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President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu Press Conference Continues

Aired March 20, 2013 - 15:00   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's some -- some elements of good news. And the fact of the matter is that even with all that has been happening in the region, the Palestinian Authority has worked effectively in cooperation with the international community, in part because of some of the training that we, the United States, provided to do its part in maintaining security in the West Bank.

We have seen some progress when it comes to economic development and opportunity for the Palestinian people. But the truth of the matter is, trying to bring this to some sort of clear settlement, a solution that would allow Israelis to feel as if they have broken out of the current isolation that they're in, in this region, that would allow the incredible economic growth that is taking place inside this country to be a model for trade and commerce and development throughout the region at a time when all these other countries need technology and commerce and jobs for their young people, for Palestinians to feel a sense that they too are masters of their own fate, for Israel to feel that the possibilities of rockets raining down on their families has diminished, that kind of, you know, solution we have not yet seen.

And so what I want to do is listen, hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu. Tomorrow, I will have a chance to hear from Abu Mazen to get a sense from them, how do they see the -- this process moving forward. What are the possibilities and what are the constraints and how can the United States be helpful?

And I purposefully did not want to come here and make some big announcement that might not match up with what the realities and possibilities on the ground are. I wanted to spend some time listening before I talk, which my mother always taught me was a good idea.

And so hopefully I will consider it a success if when I go back on Friday, I'm able to say to myself, I have a better understanding of what the constraints are, what the interests of the various parties are, and how the United States can play a constructive role in bringing about a lasting peace and two states living side by side in peace and security.

Thank you.


CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Thank you, Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister.

Mr. President, I want to follow up a little bit on the peace process. You began your term, your first term big fanfare, Cairo speech. You talked to the Muslim world, the decision to have a Middle East envoy. Early, you said you weren't going to let this slip to your second term. We're in your second term with the Mideast peace process.

What went wrong? Why are we further away from a two-state solution? I know you said you want to talk more about this tomorrow, but I'm curious, what do you believe went wrong? Did you push Israel too hard? What do you wish you would have done differently?

And, Mr. Prime Minister, I want to help out my colleague over here, and the follow-up that he had, which had to do with, do you accept the president's understanding that Iran is a year away when it comes to nuclear weapons?

And then a question -- another question I had for you...


OBAMA: Chuck, how many you got? Do you guys do this in the Israeli press? You say you get one question and then you add like five?

TODD: Well, I'm helping him.


OBAMA: You see how the young lady from Channel 1, she had one question, and she was very well behaved, Chuck?

TODD: Well, I have got one for you, and...




NETANYAHU: ... questions they have.

TODD: I thought I had four questions.

NETANYAHU: Reiterations, yes.

TODD: Passover starts in a couple days. I get four questions, right?

NETANYAHU: Look, this is not a kosher question, but don't hog it.


TODD: I guess I was -- my question to you was going to be, why do you believe the Israeli people have not embraced President Obama the same way they embraced our last two U.S. presidents? Thank you.

OBAMA: So you had to get a polling question in there right at the end, huh?


OBAMA: Chuck, I mean, you're just incorrigible.

Well, look, the opening premise to your question was that having failed to achieve peace in the Middle East in my first term that I must have screwed up somehow. And I will tell you, I hope I'm a better president now than when I first came into office, but my commitment was not to achieve a peace deal in my first year, that -- or in my second year or my third year. That would have been nice.

What I said was, I was not going to wait to start on the issue until my second term because I thought it was too important. And that's exactly what I did. I am absolutely sure that there are a host of things that I could have done that would have been more deft and, you know, would have created better optics.

But, ultimately, this is a really hard problem. It has been lingering for over six decades. And the parties involved have, you know, some profound interests that you can't spin, you can't smooth over. And it is a hard slog to work through all of these issues.

I will add that both parties also have politics, just like we do back home. There are a whole bunch of things I would like to do back in the United States that I didn't get done in my first term. And I'm sure I could have been more deft there as well.

