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Netanyahu, Obama Meet on Mideast Peace, Iran Threat

President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday, discussing Israeli-Palestinian talks and Iran's nuclear ambitions. Margaret Warner reports.

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  • 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.