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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Obama, Abbas News Conference

Aired March 21, 2013 - 07:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: You're looking at live pictures from Ramallah where, any minute from now, we are expecting a news conference from President Obama and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. We will bring that to you the minute it happens.

Meantime, we're joined by model and social activist and rising mega star, Cameron Russell. She is here and also here, Richard Socarides, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, now a writer for Newyorker.com.

Richard, let me ask you this. You were in the White House during the Clinton years. There seemed to be a lot of progress between Israel and the Palestinians in terms of peace. Not nearly as much progress we're seeing right now in the Obama administration.

RICHARD SOCARIDES, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER BILL CLINTON: Yes, well, this was something that President Clinton really focused on. You know, I think a lot of progress was made. We saw in President Obama's first term a reluctance to dive into this maybe because he didn't think he could find a solution.

He left most of this to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But I think now, you know, this trip is to sort of shore up and do some of the things that he couldn't get done in that first term and show Israel that we are really there for him. I think so far it's been a successful trip for him.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Let me ask you, John. You have spent a lot of time in the region. What's the significance of John Kerry, the new secretary of state being there before the president and he is staying on after the president. Clearly, this is a renewed focus for this administration?

BERMAN: I think it's very significant. I think that the fact that he is there for longer shows that this is more than just a photo-op. The White House is trying to downplay expectations here but, while they are downplaying expectations, at the same time, they're laying the groundwork for greater involvement and more discussions.

We will see if the secretary of state is able to achieve anything after the president leaves. Let me ask you this. When we were in break, you expressed some skepticism about this whole process. It's not the kind of thing you like to hear from America's youth. You're not hopeful at all today. CAMERON RUSSELL, MODEL: I don't know if I'm not hopeful. I think it's just for show right now. It doesn't seem like he is, you know, committing to anything.

ROMANS: The diplomacy is so painful to watch, right? Because you're building goodwill and you know -- news conferences and public proclamations and you go places, see things with the cameras, but building on that goodwill is what you draw on with peace negotiations down the road. You lay the ground work with this.

BERMAN: Here we go, President Obama and Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

(BEGIN LIVE FEED)

MAHMOUD ABBAS, PRESIDENT, PALESTINE LIBERATION ORGANIZATION (through translator): In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate, President Barack Obama I wish to warmly welcome you and the accompanying delegation in Palestine.

Mr. President, during your visit to our country, you will meet people proud of the history, heritage, culture and symbols, a young, creative and entrepreneurial people who have made the miracle and arose from the calamities and continue the path of their ancestors extending since the ancient times over this land, their land.

A people who adhere to the rights and are in harmony and keep abreast with the realities of the age, its language and methods, a people who live an exemplary model despite all hardships and hurdles.

The people of Palestine, Mr. President, who receive you today, aspire to attain their simplest rights. The right to freedom, independence and peace and look forward to that day to come quickly in which they exercise normal and natural life over the land of the state of Palestine, the independent state of Palestine along the borders of the 4th of June, 1967 with Jerusalem, the lady of the cities as its capital alongside the state of Israel.

We, Mr. President, believe that peace is necessary and inevitable. And we also believe that it is possible. We believe that peacemaking and as much as it requires courage also require an expression of good faith, a recognition of people's rights, respectful of the other, and the dissemination of a culture of peace and the commitment to international legitimacy and its resolution.

Certainly peace shall not be made through violence, occupation, wars, settlements, arrests, siege and denial of refugee rights. We are extremely in pleasure to receive you today in our country. Our people share with American people and with you, personally, the belief in the values and principles of freedom, equality, justice and respect for human rights.

And we together, with the peoples of the world, are partners in the pursuit to achieve a just peace that ends occupation and war and achieves security, stability and prosperity to all the peoples of our region. Today, ladies and gentlemen, we have conducted a good and useful round of talks with his Excellency, President Obama.

It was an opportunity to focus on our side, on the risks and to present on this two-state solution and over the need. I assert, Mr. President, that Palestine has taken long and additional steps for the sake of making peace.

I hereby assert again that we are ready to implement all our commitments and obligations and to respect the signed agreements and international resolutions in order to provide for the requirements of launching the peace process and achieving the two-state solution, Palestinian an and Israel.

