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State of the Union

President Obama Addresses AIPAC

Aired May 22, 2011 - 10:40   ET


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Candy Crowley in Washington and this is State of the Union's special coverage of President Obama's address to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC.

"Fareed Zakaria: GPS" will be seen in its entirety at 1 p.m. Eastern. The president's speech takes on heightened meaning now after his call this week for new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks based on Israel's 1967 borders, an idea that has been flatly rejected by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many of Israel's U.S. supporters.

As we wait to see what we will hear from the president now, we want to go to CNN's Matthew Chance in Jerusalem. Matthew, this took on even more tension in the U.S., this idea of -- of having 1967 borders with land swaps be the basis for peace talks, because Benjamin Netanyahu was here when the president talked about it and indeed met with the president the next day.

As we wait for the president's speech, what, given the tensions that arose out of his Thursday speech, do you think Palestinians are looking to hear, and what are Israelis looking to hear?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think they're both looking, Candy, to hear very different things. From the Israeli point of view, there's been a lot of alarm expressed, not least by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, about this -- this U.S. proposal, this proposal of President Obama to make Israel's withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders basically a starting point for future negotiations with the Palestinians.

There's a great deal of concern in Israel and amongst the Israeli leadership as well that the United States needs to state yet again that it does stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel, as it were, when it comes to that country's security considerations. And I expect that's what we'll hear from President Obama shortly, when he speaks to this pro-Israeli lobby.

From the Palestinian point of view, they're looking for, as you might expect, the complete opposite. They were very pleased, in general, to see the United States president basically make the official U.S. position, something the Palestinians have been asking for, for several years, something they've been demanding, that we go back to the 1967 borders and use that as a basis for negotiations about a future Palestinian state. So what Palestinians will be looking for now is some kind of reaffirmation from President Obama that that is indeed what he's going to be pushing with the Israeli leadership in future, Candy.

CROWLEY: Is there, in fact, any sort of consensus even in Israel?

And let's just state at the beginning, there are no peace talks going on, but were there to be peace talks going on and they were sitting down at the table, by some miracle, is there any Israeli consensus about what ought to be the starting point?

CHANCE: It's difficult to say. I mean, certainly you're right, first of all, that this is all theoretical. There are no peace negotiations under way. There haven't been any negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians on that issue since 2009.

So really, whatever's said here may just disintegrate into nothing. But when it comes to a consensus about what would constitute this two-state solution, what would be the Israeli position when it comes to formulating a Palestinian state, then, you know, there is a good deal of support.

I don't know about consensus, but there's a good deal of support for this idea of going back to the pre-1967 borders, in principle, with various land swaps that would encompass some of the Israeli settlements that have been built in occupied territory in the West Bank in exchange for other land elsewhere in what is today Israel.

But it's all very theoretical. And, of course, the Israelis in general would not favor this as a first step, as an interim solution. Israelis that back that kind of withdrawal from the West Bank back it only on the basis that it's part of a final settlement agreement.

What President Obama is proposing -- and this is what's most controversial, perhaps -- is that he's saying this should be the first step. It should be the interim agreement. Then the other issues, like the return of refugees and the other issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they should be settled -- the status of Jerusalem, for instance -- they should be settled later. And that's something that's in general not acceptable for the majority of Israelis.

CROWLEY: And, you know, Matthew, it is interesting to me as an observer, and you have watched this so closely over a long period of time, that we have a lot of discussion about the relationship between the prime minister and the president.

I can tell you, from having spoken with both of them about each other, that it does not seem to be particularly warm. And I'm wondering if people there have any sense of whether the personal relationship between these two men is any better or any worse than previous administrations, both Israeli or American?

CHANCE: I think there's a general sense -- and whether this is true or not, I don't know, but there's certainly a general sense in Israel and elsewhere that there is an iciness, if you will, between the two leaders, these two key figures, the president of the United States, the prime minister of Israel, an iciness that didn't exist in the past between other U.S. presidents and other Israeli politicians, other Israeli leaders, in particular. They've always been very close, publicly hugging each other, showing lots of affection for each other and lots of support.

And that's what the Israeli public have come to expect of American presidents. And so if you look at this press conference, the very icy press conference that was held between the two after they met in the Oval Office, they barely even looked in each other's eyes.

