GWEN IFILL: Diplomacy abroad, reinvention at home, from Middle East peace to same-sex marriage, tonight on “Washington Week.”
Into the thicket on Middle East peace.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) If we can get direct negotiations started again, I believe that the shape of a potential deal is there.
MS. IFILL: Fixing frayed partnerships.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) How are you? Good to see you. Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be here.
MS. IFILL: On Syria –
REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS (R-MI): (From tape.) We need to step up in the world community to prevent a humanitarian disaster that we haven’t seen since Halabja 25 years ago in Iraq, where they killed 30,000 people with chemical weapons.
MS. IFILL: On Iran –
ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (From tape.) In order to stop Iran’s nuclear programs peacefully, diplomacy and sanctions must be augmented by a clear and credible threat of military action.
MS. IFILL: The president hits the road, while at home winds are shifting on immigration and gay marriage.
HILLARY CLINTON: (From tape.) I support marriage for lesbian and gay couples. I support it personally and as a matter of policy and law.
MS. IFILL: As Congress sidesteps another government shutdown and Republicans do a little navel-gazing.
REINCE PRIEBUS: (From tape.) There’s no one reason we lost. Our message was weak. Our ground game was insufficient. We weren’t inclusive.
MS. IFILL: Covering the week, Tom Gjelten of NPR, David Sanger of the New York Times, John Harris of Politico, and Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. It took him four years to get there, but when Barack Obama arrived in Israel for the first time as president this week, he had what he called his homework in hand. On the list, healing a political rift with the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, winning over a skeptical Israeli public, and gently restarting the moribund Middle East peace talks, in part by appealing to Israelis to see it from the Palestinian point of view.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land. (Applause.)
MS. IFILL: But make no mistake, this was an emphatically pro-Israel trip, especially when the president talked tough to two of the region’s problematical leaders, Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) I’m confident that Assad will go. It’s not a question of if, it’s when. And so part of what we have to spend a lot of time thinking about is what’s the aftermath of that and how does that work in a way that actually serves the Syrian people.
MS. IFILL: And he did some handholding with the leaders of Jordan and Turkey as well, not too much on his plate this week, guys. So David, what was the trip originally designed to accomplish?
DAVID SANGER: Well, the first thing it had to accomplish, Gwen, was to seal up this perception that President Obama has not had Israel’s interests front and center. And seems to succeed at that. In the Haaretz this morning, Ari Shavit wrote “the most powerful man in the world arrived in the most threatened state in the world to promise love.” And you heard him speaking in Hebrew on several occasions, to the point that the Palestinians got a little bit upset about how much Hebrew in fact that he used.
You saw him bridge as many of the differences as he could with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and then, at the end of his visit, broker a phone call between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the president of Turkey, two countries that have been estranged since a Turkish boat on the way to help the Gaza was attacked by Israeli commandos.
MS. IFILL: So, Tom, is this like Woody Allen says, 90 percent of life is showing up? He’s very – just the fact that he’s showed up and expressed affection was enough to paper over or fix all of the problems that have been existing.
TOM GJELTEN: Well, he said some really important things, I think, from the Israeli point of view. I mean, one of the interesting things he said that I think will probably escape a lot of people’s attention is he reaffirmed support not just for Israel, but for the ideology of Zionism, which is something that he had not done before. And that was, I think, something really important to the Israelis. So there were several points.
He also sort of – it seems to me that he nudged a little bit closer to Israel’s position vis-à-vis Iran. But the perception, I think, that bothered them was not only the perception that he’s unsympathetic to Israel, there’s also been a perception recently that the United States is disengaged, that the United States is no longer the player in the region that it once was. And that’s where I think this phone call that he brokered between Netanyahu and Erdogan, the Israeli and the Turkish leader, was important because it put the United States back in the position of being a player in the Middle East, and that’s a perception that they have been missing.
JOHN HARRIS: But Tom, it wasn’t just a perception, right? That was, in fact, the reality of Obama –
MR. GJELTEN: Sure.
