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Netanyahu, Obama Meet on Mideast Peace, Iran Threat

May 18, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday, discussing Israeli-Palestinian talks and Iran's nuclear ambitions. Margaret Warner reports.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama made his first major moves into Middle East politics and diplomacy today. He met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House. The focus was on making peace with the Palestinians and curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Here is some of what the president and prime minister said after their talks.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: Well, listen, I first of all want to thank Prime Minister Netanyahu for making this visit. I think we had an extraordinarily productive series of conversations.

One of the areas that we discussed is the deepening concern around the potential pursuit of a nuclear weapon by Iran. It’s something that the prime minister has been very vocal in his concerns about, but is a concern that is shared by his countrymen and women across the political spectrum.

We are engaged in a process to reach out to Iran and persuade them that it is not in their interest to pursue a nuclear weapon and that they should change course.

But I assured the prime minister that we are not foreclosing a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions, in assuring that Iran understands that we are serious. And, obviously, the prime minister emphasized his seriousness around this issue, as well. I’ll allow him to speak for himself on that subject.

We also had an extensive discussion about the possibilities of restarting serious negotiations on the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. We have seen progress stalled on this front, and I suggested to the prime minister that he has an historic opportunity to get a serious movement on this issue during his tenure.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israeli Prime Minister: We share the same goals, and we face the same threats. The common goal is peace. Everybody in Israel, as in the United States, wants peace. The common threat we face are terrorist regimes and organizations that seek to undermine the peace and endanger both our peoples.

In this context, the worst danger we face is that Iran would develop nuclear military capabilities. Iran openly calls for our destruction, which is unacceptable by any standard. It threatens the moderate Arab regimes in the Middle East. It threatens U.S. interests worldwide.

But if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it could give a nuclear umbrella to terrorists, or worse, it could actually give terrorists nuclear weapons, and that would put us all in great peril.

So in that context, I very much appreciate, Mr. President, your firm commitment to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear military capability and also your statement that you’re leaving all options on the table.

I share with you very much the desire to move the peace process forward. And I want to start peace negotiations with the Palestinians immediately. I would like to broaden the circle of peace to include others in the Arab world.

BARACK OBAMA: We’re going to take a couple of questions.

We’re going to start with you, Steve.

JOURNALIST: Mr. President, you spoke at length, as did the prime minister, about Iran and its nuclear program. Your program of engagement, policy of engagement, how long is that going to last? Is there a deadline?

BARACK OBAMA: You know, I don’t want to set an artificial deadline.

The one thing we’re also aware of is the fact that the history, of least, of negotiations with Iran is that there is a lot of talk, but not always action and follow-through.

We should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction and whether the parties involved are making progress and that there’s a good-faith effort to resolve differences.

JOURNALIST: Mr. President and Mr. Prime Minister, can you each react to King Abdullah’s statement of a week ago that we really are at a critical place in the conflict and that, if this moment isn’t seized and if a peace isn’t achieved now, soon, that in a year, year-and-a-half, we could see renewed major conflict, perhaps war? And do you agree with that assessment?

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I think we have to seize the moment. And in my 59 years in the life of the Jewish state, there’s never been a time when Arabs and Israelis see a common threat the way we see it today and also see the need to join together in working towards peace, while simultaneously defending ourselves against this common threat.

JOURNALIST: Mr. President, the Israeli prime minister and the Israeli administration have said on many occasions — on some occasions that only if the Iranian threat will be solved they can achieve real progress on the Palestinian track. Do you agree with that kind of linkage?

BARACK OBAMA: If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way. To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians — between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: We want to move peace forward, and we want to ward off the great threats. There isn’t a policy linkage, and that’s what I hear the president saying, and that’s what I’m saying, too. And I’ve always said there’s not a policy linkage between pursuing simultaneously peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world and trying to deal with removing the threat of a nuclear Iran.

There are causal links; the president talked about one of them. It would help, obviously, unite a broad front against Iran if we had peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And conversely, if Iran went nuclear, it would threaten the progress towards peace and destabilize the entire area and threaten existing peace agreements.

So it’s very clear to us. I think we actually — we don’t see closely on it. We see exactly eye to eye on this, that we want to move simultaneously and in parallel on two fronts: the front of peace and the front of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities.

On the front of peace, the important thing for me is to resume negotiations as rapidly as possible. And my view is less one of terminology, but one of substance.

So I think the terminology will take care of itself if we have the substantive understanding.

Meeting held positive signs

David Makovsky
Washington Inst. for Near East Policy
I think the choreography is worth noting. I mean, in 20 years of covering these things, I've never seen this sort of format, where they don't have the kind of point-counterpoint of press conferences, but have it more informal.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner continues our lead story coverage.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on this meeting and the lengthy comments to reporters afterwards, we're joined by Robert Malley, who served as special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs. He's now the Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group.