We are also serious at ending the division and achieve the Palestinian reconciliation, which constitutes an additional source of power for us to continue our march towards making peace, security and stability in the region.

The United States, represented by his Excellency, President Obama and Mr. John Kerry shall intensify its efforts to remove the obstacles ahead of the efforts to achieve a just peace, which the peoples of the region have long awaited.

Here, I wish to thank the president for his continuous confirmation of the U.S. commitment to provide support to the Palestinian people and to thank him and his administration for the support that has been provided during the past years, various forms of support to the Palestinian treasury to development projects. Mr. President, once again, you are welcome in Palestine. Thank you.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Thank you, President Abbas, for your generous words and for welcoming me to Ramallah. I was last here five years ago and it's a pleasure to be back, to see the progress that's happened since my last visit, but also to bear witness to the enduring challenges to peace and security that so many Palestinians seek.

I've returned to the west bank because the United States is deeply committed to the creation of an independent and sovereign state of Palestine. The Palestinian people deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it. Palestinians deserve to move and travel freely and to feel secure in their communities.

By people everywhere, Palestinians deserve a future of hope, that their rights will be respected, that tomorrow will be better than today and that they can give their children a life of dignity and opportunity. Put simply, Palestinians deserve a state of their own.

I want to commend President Abbas and his prime minister for the progress that they've made in building the institutions of a Palestinian state. The United States is a proud partner in these efforts, as the single largest donor of assistance that improves the lives of Palestinians, both in the west bank and Gaza.

As your partner, we salute your achievements and we mourn your losses. We offer condolences, in particular, over the loss of your fellow Palestinians last weekend in the tragic accident in Jordan. Ramallah is a very different city than the one I visited five years ago. There is new construction. There's new businesses, new construction, new start-ups, including many technology connecting the Palestinians to the global economy.

The Palestinian Authority is more efficient and more transparent. There are new efforts to combat corruption so entrepreneurs in development can expand. Palestinian security forces are stronger and more professional, serving communities like Bethlehem where President Abbas and I will visit the Church of the Nativity tomorrow.

Moreover this progress has been achieved under some extremely challenging circumstances. So I want to pay tribute to President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayad for their courage, for their tenacity and for their commitment to building the institutions upon which a lasting peace and security would depend.

I would point out that all this stands in stark contrast to the misery and depression so many Palestinians continue to confront in Gaza. Because Hamas refuses to renounce violence, because Hamas cares more about enforcing its own rigid dogmas than allowing Palestinians to live freely and because, too often, it focuses on tearing Israel down rather than building Palestine up.

We saw the continuing threat from Gaza again overnight with the rockets that targeted Sderot. We condemn this violation of the important cease fire, a violation that Hamas has a responsibility to prevent. Here in the west bank, I realize that this continues to be a difficult time for the Palestinian Authority financially.

So I'm pleased that in recent weeks the United States has been able to provide additional assistance to help the Palestinian Authority bolster its finances. Projects through USAID will help strengthen governance, rule of law, economic development, education and health.

We consider these to be investments in a future Palestinian state, investments in peace, which is in all of our interests. More broadly, in our discussions today, I reaffirm to President Abbas that the United States remains committed to realizing the vision of two states, which are in the interests of the Palestinian people and also in the national security interests of Israel, United States and the world.

We seek an independent, viable and contiguous state along the Jewish state of Israel, two nations enjoying self determination, security and peace. As I've said many times, the only way to achieve that goal is through direct negotiations. There is no short cut to a sustainable solution.

In our discussion with President Abbas, I heard him speak out about the difficult issues that could not be ignored among them, problems caused by continued settlement activity, the plight of Palestinian prisoners and access to holy sites in Jerusalem.

I understand that the status quo isn't really a status quo because the situation on the ground continues to evolve in a direction that makes it is harder to reach a two-state solution. I know that the Palestinian people are deeply frustrated. So what are my main messages today?

The same message I'm conveying in Israel is that we cannot give up. We cannot give up on the search for peace, no matter how hard it is. As I said with Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday, we will continue to look for steps that both Israelis and Palestinians can take to build the trust and the confidence upon which lasting peace will depend.