And that's something that's been commented on a great deal in the Israeli media, that there is this very icy personal relationship. And that is having an impact on the -- on the prospects for closer friendship between the two countries and even having an impact on the prospect for peace talks to start again with the Palestinians. And so it is something there's a great deal of concern here in Israel.

CROWLEY: Matthew, I just want to remind our viewers that this is special coverage of the president's address to AIPAC, which is the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. They have been meeting all day. They're right now listening to Congressman Steny Hoyer. He's the number two Democrat in the House. He is a strong supporter of Israel.

After Steny Hoyer speaks, we will hear the president introduced. But we want to just, sort of, dip in now, Hoyer getting a good reception there as he almost always does. Take a listen here.

REP. STENY H. HOYER, D-MD., HOUSE MINORITY WHIP: ... that make nations lastingly great. Israel is such a nation. America is such a nation.


Together we are better.


While what tomorrow brings may be uncertain, let us confront those tomorrows with a certainty of our own immutable bond. Together, Israel and the United States have represented and fought to sustain the values for which so many in the Arab world now strive.

Let us neither delude ourselves about the evil that exists in the hearts of too many nor be dissuaded from responding to the good in the hearts of others.

In these times we come together as friends of Israel to share our apprehensions and our hopes, to share our predictions, our insights, our analysis, to discuss and debate, to do the work that is the heart of democracy and the secret of democracy's success.

CROWLEY: Once again, you are listening to Steny Hoyer addressing AIPAC. We are expecting the president to address this group very soon in a very high-profile speech. We want to take a quick break. We'll be right back after it.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to CNN's State of the Union special coverage of the president's speech to AIPAC, that is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The man you are looking at right now is Lee Rosenberg. He is the president of AIPAC. He is now introducing the president. I'm standing by here with my colleague in Jerusalem, Matthew Chance. But we want to take a listen to what Mr. Rosenberg says as he introduces the president of the United States.

LEE ROSENBERG, AIPAC PRESIDENT: -- between the United States and Israel.

As you have said both publicly and privately, the relationship between the United States and the Jewish state of Israel is anchored in both common interests and shared values. You understand with great depth that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that shares America's commitment to freedom, democracy and peace. You have demonstrated through your support of more than $3 billion in critical security assistance for Israel that investing in the Jewish state is investing in the one pillar of stability in an unstable region.


It should also be noted and we thank you for publicly and frequently calling for increased funding for the Jewish state. Even in this extremely difficult budget environment, you have fought for an increase in assistance.


And in addition, you understand that small democracies like Israel are particularly vulnerable. That is why we appreciate that you proposed and Israel received more than $200 million to fund Israel's Iron Dome rocket defense system.


This new technology is protecting the people of Israel from rocket fire from the Iran-backed terrorist group Hamas.

And Mr. President, you have elevated the issue of Iran, here in the United States and in the international community. We appreciate your determination to ensure that preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon is an American priority. You have used your influence in world fora to convince the west that stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon is a security imperative that requires focused, biting sanctions now.


Mr. President, we appreciate your ongoing efforts to bring a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We know that you share our profound disappointment that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has chosen to join forces with the terrorist organization Hamas, and refuses to come back to direct negotiations with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

As you know from your meeting this past Friday, the prime minister is a leader ready to join with you and engage in serious direct talks that could lead to peace. We trust that you will use the power of your office --

CROWLEY: A quick reminder for those of you who are just now tuning in, you are watching Lee Rosenberg, he is the president of AIPAC, that is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He is introducing President Obama. And if there is some anxiety here about some of the things that President Obama said in a Thursday speech, in particular his call for negotiations to begin with 1967 borders and some land swaps, you certainly don't hear that here. Mr. Rosenberg has been quite complimentary of the things that the president has said.

He has just said "and finally," which is generally our cue that the president is about to come on, so we want to tune back in, and hopefully shortly we will hear the president of the United States.

ROSENBERG: -- and when you kill innocent citizens of the United States, you will inevitably face the long arm of American justice.


The operation that you ordered that resulted in the death of the face of Islamic radicalism and one of the world's worst mass murderers was heroic. Thank you, Mr. President, for ridding the world of Osama bin Laden.


Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the 44th president of the United States, President Barack Obama!

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good morning. Thank you very much. Good morning. Thank you. Thank you so much. Please, have a seat. Thank you. What a remarkable, remarkable crowd.

Thank you, Rosy, for your very kind introduction. I did not know you played basketball.


I will take your word for it.


Rosy, thank you for your many years of friendship. Back in Chicago, when I was just getting started in national politics, I reached out to a lot of people for advice and counsel, and Rosy was one of the very first. When I made my first visit to Israel, after entering the Senate, Rosy, you were at my side every step of that profound journey through the Holy Land. So I want to thank you for your enduring friendship, your leadership, and for your warm introduction today.

I also want to thank David Victor, Howard Kohr, and all the board of directors. And let me say that it is wonderful to look out and see so many great friends, including a very large delegation from Chicago, Alan Solow, Howard Green. Thank you all.

I want to thank the members of Congress who are joining you today -- who do so much to sustain the bonds between the United States and Israel -- including Eric Cantor...


... Steny Hoyer...


... and the tireless leader I was proud to appoint as the new chair of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.


We're joined by Israel's representative to the United States, Ambassador Michael Oren.


And we're joined by one of my top advisers on Israel and the Middle East for the past four years -- and who I know is going to be an outstanding ambassador to Israel -- Dan Shapiro.


Dan has always been a close and trusted adviser and friend, and I know that he will do a terrific job.

And at a time when so many young people around the world are standing up and making their voices heard, I also want to acknowledge all the college students from across the country who are here today.


No one has a greater stake in the outcome of events that are unfolding today than your generation, and it's inspiring to see you devote your time and energy to help shape that future.

Now, I'm not here to subject you to a long policy speech. I gave one on Thursday, in which I said that the United States sees the historic changes sweeping the Middle East and North Africa as a moment of great challenge, but also a moment of opportunity for greater peace and security for the entire region, including the state of Israel.

On Friday, I was joined at the White House by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and we reaffirmed...


We reaffirmed that fundamental truth that has guided our presidents and prime ministers for more than 60 years, that even while we may at times disagree, as friends sometimes will, the bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad.


A strong and secure Israel is in the national security interest of the United States not simply because we share strategic interests, although we do both seek a region where families and their children can live free from the threat of violence. It's not simply because we face common dangers, although there can be no denying that terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons are grave threats to both our nations.

America's commitment to Israel's security flows from a deeper place, and that's the values we share.

As two people who struggled to win our freedom against overwhelming odds, we understand that preserving the security for which our forefathers and foremothers fought must be the work of every generation. As two vibrant democracies, we recognize that the liberties and freedoms we cherish must be constantly nurtured. And as the nation that recognized the state of Israel moments after its independence, we have a profound commitment to its survival as a strong, secure homeland for the Jewish people.


We also know how difficult that search for security can be, especially for a small nation like Israel living in a very tough neighborhood. I've seen it firsthand. When I touched my hand against the Western Wall and placed my prayer between its ancient stones, I thought of all the centuries that the children of Israel had longed to return to their ancient homeland.

When I went to Sderot, I saw the daily struggle to survive in the eyes of an 8-year-old boy who lost his leg to a Hamas rocket. And when I walked among the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, I was reminded of the existential fear of Israelis when a modern dictator seeks nuclear weapons and threatens to wipe Israel off the face of the map -- face of the Earth.

Because we understand the challenges Israel faces, I and my administration have made the security of Israel a priority. It's why we've increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels. It's why we're making our most advanced technologies available to our Israeli allies.


It's why, despite tough fiscal times, we've increased foreign military financing to record levels.


And that includes additional support beyond regular military aid for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, a powerful example of American- Israel cooperation...


... a powerful example of American-Israeli cooperation which has already intercepted rockets from Gaza and helped save Israeli lives. So make no mistake: We will maintain Israel's qualitative military edge.


You also see our commitment to our shared security in our determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.


Here in the United States, we've imposed the toughest sanctions ever on the Iranian regime.


At the -- at the United Nations, under our leadership we've secured the most comprehensive international sanctions on the regime, which have been joined by allies and partners around the world. Today, Iran is virtually cut off from large parts of the international financial system, and we're going to keep up the pressure.