But some of it is just because it is hard. And people disagree. And it takes, I think, a confluence of both good diplomatic work, but also timing, serendipity, things falling into place at the right time, the right players feeling that this is the moment to seize it.

And my goal here is just to make sure that the United States is a positive force in trying to create those opportunities as frequently as possible and to be as clear as possible as to why we think that this is an important priority, not only because of some Pollyannish views about can't we all get along and hold hands and sing kumbaya, but because I actually believe that Israel's security will be enhanced with a resolution to this issue.

I believe that Palestinians will prosper and can channel their extraordinary energies and entrepreneurship in more positive ways with a resolution to this issue. The entire region, I think, will be healthier with a resolution to this issue.

So I'm going to keep on making that argument. And I will admit that, frankly, sometimes it would be easier not to make the argument and to avoid the question, precisely because it is hard. That's not the approach that I have tried to take, and there probably have been times where when I have made statements about what I think needs to happen, the way it gets filtered through our press, it may be interpreted in ways that get Israelis nervous, just like there are folks back home who sometimes get nervous about areas where they aren't sure exactly where I stand on things. That's why I like the opportunity to talk directly to you guys. Hopefully, you will show the live film, as opposed to the edited version.

With that, I think you have got four questions to answer, Bibi.


NETANYAHU: I think that there is a misunderstanding about time.

If Iran decides to go for a nuclear weapon, that is, to actually manufacture the weapon, then it probably -- then it will take them about a year. I think that's correct. They could defer that a long time, but still get through the enrichment process. That is, to make a weapon, you need two things. You need enriched uranium of a critical amount, and then you need a weapon.

You can't have the weapon without the enriched uranium. But you can have the enriched uranium without the weapon. Iran right now is enriching uranium. It's pursuing it. It hasn't yet reached the red line that I had described in my speech at the U.N. They're getting closer, though.

And the question of manufacturing the weapon is a different thing. The president said correctly that we have on these issues that are a little arcane, they sound a little detailed to you, but on these matters, we share information and we have a common assessment. We have a common assessment.

In any case, Iran gets to an immunity zone when they get through the enrichment process, in our view, in our view. And whatever time is left, there is not a lot of time. And every day that passes diminishes it. But we do have a common assessment on these schedules, on intelligence. We share that intelligence and we don't have any argument about it.

I think it is important to state that clearly. I think that people should get to know President Obama the way I have gotten to know him. And I think you have just heard something that is very meaningful. It may have escaped you. But it hasn't escaped me.

And that is the president announced that, in addition to all the aid that his administration's provided, including Iron Dome, including defense funding for Israel during very difficult times, he's announced that we're going to begin talks on another 10-year process, arrangement to ensure American military assistance to Israel.

I think this is very significant. And I want to express my thanks for everything that you have done. And I want to thank you, also, for that statement you just made. I think it is very, very important.

So I think -- I think Israelis will judge this by the unfolding events and by what is happening, what is actually taking place. And for this, you know, there is a very simple answer to your question, the gentleman from NBC, right? Yes. Well, for this, you need, you see, a second term as president and a third term as prime minister. That really fixes things.


NETANYAHU: All right.

OBAMA: Thank you very much, everybody.

Thank you.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The prime minister of Israel, the president of the United States wrapping up nearly 45 minutes of a news conference in Jerusalem on very, very important issues, critically important issues, including what is going on in Syria, what is going on in Iran, and what is going on as far as a peace process is concerned.

And you just heard the president of the United States announce more military assistance to Israel beyond the commitment to 2017, and the prime minister of Israel saying there is a 10-year commitment beyond that. That would go to the year 2027 from the U.S. to Israel.

A very strong amount of U.S. support for Israel, a close period envisioned by both these leaders, clearly some differences along the way, but I'm sure the president of the United States was very happy to hear the prime minister of Israel say that Israel is committed to a two-state solution, Israel alongside a new state of Palestine.

