Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets President Obama on Tuesday, with quite a difference in tone compared to last March.
On Friday, the White House briefed on the upcoming visit with Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security Adviser at the National Security Council and Daniel Shapiro, senior director for Middle East and North Africa at the NSC. Click below for transcript.
MR. VIETOR: Hey, guys. Thanks for getting on. I know the president's going to speak fairly soon, so we will keep this brief, and we'll also get you a transcript.
We're here today to talk about the president's meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu on Tuesday. Your speakers today are Dan Shapiro, who's our senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, and Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
So I'm going to turn it over to Ben. He and Dan will quickly speak, and then we'll take some questions.
MR. RHODES: Hi. Thanks, everybody, for joining heading into a holiday weekend here. We knew there's a good amount of interest in the upcoming visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu, so we wanted to provide you with this brief overview of what the meeting will entail and what our expectations are.
Let me just start by saying this will be the fifth meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama since Prime Minister Netanyahu took office last spring. Three of those, of course, have been here in the White House; one was up in New York at the U.N. General Assembly.
In terms of what we have scheduled for the visit right now, the president will have the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the Oval Office on Tuesday morning. Following that, we'll have a press spray where the leaders will be able to make statements and take questions. And following that there'll be an expanded working lunch with the Israeli delegation.
I'd just say a few comments by way of introduction, then turn it over to Dan. This comes at a time of some momentum in a number of fronts. In terms of the proximity talks, Dan can speak a little bit about the activity that's taken place since the proximity talks got started in the spring.
The president has hosted Abu Mazen and King Abdullah here in the White House, too, recently, and had very good meetings with them and discussed our shared interest in advancing peace in the Middle East.
We've also had substantial progress in terms of dealing with regional security, particularly the threat from Iran's failure to live up to its obligations with regard to its nuclear program, both through the U.N. Security Council resolution and a number of national measures that have been taken following the Security Council resolution, including by the United States.
And finally, of course, there's been close cooperation with Israel as it relates to Gaza. But I'll let Dan speak to that as well.
So with that, I'll turn it over to Dan to set up some of the substantive matters of the meeting, and then we'll take your questions.
MR. SHAPIRO: Hi, everybody. Thanks for joining.
As Ben said, this is the fifth meeting between these two leaders in the last just a little over a year, which is appropriate. This is a very close relationship, a special relationship, a strategic alliance with one of our closest partners in not just the Middle East, but the entire world. And it's quite fitting and quite expected, I think, that these two leaders would see each other regularly for very deep and detailed and intimate discussions on a whole range of issues that we work on together. We have shared interests. We have shared values. And we -- and we have a great deal of work that we do together with our Israeli partners. So we look forward to the prime minister's arrival.
As Ben said, certainly a major focus of the discussion will be around the progress that's been made so far in the proximity talks and the opportunity to make the transition into direct talks. Our special envoy, George Mitchell, has just returned from his -- from the region, where he conducted the fifth round of proximity talks.
These talks have been really quite substantive. We've engaged with both sides on all the core issues that are relevant to this conflict. And we've always viewed the proximity talks as a mechanism to get to direct talks, which is where the real negotiations toward agreements, and ultimately an agreement that will produce a two-state solution, can be achieved.
We feel that already in the -- in the little over a month that these talks have been going on the gaps have narrowed, and we believe there are opportunities to further narrow those gaps to allow the sides to take that next step to the direct talks. And so we're encouraged, and obviously the president and the prime minister will talk about that subject.
We always keep our focus on our broader Middle East peace goals of a comprehensive Middle East peace that includes not only an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, but an Israeli-Syrian and Israeli- Lebanese agreements, and normalization and full peace with -- between Israel and all of its neighbors. And so there will -- there will certainly be an opportunity to discuss those tracks as well.
As Ben mentioned, there's been a lot of very significant developments on the subject of Iran. Iran is, of course, an issue that both we and Israel and, of course, many of our other international partners have deep concerns about, its pursuit of nuclear weapons. And we share with Israel and with many other countries a determination to prevent Iran from acquiring those weapons. Obviously, the passage of Security Council Resolution 1929, the additional measures that many other countries have taken, and the Iran sanctions legislation that the president signed yesterday are all very significant developments in demonstrating to Iran that there are significant costs for continuing on the path it's on and ultimately in our effort to change that path and, as I say, prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
So there's much commonality of our focus and our effort on that with Israel, and I'm certain the prime minister and the president will discuss that issue as well.
Ben mentioned Gaza, and I -- I'm certain that will be on the agenda as well.
Just under two weeks ago, the prime minister announced a new policy on Gaza, with a significant liberalization of the regime that governs the kinds of goods and the kinds of commercial activity that can go through the crossings between Israel and Gaza.
The president welcomed those changes, which we think will make -- are already beginning to and certainly, as they're -- continue to be implemented, will make a significant difference in the lives of people on the ground in Gaza.