And David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he is co-author of a forthcoming book "Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East."

Welcome to you both.

Rob Malley, let's start with you. What did you make of what we just saw? This is the first time these two men have met as leaders. What do you make in what we saw and also what you've heard from some of the players afterwards?

ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group: I think the first remarkable thing in the choreography of this encounter, this long, 33-minute meeting with the press, is that for the first few minutes they're not talking to the press.

They're talking to each other as if they wanted to show that the meeting went so well, they wanted an encore, they wanted to continue it, because they didn't have enough time to go through it. And I think they really wanted to project the image that the meeting had gone extremely well.

But to be serious, this is not a marriage made in Heaven. There are serious differences between the two sides. And, in fact, by the end of the segment, we heard those differences appear clearly. And it's as if each one spent those 30 minutes one side saying, "Well, Netanyahu agrees with me," and then Netanyahu saying, "No, no, no, Obama agrees with me," trying to paper over differences that are not really germane today, but are likely to become more relevant in the months to come.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that how it looked to you, a little bit of trying to paper over differences here?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Well, I think the choreography is worth noting. I mean, in 20 years of covering these things, I've never seen this sort of format, where they don't have the kind of point-counterpoint of press conferences, but have it more informal.

And Rob's right. They were looking towards each other. The body language, I think, was positive. Of course, you know, these things only go so far.

But I think Netanyahu was very -- there are two points that stuck out for me on the atmospherics, which is, apart from the fact that he was looking at Obama and Obama was looking at him, he kept on focusing on Obama as the great friend of Israel at a time there've been some questions about Obama's commitments to Israel.

He was the one who said, "He's a great friend of Israel. He's a great leader," and he was extremely effusive. I've never seen him so effusive at such a gathering.

And the second element that was kind of interesting is he's -- being no stranger to the media, he often talks about the shortcomings of the Arab states. But in this context, he tried to say, no, the Arabs and Israel are together, in terms of dealing with Iran, Arabs being part of a regional solution. So he wanted to show that he himself is really part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Big differences remain

Robert Malley
International Crisis Group
They don't [see eye-to-eye]....The truth is, both sides know -- and I think they knew this before they got into the meeting -- that they're going to have to work seriously on Arab-Israeli peace and seriously on Iran each for its own sake.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Rob Malley, they went into this meeting with this supposed difference in priorities, with, as you said, Netanyahu wanting to focus on, how do you curb Iran? And the president saying, we have to pursue the peace track at the same time. At the end, Netanyahu said, "We see eye-to-eye on this linkage." Do they?

ROBERT MALLEY: They don't. And, in fact, even as both sides explained what their position was, in President Obama's first answer, when he was asked, "What about the Israeli position that you first have to move on Iran before attacking the peace process?" He says, "If there's any relationship, it goes the other way around."

The truth is, both sides know -- and I think they knew this before they got into the meeting -- that they're going to have to work seriously on Arab-Israeli peace and seriously on Iran each for its own sake.

And a lot of what we were hearing before was sort of the preliminaries, but they knew that that would be the outcome. But it was just a very interesting sequence, where, again, Benjamin Netanyahu says, after having heard the opposite of what he's been saying for the last few weeks, it's exactly what I meant.

MARGARET WARNER: So is Israel committed to pursuing the peace process vigorously, as the prime minister said?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, Netanyahu was very...

MARGARET WARNER: Because that isn't what was advertised going into the meeting.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. Right. No, I mean, the expectations were plunged lower than the Dead Sea, which is like the lowest point on Earth, so to beat those expectations weren't hard.

But I think, to be fair here, I do think that Netanyahu's kind of embrace of the idea of the regional Arab world, their role, is new. Basically, he's saying that every step that the Israelis take towards the Palestinians, the Arabs will take towards Israel. And that's what Senator Mitchell is trying to do, to incentivize Israel in the settlements...

MARGARET WARNER: The special envoy that...

DAVID MAKOVSKY: ... the special envoy who's working on this issue. And I know, in the briefing, he did with the Israeli press this afternoon, after this event, he was very enthusiastic about this new regional role of the Arab states.

And so I think there are some advantages here. I think, though, on the settlements issue, the differences here are going to remain.

MARGARET WARNER: With President Obama saying, absolutely, you have to stop settlements?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: And Netanyahu saying, there has to be a committee to look at the implementation of both sides, how they have implemented the roadmap. By the way, the roadmap calls for a two-state solution.

MARGARET WARNER: Which are the words that Prime Minister Netanyahu could not utter, Rob. How significant was that? Why can't he say it?

