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The White House

Roundtable Interview of the President by Regional Reporters, Cairo, Egypt, 6-4-09

Office of the Press Secretary
 For Immediate Release                         June  5, 2008

Cairo University
Cairo, Egypt
(June 4, 2009)
2:31 P.M. (Local)
THE PRESIDENT:  So I know that we only have half an hour and I want to make sure that everybody has time for questions.  So I'm not going to make an opening statement -- I just made a long one in the auditorium, and I'll just open it up and maybe if you want we'll just go around the room.  Is that okay?  And we'll start with you, Wafa.
Q  Well, thank you for your speech.  I'm sure that the Palestinians are overwhelmed by some of the things that you have said regarding the Palestinian issue, specifically about the settlements.  We have not heard a U.S. President, or any U.S. official before, saying the United States does not recognize the legitimacy of settlements.
However, the Palestinians want to see -- want you to show them how different you are from other Presidents.  Are there measures that the United States will take in order to ensure that settlement expansion is --
(Interruption to interview.)
THE PRESIDENT:  I think you pressed play instead of record -- you're getting somebody's interview on that.
Q  I'm so sorry.
THE PRESIDENT:  No, no, no.  Go ahead.
Q  Anyway, so if the Israelis do not stop the settlements as specified in phase one of the road map, are there measures that you plan to take in order to enforce that?
THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I think it's premature for me to go beyond the principles that I've laid out in the speech.  And let me explain why.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has only been in office now for a month, month-and-a-half.  President Abbas I just met with two weeks ago.  I'm still in the process of consulting with Arab states throughout the region.
And so I think it's very important for all the parties to listen, to take measure of what they can do, how far they're willing to go, before I make any reactions or pre-judge what direction the negotiations should go in.
The one thing I know is this:  This is a difficult issue across the board.  I don't think we should underestimate the difficulties; passions are very high on both sides; the politics are very difficult on both sides.  But one of the things that I committed to during my campaign was that I would not wait until my sixth or seventh or eighth year in office -- or, if I only get four, my third or fourth year in office, but that I was going to start right away.  And I think that's what's required, is serious, long-term U.S. engagement.
I've assigned a special envoy, George Mitchell, who is traveling back and forth between all the various interested parties.  And we've set out some clear parameters in terms of how we are going to approach the problem.  And my hope and expectation is that there is going to be some difficulties; but ultimately both the Israelis and Palestinians are going to recognize this is in their interests.
That's the main thing that I wanted to emphasize in the speech:  The United States cannot impose a solution; but perhaps because we're not immediately in the heat of the passions involved, perhaps we can see why it's so important for both Israelis and Palestinians to resolve this and resolve this soon, and not continue to let it fester.  And that's what I'm committed to.
Q  Is there a timeline or time frame for U.S. --
THE PRESIDENT:  I don't want to impose an artificial timeline, but I think that all of us probably had a sense in our gut of, "Are things moving forward?" or "Have they stalled?"  There's historically been a rhythm to negotiations in the region.  And when things stall, everybody knows it.  People may say a lot of words, but everybody knows that nothing is happening.  Right now things have been stalled for quite some time.  When things are moving, people also know that.
And so what I want to -- I want to have a sense of movement and progress.  And I think that can be achieved.
Okay.  Magdy -- and I'll listen to my translation.
Q  (As translated.)  I think your speech was wonderful and more -- above and beyond everybody was expecting.  And you have talked about the Middle East and the future of this region.  You also spoke about the commitment of the United States towards achieving progress towards special issues.  I also believe there are some difficulties.  I might want to be much more precise.
I have one question:  How is your administration going to deal with the current Israeli government and with Hamas as a part and parcel of the Palestinian portfolio?  And I think so many believe that Hamas is a difficult question that the previous administration did not deal with.  What is your vision and your view in dealing with Hamas and dealing with the hawks in the current Israeli government?
The other issue is your clarity and your vision makes me want to ask you, who are your partners in the region that you can rely on to achieve your objectives -- either on the Palestinian issue or the Iraqi issue or the Afghanistan issue?  Thank you, sir.
THE PRESIDENT:  First of all, I tried to make clear in my speech that when it comes to Hamas, there is no doubt that Hamas has some support among Palestinians -- that was shown in the last election; that cannot be denied.  What I also said is that Hamas has responsibilities to those people it represents to have a responsible approach to actually delivering a Palestinian state.
If Hamas's approach is based on the idea that Israel will cease to exist, that's an illusion.  And what that means is that they are more interested in talk than in results.  If they are serious about delivering a Palestinian state, then they should renounce violence, accept the framework provided by the previous agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist.  That still leaves enormous room for them to negotiate on a whole host of issues.
But at minimum they can't provide the results for the people they claim to represent if they're not acknowledging reality.  So, you know, this is really a decision for Hamas to make.
