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Obama Visit Raises Expectations of Support on Mideast Peace Dealings

March 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Unpopular in the past in Israel, President Obama tried to engage a younger audience in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. Jeffrey Brown talks with Margaret Warner, reporting from Jerusalem, about the president's message to both sides that peace is still possible, as well as his emphasis on reciprocal confidence-building measures.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret, start with the speech there in Jerusalem. The president has been unpopular in Israel. He specifically targeted young Israelis in this major address. What did officials there tell you about the message he wanted to get across?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Jeff, he wanted to do very much what he did in the 2008 campaign as a senator in which he directly appealed to younger and uninvolved citizens, people who have been apolitical in the past to get engaged and get involved and actually believe they can change their country, and really very resonant of the ’08 campaign.

He had one line at the very end where he said, as we face the twilight of Israel’s founding generation, young people of Israel must claim the future. Now, he spent a lot of time talking to some of the founding generation or their sons and daughters here, but he is saying to the Israeli young people that you are not going to be secure if you — if the Israel of the future is still worried about terrorist attacks, rockets coming over the border, increasingly hostile neighborhood. And there are no number of Iron Dome defense systems that can adequately protect Israel. Even the United States can’t.

So it was a kind of a call to action.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s been interesting today, yesterday. We see the president telling both sides, really, that peace is still possible.

I wonder if the American officials there are talking about to what degree he really is committed to putting a renewed effort into this.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Jeff, it was so interesting because the president and his people have been so careful not to make that commitment before this trip, but today, yesterday and really today, I think he did raise expectations, not that he’s going to do shuttle diplomacy himself, but that his administration not only thinks it’s possible, but more than that, that it’s doable.

And so I think they are going to have to follow through. Now, he said Secretary of State Kerry is going to do a lot of this. And he put his hand on Kerry’s shoulder essentially to say, he’s my man. But the people around the president say that he got indications, he thinks, despite the language in public, that each of these leaders is ready to take some steps that will advance getting back to the peace talks and getting to the core issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: One key issue of course is still the question of the Israeli settlements.

What’s your sense after hearing what the president had to say today?

MARGARET WARNER: From what we can figure out here, the administration has this idea that there will have to be some reciprocal confidence-building measures.

Now, that’s a term from the old post-Oslo 20 years of negotiations, and they didn’t really pan out — but that there will have to be some taken by each side and, as one official said to us today, that will kind of commit each side to getting invested in this process.

One of the ideas being floated, I mean, there are things like releasing Palestinian prisoners on the part of the Israelis or transferring more security control to Palestinians in certain areas of the West Bank. But the key thing is, will the Israelis restrict settlement-building in some way, perhaps by saying we won’t for a while do any outside the settlement blocs?

And in return — not in return, but at the same time or a day or two later, the Palestinian leader would make clear that for now at least he’s not going to go to the U.N., which he’s now entitled to, whether it’s the International Criminal Court or other agencies, and keep pushing this unilateral agenda, recognition agenda.

So nobody’s made that connection publicly or even privately to us, but that is the kind of thing that’s being looked at and I think quietly encouraged. But then what the president kept saying today is pretty quickly when the talks start, it can’t be around these peripheral issues. It’s got to be about security and borders. And once you settle those, the other issues go away, like settlements. The borders issue will settle the settlements issue.

JEFFREY BROWN: And very briefly, Margaret, just even today while the president is there, you have those rockets coming in from Gaza. Is that seen as having any immediate impact, or is that just more a sense of difficulties that are very much still out there?

MARGARET WARNER: I think it’s the latter, Jeff.

If you had big demonstrations or any kind of violence from the West Bank, that would be different. But, in fact, it helps the president prove his point, which is that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has been doing a good job on security and has a different approach than Hamas in Gaza.

So they didn’t seem terribly troubled by that particular incident. That said, it does make the point that this situation only grows more perilous by the day for both sides.

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret Warner in Jerusalem, thanks so much.