceptable.


LEMON: He has ordered a two-month nighttime shutdown to last the rest of the pupping season.

Even cops can freak out when a dead body springs back to life. A cop thought he was investigating a dead deer. Well, surprise, the deer was very much alive. Earlier, a man told police that he had hit and killed a deer and wanted to take the roadkill home to feed the family. There it is, jumping up. Police checked to see if the deer was properly tagged.


LT. STACEY GEIK, KALAMAZOO PUBLIC SAFETY DEPT.: The officer was certainly surprised. One held his ground a little better than the other, as the video indicated.


LEMON: Happy ending. The deer escaped right into the woods where it belongs.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sing "Twinkle, Twinkle."


(END VIDEO CLIP) LEMON: Well, the man accused of slapping that toddler and calling him the "n" word when he was crying on a plane expected in federal court next hour. Joe Hundley faces assault charges over the incident that happened last month on a Delta flight. Hundley says he never struck the boy, never yelled a racial slur, but the child's mother and other witnesses say otherwise. We'll have more from the court next hour right here on CNN.

If a huge asteroid heads for New York City, here's NASA's advice -- pray. Congress is taking asteroid threats seriously.


EDWARD LU, FORMER ASTRONAUT: There's a 30 percent chance that there's a five megaton or so impact that's going to happen at a random location on this planet this century. So this is not hypothetical.


LEMON: Former astronaut Ed Lu testified today before a Senate subcommittee. He and other experts are pushing Congress for new government spending to help stop asteroids. Their request may hit budget realities here on Earth, though.

President Barack Obama filled out his NCAA brackets for the fifth year in a row. The president chose Louisville, Indiana, Ohio State, and Florida to reach this year's Final Four. Obama picked the Hoosiers over the Cardinals to win the national championship, which will be held next month in Atlanta.

But right now the president is in Israel. Jerusalem to be specific. We're awaiting a press conference with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and the president of the United States, Barack Obama. Our live coverage continues right after this.


LEMON: All right, this is really something. You've got to see this. Remember Michele Bachmann. That's her in green right there. Doesn't look happy, does she? Michele Bachmann once led the Republican field in the 2012 race for president for a short time. But she's back to being a member of Congress. Her area of expertise now, making accusations and making headlines. Case in point, her speech at that CPAC conference.


REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: Now we find out that there are five chefs on Air Force One. There are two projectionists who operate the White House movie theater. They regularly sleep at the White House in order to be readily available in case the first family wants a really, really late show. We are also the ones who are paying for someone to walk the president's dog.


LEMON: Well, a lot of that just didn't sound right. So, CNN's Dana Bash sought out Bachmann yesterday.


DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The president that were either questionable or untrue. Can you talk to me about that? I just want to ask you some (INAUDIBLE).

BACHMANN: Well, the comments that I made about the president are (INAUDIBLE) during the Benghazi debacle, you know, the president went missing. That's a bit questionable (ph).

BASH: What I want to ask you about is the fact that you said that he had -- you talked about the excesses that he's engaged in. The fact that he has a dog walker, which is not true.

BACHMANN: The big point in my speech was about Benghazi. This was an absolute disaster. (INAUDIBLE).

BASH: But you also made specific accusations about the president spending money that other presidents also made.

BACHMANN: The secretary of state -- Dana, the real issue is there are four Americans that are dead. The secretary of state was not in conversation with the secretary of defense or with the chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff.

BASH: I think that's an important point.

BACHMANN: She was not there.

BASH: That's an important point, but this is another --

BACHMANN: And the important point is that the president of the United States didn't care about those four Americans and they were killed. That's the point.

BASH: IF you --

BACHMANN: We've got to focus on national security.

BASH: But if you want to focus on that, then why --

BACHMANN: That's it, Dana.

BASH: If you want to focus, then why did you bring up the other things?

BACHMANN: That's what's important. You want to talk about dog handlers and there's four Americans killed? That's an insult to the lives of these Americans.

BASH: But, congresswoman, you're -- but you're the one who brought it up. You're the one who brought it up.

(END VIDEO CLIP) LEMON: Well, you can see, things didn't go so well. So asked about her statements concerning the president's alleged extravagance, Congresswoman Bachmann changed the subject over and over. And, by the way, other fact checkers have found Bachmann's statements either misleading or fully unsubstantiated. But, hey, we give a gold star to our Dana Bash. She didn't let up.

That news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and president of the United States, Barack Obama, about to happen at any moment. Our live coverage will continue after this.


BLITZER: Let's go to Jerusalem right now. The president of the United States has just wrapped up his first round of talks with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. They are about to walk out, have a joint news conference. We're told they will each make an opening statement. The prime minister first, followed by the president. And then they will answer reporters' questions. Four questions. Two from Israeli journalists, two from American journalists. But as we know from the American journalists and presumably the Israeli journalists as well, they will try to do multiple questions in each of their questions.