Now, with respect to the Israeli government, I've had three meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu.  The first two was while I was a United States senator, and one in the White House just recently.  In each case I found him to be a very intelligent, very engaging person, a excellent communicator.  And I think because this is the second time that he's serving as Prime Minister, I think he feels a very real historic sense about the task before him.
Obviously it was a very close election in Israel.  It took some time to put that coalition together.  That means that politics are complicated.  And I think that just as so many Palestinians have lost confidence and faith that the process can move forward, I think there are a lot of Israelis who have lost confidence and faith that they will ever be recognized by Arab states, or that there will be security that is meaningful -- where rockets aren't fired into Israel.
And so I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu will recognize the strategic need to deal with this issue.  And that in some ways he may have an opportunity that a labor or more left leader might not have.  There's the famous example of Richard Nixon going to China.  A Democrat couldn't have gone to China.  A liberal couldn't have gone to China.  But a big, anti-communist like Richard Nixon could open that door.
Now, it's conceivable that Prime Minister Netanyahu can play that same role.  But it's going to be difficult -- and I don't want to diminish the difficulties for any of the parties involved in making these decisions because, as I said, there are a lot of passions in the people.  But part of leadership is being able to push beyond immediate politics to get to where, ultimately, the people need to go.
And in terms of partners more broadly, my attitude at this point is I want to work with everybody I can to get things done.
Q  First of all, Mr. President, I want to congratulate you for a great speech.
THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.
Q  I believe that everybody in the region listened to it, including in my country.
One question which really worries the Israelis is Iran.  In your speech you didn't indicate whether at certain point you -- or whether -- to stop the nuclearization of Iran is an American national goal which has to be fulfilled.
THE PRESIDENT:  Well, keep in mind that I've been very clear on this in the past, and I will continue to be clear on the fact that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be profoundly destabilizing for the entire region.  It is strongly in America's interest to prevent such a scenario.
But I believe it's in the interest of everybody in the region -- indeed, I actually think it's in Iran's interest to prevent such a scenario, because it would be a very dangerous place if everybody decides that they need to have a nuclear weapon in the neighborhood, particularly given the conflicts that exist not just between -- the tensions between Israel and Iran, but there are a wide set of conflicts that would be affected.
So my approach, as I've said, is to reach out to Iran to suggest talks without preconditions, but also to -- and as I said in my speech, to have a wide range of issues to discuss.  But the issue that is time-sensitive, where we have to make progress because we are reaching a critical point, is on the issue of nuclear weapons.  And so one of the things that I want to do is to put this in a broader context.  I want this not just to be an American effort, or an Israeli concern, but I think it's an international concern.  And as committed as I am to diplomacy, as I said in the White House just a few weeks ago, I'm not just going to talk just for talking sake.  If I don't see meaningful progress in these talks, then that will indicate to me that the Islamic Republic is not serious.
Q  If I may --
Q  Sorry.  You didn't mention the word "normalization" between Israel and the Arab world in your speech.  Is it -- does it indicate something? 
THE PRESIDENT:  It doesn't indicate anything.  I think the working assumption -- and that's why I added the issue of Arab state responsibilities, not just Israeli and Palestinian responsibilities.  I added that paragraph because I thought it was very important to reinforce the notion that the region as a whole has to take responsibility for solving this issue.  And I think from Israel's perspective, the importance of knowing that as a consequence of making the necessary compromises to achieve a two-state solution they are not only making peace and doing what is just with respect to the Palestinians, but that they are also securing -- that they are also meeting their own security needs, and broader threats that might come from beyond Gaza or the West Bank -- that's a very important element.
It also, by the way, would allow I think the entire region to prosper much more effectively.  If you think about the possibilities of commerce and trade in the Middle East if a country like Israel, as powerful as it is, were able to have normalized commercial relations with Gulf states, with a Palestinian state that is full of talent, and you suddenly have all the Palestinian diaspora coming back and investing, and businesspeople throughout the region, you could see huge economic benefits, as well as security benefits.
But we're very far from that vision, so right now I just want us to start taking that step down the road.  You know, there's the well-known saying that the hardest step on any journey is always the first one.
Q  Thank you, President Obama.  Of course, as an Indonesian, my first question would be when will you come to Indonesia?
THE PRESIDENT:  Oh, I need to come to Indonesia soon.  I expect to be traveling to Asia at some point within the next year and I would be surprised if when I came to Asia I did not stop by my old home town of Jakarta.  And I'll go visit Menteng Dalam and have some bakso -- nasi goreng.  These are some special dishes here that I used to eat when I was a kid.
Q  Actually I live only 300 meters from your old house.
THE PRESIDENT:  Is that right?
Q  Yes, Menteng Dalam.
THE PRESIDENT:  Except now it's all paved. 
Q  Yes, it's all paved.