ROBERT MALLEY: He can't say it for domestic political reasons. He has a coalition that doesn't want him to say it. And so he figures, why should I use this word, which is going to create problems for me at home, when it really won't make a difference in reality whether I say them or not?

And in all fairness, we've had an Israeli prime minister, the outgoing one, who did say he wanted a two-state solution. We didn't get it. We got settlement expansion. We had two wars.

So the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu may not today say "two states," I don't think is really the issue. The issue is, as both said, what's going to be the outcome? Will we have Arab-Israeli peace? And what Netanyahu says today or doesn't say is not going to be particularly relevant at the end of the day.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Can I just say on...

Dealing with Iran

David Makovsky
Washington Inst. for Near East Policy
I thought that was the news of the day, in many ways, because for the first time I had heard President Obama talking about a clear timetable for negotiations with Iran. He said that we'd have to reassess at the end of the year.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Iran -- well, let me switch to Iran before we run out of time, because that's the other huge agenda item here. What did you make of that exchange on Iran?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I thought that was the news of the day, in many ways, because for the first time I had heard President Obama talking about a clear timetable for negotiations with Iran. He said that we'd have to reassess at the end of the year. Netanyahu later...

MARGARET WARNER: And perhaps go to -- and go to tougher sanctions?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Go to tougher sanctions. And Netanyahu said to the Israeli media after that session that, in their one-on-one session, the first hour of their two-hour meeting was almost all taken up by the Iranian issue.

So I think that the key thing is that Israel is not trying to block the United States from having a dialogue with Iran, and Israel would probably be the happiest country if it's resolved peacefully.

I think President Obama was smart by trying to bring Netanyahu in a little bit on his thinking, and -- because he knows that, if he keeps Israel in the dark, Israel will think the worst and might, you know, go off and militarily attack Iran if this dialogue breaks down.

But as Rob pointed out before, their argument isn't about today. Their argument is, what if dialogue fails? Then what?

MARGARET WARNER: So how long do you think Israel or Prime Minister Netanyahu will give President Obama on this negotiation track before at least considering possibly a military option?

ROBERT MALLEY: I think it's very hard to imagine Israel going alone on a military option against Iran, not only because of technical reasons, logistical reasons, but also because of what it would do to their relationship with the U.S. at a time when they would be facing a real existential threat after attacking Iran.

So I don't really give too much weight to that possibility, but I think, as David said, on all of the issues they discussed today, the seeds have been planted for either a possible disagreement in the future or for at least a real debate.

What do you do about Iran if engagement doesn't work? What do you do with the Palestinians when you get into final-status negotiations? What do you do about settlements? What do you do about Syria?

There are issues that they do not see eye-to-eye on. It doesn't mean that there's going to be confrontation, but it means that the moment of truth has not yet arrived.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree that Prime Minister Netanyahu would not consider military action against Iran?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I disagree. I think that Netanyahu has told his top aides -- my understanding, in private meetings -- that history has brought him to be the leader to stop a second Holocaust against the Jewish people. I think he believes it to the very fiber of his soul.

And his father is a leading historian. He sees himself as a historic figure. Right now, everyone is in agreement that dialogue is the way to go. And like I said, Israel is not trying to stop the United States. The issue is, what if it fails? And I believe, if it fails, that Israel will attack Iran; I do think so.

Obama's next moves

Robert Malley
International Crisis Group
It's up to Barack Obama to decide -- and he has a series of meetings coming up and a big speech in Cairo -- how he's going to move this process forward. Nobody knows better than he does right now the gaps that have to be bridged.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, looking ahead, who will make the next move? Do you expect, briefly, to see Prime Minister Netanyahu now call on the other Arab states and the Palestinians and really try to gin something up?

ROBERT MALLEY: He's called for immediate negotiations. The Palestinians have said they won't start until settlements are frozen and until Netanyahu accepts a two-state solution. I think that means the ball is going to remain in America's court.

It's up to Barack Obama to decide -- and he has a series of meetings coming up and a big speech in Cairo -- how he's going to move this process forward. Nobody knows better than he does right now the gaps that have to be bridged.

MARGARET WARNER: So does George Mitchell walk away from this meeting with any more cards to play, bottom line?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Yes, because the speech in Cairo on June 4th is the next big event, as I see it. And how that American speech is given -- the last big speech was by George Bush in 2002 -- is going to create a flurry of diplomatic activity, and visits, and phone calls that you just cannot imagine.

And that threat on how to give that speech is going to mean that a lot of people want to get their say in. And I think Mitchell is going to say, "OK, what are you going to do to help me so we can help shape this speech in the right way?"

That's his big card to play. So I think, between now and June 4th, there's a lot of flurry of activity.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we'll see. David Makovsky, Rob Malley, thanks.