This will be discussed when the president going to Ramallah on the West Bank to meet the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Syria, though, very much on the agenda right now. And the president was a bit vague in asserting whether or not the Syrians have actually used chemical weapons against the rebels.

Listen to precisely what the president said.


OBAMA: We intend to investigate thoroughly exactly what happened.

Obviously, in theory , right now, you have a war zone. You have information that has filtered out. But we have to make sure that we know exactly what happened, what was the nature of the incident, what can we document, what can we prove.


BLITZER: Jessica Yellin and John King are both standing by in Jerusalem.

Jessica, you spoke with an Israeli Cabinet minister today who was more precise in making an assertion that the Syrians -- Syrian military already has used chemical weapons. What exactly did she say? JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I spoke with Tzipi Livni, the justice minister here in Israel, and she said that she was convinced that in theory chemical weapons were used.

She would not say by whom. I think we have the sound. Let's listen to it and we can talk about it on the back end.


YELLIN: Have you seen any evidence of proof that there has been chemical weapons used in Syria?

TZIPI LIVNI, ISRAELI JUSTICE MINISTER: It is clear for us here in Israel that it is being used.

And the problem is that while it is being used, we have Syria, we have Hezbollah and Lebanon. And the situation is that -- the (INAUDIBLE) is that -- is that it is not going to be only in Syria, but Hezbollah can reach all these chemical weapons and use it against Israel in the future.


YELLIN: So, Wolf, at the very end, you heard her raising one of the prime reasons Israel is most threatened, feels most threatened by the possibility of chemical weapons used in Syria, that they could get into the hands of one of Israel's greatest foes, Hezbollah, which is right over the border in Lebanon.

But I would like to point out that she was not specific. And when I pressed her in a follow-up, was it the Assad regime that she believes used the chemical weapons, she would not say. And you heard the president say in his answer today he's skeptical about any claims that it was the opposition that may have used chemical weapons, although he won't say whether he believes chemical weapons were used at all.

There's a lot of murkiness here. And that's part of the reason I think you heard the president remain so cautious in his answer on this very question. They want to get the facts on all of this, but right now, clearly, U.S. officials have one line. Israeli officials have a different one -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, the president saying the U.S. needs to gather the facts. But he makes it clear that he doesn't want that so-called, what he said genie to be out of the bottle. He said it would be a game changer if that red line were crossed by the Syrian military.

Another red line, John King, involves Iran right now. Do you sense that there is a significant difference between the Israeli assessment and the U.S. assessment on the urgency of what is going on?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I don't think there is any disagreement at all on the urgency. I think you heard the president say there is no daylight. You heard the prime minister, Netanyahu, who has raised questions about this urgency in the past, repeatedly thank the president, the president repeatedly going on record saying the goal and the policy of the United States and the firm line of the policy is to prevent, not to contain a nuclear Iran.

That is what the prime minister wants most of all and he wants to believe it. And more importantly, what the prime minister would tell you is that he wants Tehran to believe it, because he believes the only way to get a diplomatic solution is if Tehran would firmly believes the United States would invoke the military option.

But, Wolf, this gets a little bit confusing sometimes because the question is, where does the president draw that line, that it is time to -- that diplomacy failed, to use military action and where does the prime minister draw it? I think you had a very interesting back and forth between these two leaders today, essentially a twofer to Iran.

President Obama saying, I will use military force if I get to my line, but I also respect and give the prime minister his right to use military force on behalf of Israel, its own decision unilaterally, when he gets to his line.

The question is, do they have the same line? That's what the prime minister was talking about at the end. Is the United States' line when Iran is trying to actually take enriched uranium and put it in a warhead? The prime minister says he doesn't want to go that far, because you heard him talk about this zone if Iran enriches enough uranium but then stops.