We were joined in welcoming those steps by our Quartet partners. And already we've seen, as I said, some significant work by the Israelis to implement the new policy. More is coming in the days ahead, and I think the president and the prime minister really look forward to reviewing that progress, as well as exploring what additional steps are possible to continue to address what has been an unsustainable situation in Gaza.
And all that must be done, and we place a high priority on doing that in a way that's fully consistent with Israel's security needs and preventing weapons from getting into the hands of Hamas -- which of course has launched many terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens -- as well as maintaining our focus on securing the release of Gilad Shalit from captivity.
So I think I'll stop there, and let Tommy handle questions.
MR. VIETOR: Great. Why don't we -- Tony, why don't you fire away, and we'll ask a couple of questions here.
OPERATOR: Thank you. (Gives queuing instructions.)
The first question will come from Steve Collinson with AFP. And your line is open.
Q Thanks. I think it was yesterday or the day before, Mahmoud Abbas was quoted as saying that the Israelis were stalling in the proximity talks. Could I just get your comment on that? And given that, do you think that there is a realistic time frame for moving to direct talks in the near future? What kind of time frame would it be?
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, as I say, I think -- you know, our view is that these talks, which have always been understood as a mechanism to narrow gaps in order to get to direct talks, actually have made -- have made progress, and the gaps have been narrowed.
It's hard to put a precise timeline on when that step could be taken, but we are encouraged by the progress that has been made. Of course, the president had a chance to review that progress himself with President Abbas just about two or three weeks ago, and we heard -- we heard useful, encouraging things in those meetings. The two -- I think, two rounds since then that Senator Mitchell has conducted have further advanced the effort.
So, you know, this is a -- this is an important opportunity for the two leaders, the president and the prime minister, to engage in some of the details that obviously Senator Mitchell has been dealing with on a daily basis.
And often those kinds of meetings help spur additional progress, in this case toward narrowing gaps or toward getting into direct talks.
So I couldn't put a precise timeline on it, but we feel -- we feel things are moving in a -- in a positive direction, but there's still work to do.
MR. VIETOR: Yeah, I'd just add, Steve, this has been that, you know, the president, you know, believes that we have made a good deal of progress through the proximity talks in narrowing those gaps; that it's important for all parties to see an opportunity here to move forward. And you know, he underscored the importance of moving to direct talks in his meeting with Abu Mazen, and we'll have the opportunity to continue to move in that direction with this visit from Prime Minister Netanyahu as well.
We'll take the next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you, sir. That will come from the line of Eli Wake (sic) with The Washington Times. Please go ahead.
Q Thanks. That's Eli Lake.
Is the 2004 letter from President Bush to Prime Minister Sharon still reflecting a U.S. understanding of the parameters or borders of a final agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians?
MR. SHAPIRO: Eli, understand I don't -- I don't think, you know, we'll have a comment on these kinds of, you know, private discussions that we're having with the parties. We have -- we have -- we have a very good understanding with our Israeli partners about the foundations of this relationship and this effort to move toward our shared goal of comprehensive peace and two states.
But on the specific question you've raised, I don't have a comment.
Q It was a public letter.
MR. RHODES (?): We understand.
Q No comment?
MR. VIETOR: Okay. We'll take the next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question in queue, that will come from Jay Solomon with The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.
Q Hi. The settlement freeze in the West Bank is due to come up in September, and it's pretty -- it seems like there's already a lot of pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu not to sort of roll it over again unless there's direct talks kind of starting quickly. Do you expect the issue of the settlement freeze to be a major part of the meeting next week? And what is President Obama's position on the continued settlement freeze in the West Bank? Thanks.
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah, actually, you know, the settlement freeze that -- or moratorium that the prime minister announced last fall was really quite significant and, we think, has contributed to the progress we have made so far. I think our focus and the focus of this meeting is very much going to be on making that transition into direct talks and really on the substance of what's already been covered in the proximity talks. So that I expect is what will be the main focus of their conversation.
MR. RHODES: I'd just add, Jay, that, you know, the -- part of what has taken place over the last several months is to create the kind of conditions that can facilitate productive proximity talks to lead into those direct talks and to help facilitate an atmosphere of confidence and trust to address what are, of course, some very complicated issues.
Related to that, I think the president saw the moratorium as a very constructive step taken by Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli government.
And right now, as Dan said, what we're focused on is capitalizing on the momentum that's been built through the proximity talks to move -- to continue to move forward and to reach direct negotiations in pursuit of a comprehensive peace.
We'll take the next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from the line of Gil Tamary with Channel 10 Israel. Please go ahead.
Q So I would like to know, because many Israeli officials feeling there is a rift between the U.S. and the Obama -- between Israel and the Obama administration: Do you feel from (your hand ?) that this is the same situation, that there is a rift between the two administrations?
MR. RHODES: Sure, I'll just say a couple of words, and then Dan may want to add in.