I very much appreciate hearing President Abbas' ideas on what those steps could be. I want both sides to know as difficult as the current situation is, my administration is committed to doing our part. Secretary of State John Kerry intends to spend significant time, effort and energy in trying to bring about a closing of the gap between the parties.

We cannot give up on the search for peace. Too much is at stake and -- if we're going to succeed, part of what we're going to do is to get out of some of the formulas and habits that have brought progress for so long. Both sides are going to have to think anew.

Those of us in the United States are going to have to think anew. But I'm confident we can arrive at our destination to advance the situation of two nations, two neighbors at peace, Israel and Palestine. If given the chance, one thing I'm very certain of, Palestinians have the talent, drive and the courage to succeed in their own state.

I think of the villages that hold peaceful protests because they understand the moral force of nonviolence. I think of the importance that Palestinian families place on education. I think of the entrepreneurs determined to create something new.

Like the young Palestinian woman I met at the entrepreneurship summit that I hosted who wants to build recreation centers for Palestinian youth. I think of the aspirations that so many young Palestinians have for their future, which is why I'm looking forward to visiting with some of them right after we conclude this press conference.

That's why we can't give up. Because of young Palestinians and young Israelis who deserve a better future than one that is continually defined by conflict. Whenever I meet these young people, whether they are Palestinian or Israeli, I'm reminded of my own daughters and I know what hopes and aspirations I have for them.

Those of us in the United States understand that change takes time, but it is also possible because there was a time when my daughters could not expect to have the same opportunities in their own country as somebody else's daughters. What's true in the United States can be true here as well.

We can make those changes, but we're going to have to be determined. We're going to have to have courage. We're going to have to be willing to break out of the old habits, the old arguments to reach for that new place, that new world.

And I want all the people here and throughout the region to know that you will have the president of the United States and an administration that is committed to achieving that goal. Thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, President Obama. Thank you, President Abbas. We will now open the floor to questions. We will take two questions, first question, Reuters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks. Mr. President, after you meet t the leaders from both sides, is there any chance to resume these talks as soon as possible? And do you think that a two-state solution is still valid, expanding settlements continue going on? My last question, did you raise the activity with President Netanyahu when you met with him? Thanks.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Based on the conversations that I've had with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, I do think the possibility continues to exist for a two-state solution. I continue to believe it is our best and, indeed in some ways, our only chance to achieve the kinds of peaceful resolution of old conflicts.

But also the opening up of new opportunities for peoples on both sides to thrive, to succeed for both Israel and a state of Palestinian to be incorporated into the global economy. One of the striking things, one of the ironies of this conflict is that both the Israeli people and the Palestinian people are extremely entrepreneurial.

They have a keen business sense. They could be hugely successful in helping to lift up the economy of the region as a whole. I was with President Peres this morning before I came here, looking at a high- tech exhibit that was taking place in Jerusalem.

There was actually a program that U.S. company, Cisco, had set up where it was hiring young Arab engineers and Palestinian engineers because they were so qualified, so talented and there was a great hunger for those kind of skills. Well, imagine if you have a strong, independent state that's peaceful.

All the talent that currently is being untapped could be they could be creating jobs, businesses, prosperity throughout this area. So I absolutely believe that it is still possible. But I think is very difficult. It's difficult because of all sorts of political constraints on both sides.

I think it's difficult, frankly, because sometimes even though we know what compromises have to be made in order to achieve peace. It's hard to admit those compromises need to be made.

Because people want to cling on to their old positions and want to have 10 percent of what they want or 95 percent of what they want, instead of making the necessary compromises and as a politician, I can say it's hard for political leaders to get too far ahead of constituents.

That's true of Benjamin Netanyahu and President Abbas as well. If we can get direct negotiations started again, I believe the shape of a potential deal is there. And if both sides can make that leap together, not only do I believe Israeli people and Palestinian people would ultimately support it in huge numbers. But I also think that the world and the region would cheer. There would be some who would be upset because they benefit from the current conflict. They like the status quo, the arrangement as it is. But I think that the majority is out there who right now don't feel helpful.