MR. HARRIS: – in the first term. He did not want to put his credibility, the credibility of his administration behind something he thought was a fool’s errand, which is Middle East peace process. Has that calculation changed?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, I think the big question going forward is was this just a matter of perception? And that may mean that it’s more about Washington politics than the Middle East. But we’re going to see here in the coming months whether he sends John Kerry back with a really serious mission to do something between the Israelis and Palestinians and what does he follow up on with respect to Syria, Turkey, et cetera.
MR. SANGER: Well, it looks like Kerry’s going to go back fairly early and one of the interesting differences, I think, that you’ll see in this second term is that Secretary of State Clinton kept her distance from the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I suspect you’re going to see John Kerry right in the midst of it. Now, different calculation for him. And Secretary Clinton was thinking about the possibility she may run for president someday. John Kerry’s been there and done that.
But I think the second interesting question about engagement here was heard in that clip, where Prime Minister Netanyahu said that the Iranians would not move unless there was a credible threat of military action. And you heard the president come out very clearly saying containment is not my policy. They’re not going to get a weapon, no matter what we need to go do. And I think, even though he has said that before, started saying it about a year ago, they needed to hear it right there. And the Iranians needed to hear it right there.
KAREN TUMULTY: Well, while he was over there, there were some pretty horrific accusations coming out of Syria, from both sides, that chemical weapons had been used. How credible were those accusations and what does that do to the sort of whole international posture on Syria?
MR. GJELTEN: You know, the accusations were made very generally that chemical weapons were used, but nobody was talking about what chemical weapon was used. There was no mention of nerve gas or sarin or any of the serious ones. In fact, you know, something that’s interesting is in the old Soviet military doctrine, chemical weapons included anti-riot weapons, teargas, and if the only weapon that was used was a form of teargas, you know, maybe in the Syrian context, that is considered a chemical weapon. It’s certainly not considered a chemical weapon in the U.S. view. So I think that it remains to be seen what actually was used if anything.
MR. SANGER: And I think one of the reasons this is particularly important, though, is President Obama’s made it clear that there’s only one thing that would bring him into the Syrian conflict. He’s been under a lot of pressure from a lot of different sides to go in. And it’s the real use or movement of chemical weapons or movement of them to Hezbollah or Hamas, and he repeated that red line again during his talks – his public talks in Israel.
Now, that means that he sort of committed himself. And so if they determine that this was just teargas or a pesticide or something, he’s got to be able to say that doesn’t count. That’s not what I’m talking about.
MS. IFILL: You know, today, the president spent part of the day in Jordan with King Abdullah. And I thought it was very interesting one of the things that King Abdullah had to say during their joint press conference, which kind of put like what the challenges in that region of the world are in context for the U.S. and for everybody else. Let’s listen.
KING ABDULLAH II OF JORDAN: (From tape.) We are saying that Arab Spring is behind us. We in Jordan are looking now at the Arab summer for us all, which means that we all have to roll our sleeves. It’s going to be a bumpy and difficult road, but I’m very encouraged with the process and I am very excited about the future.
MS. IFILL: Excited about the future of the Arab summer. That sounds like more than a notion, especially when we hear King Abdullah saying we have hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in our country and we need your help.
MR. GJELTEN: Well, you know, that was, I think, a really – a serious point. And King Abdullah made that. That was the first point that he made in that press conference. He went straight to that point and the president did announce it, as you mentioned earlier that $200 million – he’s going to push for $200 million in aid to Jordan. I actually thought that that press conference was sort of one of the weaker points of the president’s trip. He seemed to me to be a little uneasy. I don’t know what you thought, David and others –
MS. IFILL: The president did.
MR. GJELTEN: The president – I thought the president – he seemed a little bit defensive in that press conference.
MR. SANGER: Well, he’s got a lot to be defensive about when it comes to this. I think that it was the early summer of 2011, after the Arab Spring had gone through its first phase that the president showed up at the State Department, gave a big speech about how much money the United States was going to contribute to trying to help the Arab Spring states. I went back this week, while our president was traveling, just to look at how much of that money is gone. Two year later, less than half. Some of the proposals never even made it to Congress. And I think some of them haven’t made it there because the president didn’t want to risk a vote in which Congress would vote it down.
So you know, handing out $200 million and so forth is perfectly nice, but we’re not talking about what the United States did after the fall of the Soviet Union. We’re not talking about the Marshall Plan. We’re talking about tiny amounts of money for huge humanitarian problems.