So let me be absolutely clear: We remain committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.


Its illicit nuclear program is just one challenge that Iran poses. As I said on Thursday, the Iranian government has shown its hypocrisy by claiming to support the rights of protesters while treating its own people with brutality. Moreover, Iran continues to support terrorism across the region, including providing weapons and funds to terrorist organizations. So we will continue to work to prevent these actions, and we will stand up to groups like Hezbollah who exercise political assassination and seek to impose their will through rockets and car bombs.

You also see our commitment to Israel's security in our steadfast opposition to any attempt to delegitimize the state of Israel.


As I said at the United Nations last year, "Israel's existence must not be a subject for debate," and "efforts to chip away at Israel's legitimacy will only be met by the unshakeable opposition of the United States."

(APPLAUSE) So when the Durban Review Conference advanced anti-Israel sentiment, we withdrew. In the wake of the Goldstone Report, we stood up strongly for Israel's right to defend itself.


When an effort was made to insert the United Nations into matters that should be resolved through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, we vetoed it.


And so, in both word and deed, we have been unwavering in our support of Israel's security.


And it is precisely because of our commitment to Israel's long- term security that we have worked to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians.


Now, I have said repeatedly that core issues can only be negotiated in direct talks between the parties.


And I indicated on Thursday that the recent agreement between Fatah and Hamas poses an enormous obstacle to peace. No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction.


And we will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace, including recognizing Israel's right to exist, and rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements.


And we once again call on Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, who has been kept from his family for five long years.


And yet, no matter how hard it may be to start meaningful negotiations under current circumstances, we must acknowledge that a failure to try is not an option. The status quo is unsustainable. And that is why on Thursday I stated publicly the principles that the United States believes can provide a foundation for negotiations toward an agreement to end the conflict and all claims, the broad outlines of which have been known for many years and have been the template for discussions between the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians since at least the Clinton administration. I know that stating these principles -- on the issues of territory and security -- generated some controversy over the past few days.

I wasn't surprised. I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a president preparing for re-election, is to avoid any controversy. I don't need Rahm to tell me that. Don't need Axelrod to tell me that.

But as I said to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I believe that the current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination. I also believe that real friends talk openly and honestly with one another.


So I want to share with you some of what I said to the prime minister.

Here are the facts we all must confront. First, the number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian territories. This will make it harder and harder -- without a peace deal -- to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state.

Second, technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of a genuine peace.

Third, a new generation of Arabs is reshaping the region. A just and lasting peace can no longer be forged with one or two Arab leaders. Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.

Now, just as the context has changed in the Middle East, so too has it been changing in the international community over the last several years. There's a reason why the Palestinians are pursuing their interests at the United Nations. They recognize that there is an impatience with the peace process, or the absence of one, not just in the Arab World, in Latin America, in Asia, and in Europe. And that impatience is growing, and it's already manifesting itself in capitals around the world.

Those are the facts. I firmly believe, and I repeated on Thursday, that peace cannot be imposed on the parties to the conflict. No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state, and the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the United Nations or in any international forum. Israel's legitimacy is not a matter for debate. That is my commitment; that is my pledge to all of you.


Moreover, we know that peace demands a partner, which is why I said that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist, and we will hold the Palestinians accountable for their actions and for their rhetoric.


But the march to isolate Israel internationally -- and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations -- will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative. And for us to have leverage with the Palestinians, to have leverage with the Arab States, and with the international community, the basis for negotiations has to hold out the prospect of success.

And so, in advance of a five-day trip to Europe in which the Middle East will be a topic of acute interest, I chose to speak about what peace will require.

There was nothing particularly original in my proposal. This basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations. But since questions have been raised, let me repeat what I actually said on Thursday, not what I was reported to have said.

I said that the United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps...


... so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves and reach their potential in a sovereign and contiguous state.

As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself -- by itself -- against any threat.


Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security.


A full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign and non-militarized state.


And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.


Now, that is what I said. It was my reference to the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps that received the lion's share of the attention, including just now. And since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what "1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps" means.

By definition, it means that the parties themselves -- Israelis and Palestinians -- will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. That's what "mutually agreed upon swaps" means. It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation.


It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years...


