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Obama Pledges ‘Unwavering’ Commitment to Israel’s Security During Visit

March 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
President Barack Obama made his first presidential trip to Israel, where he reaffirmed the bond between the two nations. Margaret Warner, who is traveling with the president, talks with Gwen Ifill about the timing of the trip and common concerns for the U.S. and Israel, including the Syrian conflict and Iran's nuclear program.
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GWEN IFILL: On the first foreign trip of his second term, President Obama today reassured Israelis of his commitment to the nation and renewed warnings to Iran and Syria. 

We begin our coverage with a report from Margaret Warner, who is on the ground there. 

MARGARET WARNER: It was all sunshine and smiles as the president arrived on a sparkling day outside Tel Aviv, his tense, occasionally stormy relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu set aside as he began his first presidential visit to Israel. 

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: How are you?

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israel: Good to see you. 

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good. Thank you so much.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Good to see you here.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: It’s wonderful to be here. 

MARGARET WARNER: The apparent goodwill led to a moment of levity about a deadly serious issue topping the agenda: the U.S. and Israel’s differing views on how to confront Iran’s advancing nuclear program and what should be the trigger for military action against it. 

ISRAELI OFFICER: You hear about “red lines” all the time, right? 

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Bibi’s always talking about red lines. 

This is all a psychological ploy.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: This was minutely planned.

MARGARET WARNER: Netanyahu famously set his red line for action against Iran’s progress toward a bomb at the U.N. last fall. Iran maintains its nuclear program is solely for peaceful energy production. 

The president viewed a missile battery of the Iron Dome defense system heavily financed by the U.S., which knocked scores of rockets from the sky during Israel’s brief November war with Gaza. The president’s remarks were heavy with allusions to millennia of Jewish history in the Holy Land and a nod to the broad purposes of his trip. 

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Across this region, the winds of change bring both promise and peril. So I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors. 

MARGARET WARNER: He was referring to another focus of this visit, to listen to what Israeli and Palestinian leaders say they’re willing to do to revive the stalled peace process between them. 

Later, at a press conference at the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence, the president was asked about yesterday’s reports of a possible chemical weapons attack in northern Syria. Mr. Obama said last year that if the regime used such weapons, that would cross a red line of a different sort. 

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I have instructed my teams to work closely with all other countries in the region and international organizations and institutions to find out precisely whether or not this red line was crossed. 

I will note, without at this point having all the facts before me, that we know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical weapon attacks. We know that there are those in the Syrian government who have expressed a willingness to use chemical weapons if necessary to protect themselves. 

I am deeply skeptical of any claim that in fact it was the opposition that used chemical weapons. The broader point is, is that once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer. 

MARGARET WARNER: Both leaders spoke extensively about Iran and about the different timetables the countries are on for possible military action to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. Mr. Obama said he thinks there is still time for diplomacy, but added:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action. 

And Israel is differently situated than the United States. And I wouldn’t expect that the prime minister would make a decision about his country’s security and defer that to any other country, any more than the United States would defer our decisions about what was important for our national security. 

MARGARET WARNER: Netanyahu was asked if he agreed with Mr. Obama’s comment to Israeli television last week that Iran was over a year from having a nuclear weapon. 

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: 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. 

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. 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’s not a lot of time. 

MARGARET WARNER: The president continues his trip tomorrow to the West Bank to speak with Palestinian leaders, then back to deliver a speech in Jerusalem. 

GWEN IFILL: I spoke with Margaret a short while ago. 

Margaret, it’s good to see you. 

This is the president’s first foreign visit of his second term. Why Israel and why now? 

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that’s a good question, Gwen, because, as I think we all know from the campaign, President Obama never did visit Israel as president and got quite a bit of criticism and question about that. 

So the White House and the president decided this was the perfect time to come to demonstrate — the number one purpose of this trip was to demonstrate to the Israeli public and to Prime Minister Netanyahu that the U.S. does have Israel’s interest at heart and, as the president said himself today, that the U.S. has Israel’s back. 

And the reason that’s important is because President Obama really needs to work together with Prime Minister Netanyahu on two particularly difficult issues. One is how to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and the other is what to do about the fallout from this conflict in Syria. In addition, the president would like to advance the will Israeli-Palestinian piece process.

And, again, he would need Prime Minister Netanyahu for that. But, above all, the White House and the president calculate that if he can move Israeli public opinion about him from its deeply unfavorable view now — only 10 percent in a poll last week have a favorable poll of the president. 38 percent think he’s hostile to Israel — but if he can move that and have the Israeli people trust him more, it will be easier for Netanyahu to cooperate with the president and actually harder for Netanyahu to confront or oppose the president. 

GWEN IFILL: Netanyahu actually is just forming his new government. The president is just starting his second term. They both have some domestic limitations on their minds, haven’t they? 

MARGARET WARNER: Well, they have, Gwen. 

The president and Prime Minister Netanyahu both have had difficult situations at home politically, as we know from the president and Prime Minister Netanyahu as well here, with all the different parties in his government. That said, his new government is not really — doesn’t give him in fact even as much freedom to maneuver as he had last time. 

So there was a sort of funny remark at the end when Prime Minister Netanyahu commented really on a question the president had been asked about, well, why didn’t you make much progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front in your first term or why didn’t you all work better together, or words to that effect. 

And Prime Minister Netanyahu said something like, well, for this, you need a second term as president and a third term as prime minister. And both of these men, I think, see that for legacy-building that, again, if they can work together, they can accomplish a lot more than having this headbutting that they had at times in their — in the president’s first term. 

GWEN IFILL: And it seemed today watching the two of them that they were getting along a little bit better. 

Let me ask you about the first thing that Benjamin Netanyahu said and the first question the president got. First was about Iran, and the first question the president got was about Syria. These are two big looming questions, especially for Israel, which they see, it seems, as a more immediate problem than often the U.S. has indicated. 

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I think with Prime Minister Netanyahu — and the president acknowledged that — it’s almost — I mean, it’s much more in the neighborhood of Iran. Let’s take Iran first, but that it’s really because of Israel’s less-developed military capabilities that, if military action needs to be taken — and the prime minister made clear today Israel is not going to subcontract its security out to anyone — that it has a shorter window to act. 

That said, they also actually have a difference on when the point will come at which Iran will be so far along with the number of centrifuges it has and enriched uranium that no one can stop it from getting a nuclear weapon. In other words, a moment will come in which Iran can say we’re leaving the IAEA, close its doors, and that it would take three weeks. 

So, one, yes, there’s a difference based on more vulnerability here in Israel, but also they actually have a difference about how good even U.S. intelligence is to know when that moment comes for both of them. 

On Syria, they’re actually a lot closer. Both — neither one is calling for greater intervention right now. You don’t hear Netanyahu calling on the United States to get in there with troops. They both are deeply concerned about the chemical weapons. The president has said it’s the use of chemical weapons he’s most concerned about in the past. 

Today, he moved closer. He embraced the prime minister’s view, which is, we are also deeply concerned or we would consider essentially it a red line the transfer of nuclear weapons. And that, of course, is what Israel is worried about, that right next door, if Hezbollah, its sworn enemy, next door in Lebanon get these weapons, there will be hell to pay for Israel. 

GWEN IFILL: And we will be talking more about Syria later in the broadcast.

Margaret Warner, thank you. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Tomorrow, Margaret reports on President Obama’s trip to the West Bank and his meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.