MR. GJELTEN: And Abdullah said that he expects the bill to be $1 billion by the end of this year.
MS. IFILL: Really? Is there – the other thing I thought was interesting actually is when the president got what seemed to be a little bit defensive in both these press conferences, was he talked about, when someone asked him why – what are you going to do about the Middle East peace process, and he said, hey, it’s hard, this think – if we can figure this out. And then someone asked them about when you’re going to intervene in Syria today and he said, hey, it’s hard. We can’t really do this. As you said, there’s a reason to be defensive about these issues as far as actions that the U.S. has or has not taken so far.
MR. SANGER: Well, the president knew this was the 10th anniversary week of the invasion of Iraq. And the invasion of Iraq hangs over every single decision this administration makes and it particularly hangs over any question about intervention –
MR. HARRIS: Hanging over the credibility of these threats, right? I mean, people know Barack Obama sees his role as extraction from these problems, not insertion. He does not want to intervene in Syria –
MS. IFILL: And he doesn’t want–
MR. HARRIS: – unless he’s given no choice and he doesn’t want to intervene militarily in Iran.
MS. IFILL: And he doesn’t want to be the one to go to the U.N. say and I have the evidence of the chemical weapons used when it turns out there really isn’t.
MR. SANGER: But he has, as I said before, sort of committed himself if they do use chemical weapons, and that’s going to be difficult. He hasn’t said what exactly he would go do. There are a lot of contingency plans, but a lot of problem with this. I mean, chemical weapons, you don’t just pick them up and bring them out of the country. They’re in old leaky containers and you can kill more people moving them around than you can leaving them in place.
MS. IFILL: I want to ask you a timing question. One thing that – one of the disagreements that Netanyahu and President Obama had going into this was about timing, about when Iran would be able to get a nuclear weapon. And the president said in an interview, I think only a week ago, oh, we think it’ll be about a year. This is not what Netanyahu has been saying and they did – they agreed to disagree kind of quietly.
MR. GJELTEN: You know, that’s one way to look at it, Gwen. But you could also look at it sort of from another perspective, which is that the president actually put a timeline on Iran getting a nuclear weapon. And that put him in contrast to the position of the U.S. intelligence community, which does not present this as a question of time. They present it as a question of will, of political will, the decision to build a bomb. And President Obama sort of – and the Israelis, on the other hand, do present it strictly as a matter of time. At what point will Iran have the enrichment capability that it’ll be able to produce a weapon without us doing anything about it. And so it seemed to me that in that particular framing of the issue, President Obama actually moved a little bit toward the Israeli view.
MR. SANGER: A little bit, but the Israelis still worry about when Iran has the capability. The president has never said he would stop a capability, only a weapon, and it’s a big difference.
MS. IFILL: And Netanyahu said, you know, we are both on the same page when it comes to our intelligence assessment, which I get the feeling was a carefully negotiated term.
MR. SANGER: And one they’ve used before. And they’re close on the assessment, but as time indicates, the big question is when do the Iranians make a decision if the Iranians make a decision.
MS. IFILL: OK, well, there were also a lot of moving parts on the domestic front this week. Congress passed a budget bill that would stave off another government shutdown for now. It’s struggled to reach agreement on new gun laws, rejecting an assault weapons ban and taking tiny steps toward tightening background checks. Political leaders in and out of Congress rushed to catch up with rapidly shifting public opinion on same-sex marriage and Republicans looked inward to find out what went wrong in 2012.
MR. PRIEBUS: (From tape.) People want us to be bold. And I think that it is true. This is an unprecedented thing for a national party to put their cards on the table face up, but this is what we’re willing to do to build our party. I think it was necessary. People wanted the report to be real. They wanted it to be honest. They wanted it to be, if it had to be, raw. And maybe a few pieces of china needed to be broken.
MS. IFILL: Words. They call themselves stuffy old men. They made – they took real pokes at themselves, but did it go beyond that, Karen?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, it was an after-action report. It was something that the RNC chairman had put together a commission and they’d done thousands of interviews. And basically, I think the bottom line was when he said the party is in a cul-de-sac. Republicans have reached the point where they’re only talking to themselves. So it spelled out a bunch of sort of technical fixes – more outreach to minorities, more outreach to women, more outreach to young people, a different – you know, they need to get up to speed on technology. They probably should move their convention a little bit earlier. They should have fewer primary debates. What the report –
MS. IFILL: Which they can’t really necessarily always control, especially the debates.