But still would strongly support both Palestinian and Israeli leadership that made the necessary effort and compromises. Now, one of the challenges, continued settlement activity in the west bank area and I am clear with Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli leadership.

It has been the United States policy, not just for my administration, but for all preceding administrations, we don't consider settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace. I don't think there is any confusion in terms of what our position is.

I will say with respect to Israel, the politics are complex and I recognize that's not an issue that will be solved immediately, not solved overnight. On the other hand, what I -- I shared with President Abbas and I will share with the Palestinian people is that if the expectation is that we can only have direct negotiations, when everything is settled ahead of time.

Then there is no point for negotiation. I think it's important to work through this process, even if there are irritants on both sides. Israelis have concerns about rockets flying into their city last night. And it would be easy for them to say this is why we can't have peace.

Because we can't afford to have our kids sleeping in bed and suddenly a rocket comes through the roof. My argument, even though both sides may have areas of strong disagreement, may be engaging in activities with the other side considers to be a breach of good faith. We have to push through those things to try to get to an agreement.

Because if we get an agreement, then it will be very clear what the nature of the agreement is, there will be a sovereign Palestinian state, a sovereign Jewish state of Israel and these two states I think will be able to deal with each other the same way all two states do.

The United States and Canada have once in a while. And I think we can -- we can keep pushing through with these problems and make sure we don't use them as an excuse not to do anything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our second question comes from the U.S. delegation and then the last questions, from Major Garrett of CBS News.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, President Abbas, on behalf of all my colleagues, I want to get more specific on the questions of settlement and the overall peace process. Mr. President, when you started your administration, you called for a halt to settlement activity.

That held for a while and dissipated and then late last year when the Israeli government announced very sensitive settlement activity in the E-1 zone, your administration put out a statement that maybe in this region thought was either tepid or completely nonresponsive.

What would you say here in Ramallah, Mr. President, to those entrepreneurial Palestinians you referenced who believe have you been equivocal or nonresponsive. And to you, President Abbas, do you believe it's necessary for the peace process to start with a declaration from the Israeli government that it will slow down or stop entirely the settlement activities?

Broadly on the peace process itself, Mr. President, you talk about thinking anew, historically, the theory has been nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. Are you, Mr. President Obama and President Abbas, open to a theory that would say if things are agreed to, they shall be implemented to build confidence on both sides and restart the peace process? Thank you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, Major, I think I answered the question previously about settlement. You mentioned E-1 in particular. I think that is an example of a -- at least a public statement by the Israeli government that would be very difficult to square with a two- state solution.

I've said that to Prime Minister Netanyahu. I don't think that's a secret. With respect to whether there is a requirement or freeze or moratorium, you will -- I want to repeat what I just said earlier, which is if the only way to even begin the conversation is that we get everything right, at the outset, or at least each party is constantly negotiating about what is required to get into talks in the first place.

We will never get to the broader issue, which is how do you actually structure a state of Palestine that is sovereign and provides Palestinian people dignity? And how do you provide Israel confidence about its security? Which are the core issues.

The core issue right now, how do we get sovereignty for the Palestinian people and how do we get security for the Israeli people? That's the essence of this negotiation and that's not to say settlements are not important. It is to say that if we solve those two problems, the settlement problem will be solved.

I don't want to put the cart before the horse. I want to make sure we are getting to the core issues and the substance, understanding that both sides should be doing what they can to build confidence, rebuild a sense of trust and that's where hopefully the U.S. government can be helpful.

On your last point, I think that part of my goal during this trip has been to hear from President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu, about what they would need, how they would see a potential task, how it would be structured. I think it's premature for me to give you an answer.

The question just posed is a good one, legitimate one. But I'm still hearing from them, and me like many others, we're going to go back, look at both sides and make a determination as to what has the best prospects for success. I will say this. I think that incremental steps have served to delay and put off some of the more fundamental issues. Rather than incremental steps help shame what a final settlement might look like probably not going to be the best approach. It's not clear that that would, in fact, build trust.

If you have a situation where it looks like the incremental steps replace the broader vision. As opposed to incremental steps in --