I mean, I think that there's absolutely no rift between the United States and Israel. This is a relationship, first of all, that is very strong and very important to the United States. It's one that's based on our shared interests and our shared values. I think that our administration, in partnership with the Israeli government, has taken a number of steps to strengthen and deepen our cooperation.
Just to focus, for instance, on the security side of things, the commitment of this administration to Israel's qualitative military edge, to its defense (roof ?) (program/programs ?), such as the Iron Dome, and through the very close contacts between our national security teams, is evidence of really a deepening of cooperation.
We're pleased that, for instance, Admiral Mullen was recently able to visit Israel on his trip to the region to further underscore the closeness of our consultations among our militaries and our national security teams.
Here at the White House, I know that General Jones, who's in constant contact with Uzi Arad on a range of issues -- and that that's emblematic of, again, the close contacts among many government officials.
But I'd say that, you know, as it relates to a whole range of issues, whether it is proximity talks, whether it is our shared view of the threat from Iran's nuclear program, whether it is our shared efforts to -- in recent days, at least, to see that the situation in Gaza improves, that we've actually had very close consultation and cooperation with the Israeli government and it reflects a relationship that is in a very good place. And that's, of course, fitting and appropriate, given the deep and long-standing ties between the United States and Israel.
But Dan may want to --
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, I just agree with everything Ben said, and can certainly state -- underscore the incredible richness and intensity and quality of the exchange between our governments in the military channels, in the political channels, in the intelligence channels. That kind of cooperation characterizes a spirit of partnership and strategic alliance that, as Ben said, is extremely important to the United States and our interests and, of course, our values.
We view the prime minister as our partner in the effort to pursue peace with the Palestinians, peace -- comprehensive peace in the region and deal with all of the security threats, many of which are threats that we both face, the same threats.
So in no way do we perceive a rift. Quite the contrary, we perceive, and I believe our friends in Israel perceive, a strong, close relationship of partnership.
MR. VIETOR: Great, thanks.
Tony, why don't we take one more and we'll see if we can wrap up before the president goes on.
OPERATOR: Thank you, sir. The next question will come from Hanan el-Badri (ph) with Cairo News. And your line is open.
Q Oh, hi. I would like just to ask very quick two question, one regarding the meeting next week.
Do you think the president will call two parties, the Prime Minister Netanyahu and the President Abbas, to come to Washington next month to start kind of direct peace talks? I just want to know, can you confirm that, first?
Secondly, I would like to know -- as you know, the Arab, especially Egypt, announced that in September it will be the due for the Arab League. If the settlement not (pleased ?) totally, they will go to the U.N. and they will acknowledge the Palestinian state. I would like to know what the position of Obama's administration on that.
MR. RHODES: Sure, thanks for the questions. I'll just say a couple of things and then turn it over to Dan.
On the first one, of course, you know, as we said, we are very much looking to move to direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. The proximity talks have been in service to that goal.
I think that as it relates to the venue and nature of those direct talks, we have not yet reached the point where we are discussing the kind of scenario that, you know, that you put forward, for instance a meeting here in Washington. Again, our focus is to narrow the gaps -- to use these proximity talks, which are focused on the full range of substantive issues between the Israelis and Palestinians -- but to use those talks to narrow gaps -- narrow gaps and to create the best conditions possible to move towards direct negotiation.
But again, we have not yet discussed with the parties what the particular venue for those talks would be, or the level on which they would commence. So it's premature to speculate as to the kind of meeting, be it bilateral or trilateral, including the United States, that you -- that you outlined. But of course, it is our strong view that the parties should move to direct negotiations in the near future to address the issues that are being discussed through the proximity channels.
Again -- and with regard to September, Dan can speak to this. We're, of course, fully aware of the -- of a number of, you know, events that are taking place in September, whether it is a meeting of the Arab League or the U.N. General Assembly or the -- as was asked before on the call, the West Bank settlement moratorium.
But again, our focus is on building on what really has been a -- some momentum in a number of areas -- be it Gaza and the changes that are being implemented there; be it the proximity talks -- that we believe could create an opportunity here in the coming weeks and months to make some substantial progress over the -- over the course of the summer. And this meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama is another -- is yet another opportunity to do so; again, building on a very positive meeting with President Abbas when he was here in Washington.
I should have just added, too, by the way, when I was going through the schedule and introduction of the meeting, that this is a meeting that was rescheduled from earlier in the month when Prime Minister Netanyahu had to -- had to go back to Israel, on short notice, from Canada. But again, we do feel it comes at a very opportune time, building on positive discussions with President Abbas, with King Abdullah, with the proximity talks that Senator Mitchell has led in the region.
But -- I don't know, Dan, if you want to add to any of those two --
MR. SHAPIRO: No, I have nothing to add to that.
MR. VIETOR: Okay. Well, thanks, guys. Have a great 4th of July. If you have follow-ups, let us know, but we hope to talk to you on Tuesday. Bye.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And ladies and gentlemen, that does conclude your conference call for today.