Will the international community say, OK, we won't do anything? The state of Israel, to him, that's the line. If they have enough uranium to have a weapon and can quickly put one together, the Israeli prime minister clearly reserving his right at that point to act unilaterally if the international community draws a different line.

BLITZER: I want to bring our own Ivan Watson into this conversation as well.

Ivan already is in Amman, Jordan, getting ready for the president's visit there. He will going to the West Bank tomorrow, and then on Friday, he heads over to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah.

Did you hear any nuances, did you hear anything, Ivan, and you covered this region for a long time, that would lead you to believe that that Israeli-Palestinian peace process is about to get off the ground?

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm not sure that we're at that point yet. He did point out that he didn't want to wait until the second term to start up the peace process with the Palestinians and defended his record, saying, you know, this is a huge tough problem and how could anybody have expected me to solve Middle East peace in the course of this first four years in office?

He clearly says that the best for Israel, for Palestine, and for the region is for these two peoples to make peace. But I think it was very clear that this is a very difficult problem, and they are at no turning point right now in the immediate future, Wolf.

BLITZER: And when he gets to Jordan, and that's going to be an important issue, what is going on in the peace process, but probably more important right now is what is going on in Syria. What, there are several hundred thousand Syrian refugees who have flooded into Jordan from Syria.

What is going to be the gist of the conversation that the president has with King Abdullah?

WATSON: Well, the Jordanians are clearly very worried about this huge wave of refugees coming from Syria.

This is a country of about 6.5 million people and if you can imagine, you had close to half a million Syrians flood across the border in very short period of time. And that's creating huge economic pressure here. It is creating political pressure at a time when Jordan's own economy is really not doing very well, and there were countrywide protests just a few months ago in Jordan against the government, against reductions of fuel subsidies.

So this is a very delicate time right now. The Jordanians will clearly want to know that they're going to get some support with this huge refugee influx. They probably also want protection from the huge mess just across the border in Syria. The Jordanians playing a very delicate game now, Wolf. They have spoken out against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, but they can't afford to cut bridges just in case Assad does survive longer, because as one analyst pointed out here, he can be a very dangerous enemy to have right on your doorstep.

I think the Jordanians are going to be looking for American leadership here when it comes to the Syrian crisis. And what we heard from President Obama here was not any easy solution. He said we need an international effort to solve the Syrian civil war. And it is a complicated mess right now. There is sectarian division. That is not an answer that is going to make many Syrians happy.

They have argued that because the international community has not intervened earlier and with more leadership, that the sectarian problems have only gotten worse. And the example that every Syrian will put up before you, Wolf, is what about Libya? You had a NATO international effort there to help bring down Gadhafi. Why didn't anybody do what the Western governments promised to do to protect Benghazi, that city, from being devastated by Gadhafi's forces? Why haven't they done that to protect Syria's largest city, Aleppo, which has been pounded by airstrikes artillery and even Scud missiles -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Ivan Watson in Jordan already.

Let's go back to Jessica and John in Jerusalem.

This is the 10th time that the president of the United States has met with the prime minister of Israel. And, Jessica, those of us who have covered all 10 of these visits and these meetings -- and you and I and John have -- this was, by far, the most effusive in their mutual praise, their warmth. What happened?

YELLIN: We have never seen them quite so cozy as they were today. It was probably a little deliberate for the cameras. KING: A tad calculated, maybe.

YELLIN: But also a sign that these two men know they have to work together and get along if they get anything done.

At one point, I know the president said in his meeting with Netanyahu when they first came together, his wife was -- Netanyahu's wife was in between the two men and the president said, she's a rose between two thorns. There is a self-awareness that both of them have been prickly with each other at times, they have had a frosty relationship, and now it is time to heal those wounds and move forward because the president is looking for a legacy move here.

He would like to move forward and begin some sort of groundwork to begin some sort of peace talks. Senator -- Secretary -- excuse me -- Kerry is coming back here on Saturday to try to meet with Netanyahu, Prime Minister Netanyahu and begin some sort of progress to start, kick-start the possibility for peace talks.