MS. TUMULTY: But the things the party can control are these technical things. What really the party can’t do is set a new direction on ideas. And that is really the challenge for the Republicans at this point, but that is going to require some choices being made by the actual leaders of their party and eventually a presidential nominee.
MS. IFILL: Well, here’s an example, John, the immigration issue. In this report, Reince Priebus said there should be comprehensive immigration reform. And there is, in fact, a gang of some number on Capitol Hill – eight I think –
MR. HARRIS: Eight at last count.
MS. IFILL: – trying to come up with something. Is there movement because of this or is it going ahead anyway and the party’s just catching up?
MR. HARRIS: Well, just to underscore Karen’s point, you have technical issues, yes.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. HARRIS: We need better computers. We need better voter outreach. But the heart of it is a substantive issue. It’s an ideological one. And the bold language that we saw some of that in that clip, it’s a lot harder to follow bold action. Immigration reform, endorse comprehensive immigration reform. The nub question of that is, OK, do you support a pathway to legalization, a pathway to citizenship? So immediately after the statement there, he was pressed by reporters, well, it’s not my job to get into policy. That’s the whole heart of it.
And to me, it also raises another question with respect to Chairman Priebus, who is an intelligent, nice, decent man, so far as most of the people here in Washington know him, but really who cares what he thinks? It’s not where the real action of rebuilding the party is going to take place. One question you have is whether it’s even possible for parties now to have this kind of formidable party chairman like Ron Brown after the Democratic debacle in ’88, very powerful figure leading up to Bill Clinton in 1992, Haley Barbour, a very formidable person. We just don’t think of party chairmen as having that kind of influence in this era. Power’s too diffuse; the role of parties is too limited.
MS. TUMULTY: And in fact, a lot of the recommendations were about outsourcing a lot of the things the parties used to do to these big new outside groups and constituents –
MS. IFILL: Friends and allies they call them.
MS. TUMULTY: Right, friends and allies.
MS. IFILL: Or we call them third party groups.
MR. GJELTEN: Now, the chairman did say that we have not been as inclusive as we should be. That – there’s a very short distance from saying you’re not inclusive to actually changing your ideas. I mean, that does suggest probably a different ideological approach might be needed.
MS. TUMULTY: And perhaps one of the biggest developments of the week was right after this report came out, the senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, firebrand, beloved by the tea party movement, gave a speech in which he didn’t actually use the word “citizenship,” path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but he implied that he is there. And I think this is the sort of first major figure from that side of the party to really come out and endorse this idea.
MR. SANGER: When you think about the tea party, it was only a few months ago that after the president’s State of the Union address, there was a Republican Party response. There was a tea party response, which gave you a sense of how divided they were on these issues. Can you see a merger in the next year or two that actually gets engineered that begins to neutralize this division? And immigration is out there, same-sex marriage, which will be up in front of the Supreme Court next week, another one that they’ve never sort of quite sealed up on.
MS. TUMULTY: You know, I’m not sure the party can do that. I’m not sure the issues can do that. The only thing that could really bring all these factions together, I think, is a person, a figure that they – who can sort of speak to all the sort of strands of conservatism and Republicanism that are out there.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about a person, a figure, on the issue of gay marriage, for instance. We saw a Republican senator last week say, I’ve decided that it’s a good idea. We saw Hillary Clinton, who actually, bringing up the tail end of the parade among Democrats, saying she thinks it’s a good idea and her husband as well. So are they following public opinion or are they leading it?
MR. HARRIS: I think there’s no question that in this country, over the last generation, really over the last couple of years, there has been a hugely consequential, of historic proportions, a cultural revolution on this issue of gay marriage. The Washington Post poll now made clear it has pretty solid majority support, nationally.
MS. TUMULTY: Fifty-eight percent.
MR. HARRIS: Fifty-eight percent.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MR. HARRIS: And in this cultural revolution, the politicians are not leading indicators. They’re lagging indicators there. They’re hanging on for the ride.
