PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, listen, I first of all want to thank Prime Minister Netanyahu for making this visit. I think we had a extraordinarily productive series of conversations, not only between the two of us but also at the staff and agency levels.
Obviously this reflects the extraordinary relationship, the special relationship between the United States and Israel. It is a stalwart ally of the United States. We have historical ties, emotional ties. As the only true democracy of the Middle East it is a source of admiration and inspiration for the American people.
I have said from the outset that when it comes to my policies towards Israel and the Middle East that Israel's security is paramount, and I repeated that to Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is in U.S. national security interests to assure that Israel's security as an independent Jewish state is maintained.
One of the areas that we discussed is the deepening concern around the potential pursuit of a nuclear weapon by Iran. It's something 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.
I indicated to him the view of our administration, that Iran is a country of extraordinary history and extraordinary potential, that we want them to be a full-fledged member of the international community and be in a position to provide opportunities and prosperity for their people, but that the way to achieve those goals is not through the pursuit of a nuclear weapon. And I indicated to Prime Minister Netanyahu in private what I have said publicly, which is that Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon would not only be a threat to Israel and a threat to the United States, but would be profoundly destabilizing in the international community as a whole and could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that would be extraordinarily dangerous for all concerned, including for Iran.
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.
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PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: President Obama, thank you. Thank you for your friendship to Israel and your friendship to me. You're a great leader -- a great leader of the United States, a great leader of the world, a great friend of Israel, and someone who is acutely cognizant of our security concerns. And the entire people of Israel appreciate it, and I speak on their behalf.
We met before, but this is the first time that we're meeting as President and Prime Minister. So I was particularly pleased at your reaffirmation of the special relationship between Israel and the United States. 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.
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PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you. We're going to take a couple of questions. We're going to start with Steve.
Q Mr. President, you spoke at length, as did the Prime Minister, about Iran's nuclear program. Your program of engagement, policy of engagement, how long is that going to last? Is there a deadline?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, I don't want to set an artificial deadline. I think it's important to recognize that Iran is in the midst of its own elections. As I think all of you, since you're all political reporters, are familiar with, election time is not always the best time to get business done.
Their elections will be completed in June, and we are hopeful that, at that point, there is going to be a serious process of engagement, first through the P5-plus-one process that's already in place, potentially through additional direct talks between the United States and Iran.
I want to reemphasize what I said earlier, that I believe it is not only in the interest of the international community that Iran not develop nuclear weapons, I firmly believe it is in Iran's interest not to develop nuclear weapons, because it would trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and be profoundly destabilizing in all sorts of ways. Iran can achieve its interests of security and international respect and prosperity for its people through other means, and I am prepared to make what I believe will be a persuasive argument, that there should be a different course to be taken.
The one thing we're also aware of is the fact that the history, of least, of negotiation with Iran is that there is a lot of talk but not always action and follow-through. And that's why it is important for us, I think, without having set an artificial deadline, to be mindful of the fact that we're not going to have talks forever. We're not going to create a situation in which talks become an excuse for inaction while Iran proceeds with developing a nuclear -- and deploying a nuclear weapon. That's something, obviously, Israel is concerned about, but it's also an issue of concern for the United States and for the international community as a whole.
My expectation would be that if we can begin discussions soon, shortly after the Iranian elections, 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. That doesn't mean every issue would be resolved by that point, but it does mean that we'll probably be able to gauge and do a reassessment by the end of the year of this approach.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. Aren't you concerned that your outstretched hand has been interpreted by extremists, especially Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah, Meshal, as weakness? And since my colleague already asked about the deadline, if engagement fails, what then, Mr. President?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, it's not clear to me why my outstretched hand would be interpreted as weakness.
Q Qatar, an example.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I'm sorry?
Q The example of Qatar. They would have preferred to be on your side and then moved to the extremists, to Iran.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Oh, I think -- yes, I'm not sure about that interpretation. Look, we've been in office a little over a hundred days now -- close to four months. We have put forward a clear principle that where we can resolve issues through negotiations and diplomacy, we should. We didn't expect -- and I don't think anybody in the international community or anybody in the Middle East, for that matter -- would expect that 30 years of antagonism and suspicion between Iran and the United States would be resolved in four months. So we think it's very important for us to give this a chance.