And then, of course, if there is any possibility to avert any hot war with Iran, and any sort of regional effort to stop Syria, the president needs to have a warm relationship with Netanyahu. And I think Netanyahu is a little -- is he chastened? Do you think he's...

KING: I think he's somewhat humbled by his own election. He has a coalition that pushes him a bit to the center.

But, Wolf, you understand this as well. There is always a line, and you never know quite where it is. An Israeli prime minister of course has to fight first and foremost for Israel and its interests. But an Israeli prime minister who gets too far away from an American president tends to get in trouble here at home.

You can see efforts by both of them. I thought it was remarkable. Over efforts, the jokes from the prime minister, the reference to the president's children. The president made reference to the prime minister's children, but, Wolf, you know Benjamin Netanyahu very well. You know how much his father, Yoni, is his hero.

His whole life has been shaped by the lessons he learned from his father. When the president mentioned Yoni Netanyahu, you could see the prime minister was moved by that, a very smart tactical move by the president to invoke something personal, to say I'm trying too.

It's clear both of them are trying in public to get along better. And if that trickles into the private working relationship, well, all for the better because these issues are so difficult. One other point. That was a personal way to try to make a new bond, a better bond with Netanyahu. The president also had several opportunities to cause more friction.

In the past, the Israeli settlement building has been a huge source of friction between these two men. You heard the prime minister say, come back to the table, Palestinians, if you set aside all preconditions. One of the Palestinian preconditions is an end to settlement building. I was in Efrat the other day. They're building more, a new subdivision and they may even build more across the street. I was in Ma'ale Adumim. They're building a new subdivision there. And that is something that the administration in the past has publicly criticized. Wolf, the president had several opportunities to bring it up in public. He said nothing about settlements.

YELLIN: He did say one thing on the...


BLITZER: I was going to say, I don't think the word settlement came up during this news conference.


KING: It did not.

In the question from Chuck Todd of NBC News, he asked about the process in going forward. I would have liked for somebody in the room to ask a more specific question of whether that came up. It didn't come up. But the president had a chance to bring it up, and that is a choice, a choice. The issue is not far from his mind. You can bet your bottom dollar it came up in the private meeting. But he made a choice there not to poke the prime minister in public.

YELLIN: Well, the president has learned through experience that he -- there are certain words in this region that you have to stay away from and it's better to bring certain things up in private rather than public. He learned it the hard way.

And I think you heard him use this time, in this visit, as compared to his first visit overseas in his first term when he gave the Cairo speech, he used language that is very meaningful to the Israelis, that reassured the Israelis. And there was a key phrase he used that Netanyahu repeated after the president. He said, the Israelis have a right to defend themselves by themselves.

This has -- this sentence has great resonance here in Israel and will give the Israeli people and Prime Minister Netanyahu, as you well know, Wolf, enormous reassurance. It means that the president believes Israel should have the capability to act on its own in its own defense. It's part of the reason the state was formed and it suggests to many people that the president believes Israelis should have the perhaps the weaponry or the support in various ways, who knows, to be able to do that under a variety of situations.

KING: And, Wolf, as you noted, this is a tiny little neighborhood. Ramallah is eight miles away, and Gaza is 50 miles away. I was in both of those communities. They have soured on President Obama and if the Palestinian leadership or people were listening today, they didn't like some of this.

BLITZER: I'm sure they didn't.

We'll see what happens tomorrow when the president goes to Ramallah and meets with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

John King and Jessica Yellin are both standing by. They will have a lot more coming up later in THE SITUATION ROOM, Ivan Watson as well.

I want to thank all of viewers for watching.

We're following some important breaking news here in the United States. Two Americans have just been placed on the FBI's most wanted terror list. We have got new information coming into the CNN NEWSROOM.

Our coverage will continue right after this.