With – you know, with all due respect to Hillary Clinton, I’m sure her view in the videotape which we showed was sincere, but I find it inconceivable that her position has actually changed from the 2008 presidential campaign, in which she was opposed to gay marriage –
MS. IFILL: She just said it.
MR. HARRIS: – would have changed. It was the political calculus of risk. In the Democratic Party, it is riskier to keep your safe position from four years ago. That is riskier than to do what she did, which is to say forthrightly I’m in favor of gay marriage. Obviously, the calculus on the Republican side is different, but we’re still seeing a lot of Republicans who say, look, times have changed and generations have changed.
MS. IFILL: Didn’t we think that times were going to change on gun matters also after Newtown, and that was only three months ago, and then this week we saw the assault weapons ban, which honestly didn’t always have that good a chance of passage, but completely pushed to the side. And now, they’re just trying to negotiate around the edges again.
MS. TUMULTY: Well, the Senate is going to take up the gun legislation when they come back from their recess next month. It is pretty clear from Harry Reid’s statements this week that the more ambitious measures, such as an assault weapon ban, are not going to get through the Senate. I think that the politics of the issue remain what they always were, which is that there is broad public support for a lot of these measures, but it’s geographically intense in some areas and not in others. But I also think, on one side there’s an intensity on the issue, the anti – the anti-gun control side, whereas it’s not a voting issue, it’s not a driving issue, and it’s – and the memories are a lot shorter on the other side.
MR. GJELTEN: There’s also broad public support for the idea of a compromise on the fiscal front. Is there any indication that in the coming months that that will be part of this recalculation on the part of the Republican leadership and the Democratic leadership.
MR. HARRIS: There’s some indication, just looking at White House rhetoric. President Obama in the winter had been saying, look, I’m not – it’s not a matter of whether I can have a round of golf with Speaker Boehner. The only thing that’s going to change is that those guys flatly change their position. And we’ve seen all this outreach over the past couple of weeks and in their words, you know, he shows an openness, even I would say an eagerness to sort of re-open the grand bargain talks.
The fundamental political calculus, Gwen, I don’t think has changed, which is it would be – it’s easy for politicians to talk about how a grand bargain would take place and what it would look like in private. It’s still virtually impossible for them to do so in public because of the bases of both parties are adamantly opposed to the two essential elements: entitlement reform and increased revenue.
MR. SANGER: But John, you are being – you are beginning to see the deficit come down some, just because the economy’s come back up. So the difference between this grand bargain and the one two summers ago would be that you’re in a world where the deficit might naturally be declining a bit as well. Would that make any difference?
MR. HARRIS: I mean, the problem is I don’t think you can – you still have to have revenue for this to be acceptable substantively and also politically for the Democrats. And I think it’s clear that there won’t be increased rates. That’s just not going to happen with Republicans. So the question is can the two parties in this possibly improving climate tackle a tax reform?
MS. TUMULTY: You’re also seeing Medicare costs are beginning to level off as well. They don’t know why, but it’s happening. The next kind of window, I think, to open this up is that the Senate, for the first time – the Democratic Senate in years is actually considering a budget. And that means there is possibly a good chance going to be a conference committee between the Republican House and the Democratic Senate on the budget that could provide another opening of a bit of a window to, again, put some of these bigger ideas on the table.
MS. IFILL: And it’s also possible that the sequestration – that word I hate to use – but the across the board budget cuts, which people said were not going to make a big effect, at least they didn’t immediately, are beginning slowly, drip, drip, drip to kick in. Today, we heard 149 air control towers are being closed, so bit by bit.
MS. TUMULTY: But they passed the continuing resolution to keep the government going for the rest of the year and that the sequestration was enshrined in it.
MS. IFILL: OK, well, we’ll be watching all of that. Thank you, everybody. Our conversation has to end here for now, but it continues online in our “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” where among other things, we’ll consider lessons learned 10 years after the U.S. went to war in Iraq. Keep up with daily developments, including next week’s Supreme Court arguments that we mentioned on gay marriage, over at the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you right here, next week, on “Washington Week.” And for everyone who celebrates, have a happy and a blessed Passover. Good night.