Now, understand that part of the reason that it's so important for us to take a diplomatic approach is that the approach that we've been taking, which is no diplomacy, obviously has not worked. Nobody disagrees with that. Hamas and Hezbollah have gotten stronger. Iran has been pursuing its nuclear capabilities undiminished. And so not talking -- that clearly hasn't worked. That's what's been tried. And so what we're going to do is try something new, which is actually engaging and reaching out to the Iranians.
The important thing is to make sure that there is a clear timetable of -- at which point we say these talks don't seem to be making any serious progress. It hasn't been tried before so we don't want to prejudge that, but as I said, by the end of the year I think we should have some sense as to whether or not these discussions are starting to yield significant benefits, whether we're starting to see serious movement on the part of the Iranians.
If that hasn't taken place, then I think the international community will see that it's not the United States or Israel or other countries that are seeking to isolate or victimize Iran; rather, it is Iran itself which is isolating itself by willing to -- being unwilling to engage in serious discussions about how they can preserve their security without threatening other people's security -- which ultimately is what we want to achieve.
We want to achieve a situation where all countries in the region can pursue economic development and commercial ties and trade and do so without the threat that their populations are going to be subject to bombs and destruction.
That's what I think the Prime Minister is interested in, that's what I'm interested in, and I hope that ends up being what the ruling officials in Iran are interested in, as well.
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Q 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 threat. Do you agree with that kind of linkage?
And to the Israeli Prime Minister, you were speaking about the political track. Are you willing to get into final status issues/negotiations like borders, like Jerusalem in the near future, based on the two-state solution? And do you still hold this opinion about the linkage between the Iranian threat and your ability to achieve any progress on the Palestinian threat?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, let me say this. There's no doubt that it is difficult for any Israeli government to negotiate in a situation in which they feel under immediate threat. That's not conducive to negotiations. And as I've said before, I recognize Israel's legitimate concerns about the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon when they have a president who has in the past said that Israel should not exist. That would give any leader of any country pause.
Having said that, 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.
Having said that, I think that dealing with Iran's potential nuclear capacity is something that we should be doing even if there already was peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I think that pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace is something that is in Israeli's security interests and the United States' national security interests, even if Iran was not pursuing a nuclear weapon. They're both important.
And we have to move aggressively on both fronts. And I think that based on my conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he agrees with me that they're both important. That's not to say that he's not making a calculation, as he should, about what are some of the most immediate threats to Israeli's security, and I understand that.
But, look, imagine how much less mischief a Hezbollah or a Hamas could do if in fact we had moved a Palestinian-Israeli track in a direction that gave the Palestinian people hope. And if Hezbollah and Hamas is weakened, imagine how that impacts Iran's ability to make mischief, and vice versa.
I mean, so obviously these things are related, but they are important separately. And I'm confident that the United States, working with Israel, can make progress on both fronts.
Q Thank you.
PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: We've had extraordinarily friendly and constructive talks here today, and I'm very grateful to the President for that. 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 to trying to deal with removing the threat of a nuclear bomb.
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 agreement.
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 then parallel on two fronts: the front of peace, and the front of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capability.
On the front of peace, the important thing for me is to resume negotiations as rapidly as possible, and to -- and my view is less one of terminology, but one of substance. And I ask myself, what do we end up with? If we end up with another Gaza -- the President has described to you there's rockets falling out of Gaza -- that is something we don't want to happen, because a terror base next to our cities that doesn't call -- recognize Israel's existence and calls for our destruction and asks for our destruction is not arguing peace.
If, however, the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state, if they -- if they fight terror, if they educate their children for peace and to a better future, then I think we can come at a substantive solution that allows the two people to live side by side in security and peace and I add prosperity, because I'm a great believer in this.
So I think the terminology will take care of itself if we have the substantive understanding. And I think we can move forward on this. I have great confidence in your leadership, Mr. President, and in your friendship to my country, and in your championing of peace and security. And the answer is, both come together -- peace and security are intertwined. They're inseparable.
And I look forward, Mr. President, to working with you to achieve both.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you, everybody.