It allows the parties themselves to take account of those changes, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.

The ultimate goal is two states for two people, Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.


If there is a controversy then, it's not based in substance. What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately. I've done so because we can't afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades to achieve peace. The world is moving too fast.


The world is moving too fast. The extraordinary challenges facing Israel will only grow. Delay will undermine Israel's security and the peace that the Israeli people deserve.

Now, I know that some of you will disagree with this assessment. I respect that. And as fellow Americans and friends of Israel, I know we can have this discussion.

Ultimately, it is the right and the responsibility of the Israeli government to make the hard choices that are necessary to protect a Jewish and democratic state for which so many generations have sacrificed.


And as a friend of Israel, I'm committed to doing our part to see that this goal is realized. And I will call not just on Israel, but on the Palestinians, on the Arab States, and the international community to join us in this effort, because the burden of making hard choices must not be Israel's alone.


But even as we do all that's necessary to ensure Israel's security, even as we are clear-eyed about the difficult challenges before us, and even as we pledge to stand by Israel through -- through whatever tough days lie ahead, I hope we do not give up on that vision of peace, for if history teaches us anything, if the story of Israel teaches us anything, it is that with courage and resolve, progress is possible, peace is possible.

The Talmud teaches us that so long as a person still has life, they should never abandon faith. And that lesson seems especially fitting today, for so long as there are those, across the Middle East and beyond, who are standing up for the legitimate rights and freedoms which have been denied by their governments, the United States will never abandon our support for those rights that are universal.

And so long as there are those who long for a better future, we will never abandon our pursuit of a just and lasting peace that ends this conflict with two states living side by side in peace and security.


This is not idealism. It is not naivete. It is a hard-headed recognition that a genuine peace is the only path that will ultimately provide for a peaceful Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and a Jewish state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.

That is my goal. And I look forward to continuing to work with AIPAC to achieve that goal. Thank you. God bless you. God bless Israel, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you.


CROWLEY: President Obama just wrapping up his speech to AIPAC, the American/Israel Public Affairs Committee.

This a speech not going back on anything he said on Thursday, but further explaining it and why he wants to set the 1967 prewar borders with land swaps as a basis for Israeli/Palestinian peace talks.

Bringing in our Matthew Chance now.

The president spent about half his speech essentially saying our commitment to Israel's security is ironclad, and the other half of his speech explaining what he meant by his 1967 border statement and what it means. I got a huge sense of urgency from him about now is Israel's time to act.

Is there that same urgency in Israel? What will they hear from this speech? CHANCE: Well, I think they'll hear those two things you just pointed out.

First and foremost, these reassurances that the Israeli government and Israeli people, in general, will be looking for at this speech, reassurances that the bonds between the United States and Israel are still strong. He described them as unbreakable. Some reassurances that the United states would not jeopardize in any way Israeli security, and that, of course, is the main concern of ordinary Israelis. It's the main concern of Israeli politicians as well.

President Obama going on, though, to restate that belief, that proposal that he made earlier in his speech about the region, that the 1967 borders, the pre-'67 borders, should be used as a basis of the two-state solution is absolutely right, that this is something that's been proposed privately for many years. It's been discussed by all the parties for many years. And he simply restated it publicly and, for the first time, adopted it as Washington's official position.

And so that's something he attempted to explain here. But there are a number of nuances that I've noticed.

First and foremost, he stayed away from this idea that withdrawing to those '67 borders should be the basis of negotiations. That's been something that's been very controversial here in Israel. Israelis who support that idea only want to see it as part of a final status agreement.

There's a lot of concern that a withdraw to the '67 borders could be an interim agreement. So that's something of concern.

He's not said anything here either, Candy, that's going to appease Prime Minister Netanyahu, who's already come out and said he's opposed to this concept that was delivered by President Obama on Thursday.

Back to you.

CROWLEY: Thanks so much, Matthew Chance, for joining me this morning here.

STATE OF THE UNION will have much more analysis of the president's AIPAC speech starting at noon Eastern, including an exclusive interview with Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. We'll also get reaction from the chief Palestinian representative to the U.S.

Now a reminder that "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS" can be seen in its entirety at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

But again, with my thanks to Matthew Chance, up next, RELIABLE SOURCES with Howard Kurtz.