THE PRESIDENT:  Yes, see, when I was there it was all dirt,
so when the rains came it would all be mud.  And all the cars would get stuck.
Q  And your school is much better now.
THE PRESIDENT:  It's nicer now, yes.  (Laughter.)  Okay.
Q  That would be November, APEC maybe?
THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I don't want to make any -- (laughter) -- firm commitments.
Q  Okay.  And the second is, you know, I read your book, "The Audacity of Hope," and I had a very great hope that you can reach the Muslim community because it seemed to me your understanding of a relationship between faith and politics, especially in black churches is very much -- I can imagine someone who is a Hamas or, you know, maybe radical Islamist would probably, if you take away the word "Islam" and change it with, you know, "black Christian," it's exactly the same.  Do you feel that way also?
THE PRESIDENT:  Well, you know, I think it's interesting -- obviously I'm a person of faith, and as a Christian, but also as somebody who believes very strongly in democracy and human rights and I'm a constitutional law professor, so I have some very strong ideas about how a pluralistic society lives together -- these are things that I do spend time thinking about.
What I tried to communicate in the speech and what I believe very strongly is that in an interdependent world like ours, where the world has shrunk and different peoples with different faiths and different ideas are constantly having to coexist, that we have to have a mature faith that says "I believe with all my heart and all my soul in what I believe, but I respect the fact that somebody else believes their beliefs just as strongly."  And so the only way that we are going to live together, or operate in a political system that can work for everybody is if we have certain rules about how we relate to each other.
I can't force my religion on you.  I can't try to organize a majority to discriminate against you because you're a religious minority.  I can't simply take what's in my religious beliefs and say you have to believe and abide by these same things.  Now, that doesn't mean that I can't make arguments that are based on my belief and my faith -- right?  If I'm a Christian, I believe in the Ten Commandments.  And it says, Thou Shalt Not Kill.  If I'm a politician and I say I'm going to pass a law against murdering somebody, that's not me practicing my religious faith; that's me practicing morality that may be based in religious faith, but that's a universal principle -- or at least one that can translate into a principle that people of various faiths can agree on.
I think it's very important for Islam to wrestle with these issues.  Now, I recognize that not all religious beliefs are going to be exactly the same in how they think about politics.  And so in Islam there's a debate about sharia and how strict an interpretation or how moderate an interpretation of that should be; or should that be something that is not part of the secular law.  I don't presume to make that decision for any country or any groups of people.  But I do think that if you start having rules that guarantee other faiths and other groups, or in the case of the United States, people with no faith at all, are somehow forced to abide by somebody else's faith, I think that is a violation of the spirit of democracy and I think that over the long term, that's going to breed conflict in some way.  It will lead to some sort of instability and destructiveness in that society.
But, as I said, I think this is a important debate that has to take place inside Islam.  I think in the meantime, the one thing I can say for certain is that people who justify killing other people based on faith are misreading their sacred texts.  And I think they are out of alignment with God.  Now, that's my belief.  And that, I think, is a debate that I think is settled for the vast majority of Muslims, but we have a very small minority that can be very destructive, and that's part of what I tried to discuss in my speech.
Q  Mr. President, why have you chosen -- why did you choose Cairo as the venue for the speech?  Because the Arab population, after all, make up only about 20 percent of the Muslim population, and Indonesia --
THE PRESIDENT:  I should have gone to Kuala Lumpur.  (Laughter.)
Q  Or Indonesia, which is the biggest country.  And also -- I mean, the expectations on you are really, really high doing something to heal the rift.  Do you find that a burden at all?  And what would be your yardstick of success in mending ties in your first year -- first term of office?
THE PRESIDENT:  Okay.  Well, I thought it was important to come to Cairo because I think, if we're honest, the greatest tension when it comes to the relationship between the Muslim world and the United States in recent years has centered around the Middle East.  In some ways, going to Indonesia would almost be cheating -- (laughter) -- because I would have a home court advantage.  Not only am I personally close to the culture and have a sister who's half Indonesian, but I think that, frankly, the relationship between the United States and Indonesia has generally been strong.  It was weakened for a time immediately after the Iraqi invasion, but generally speaking, there have been strong lines of communication.
And so, my tendency is to go to the source of the problem and not try to avoid the problem.  And I think that the source of the problem in this situation has to do with the United States and countries in the Middle East not communicating effectively.
And in terms of expectations, I tried to be very clear that one speech alone does not solve all these problems.  What I wanted to do was simply to start a conversation, not just between me and the Muslim world, but within the Muslim world and within America and the West about how do we finally start being honest about some of these problems.  And that -- once you diagnose a problem, it still may take a long time to actually cure the problem.  But you're never going to cure it unless you diagnose it.  And so what I was trying to do was at least to get us to start thinking about what are the real three, four, five, six things that are at the heart of the argument.  And let's go ahead and look at those directly and see are there ways where we can at least agree to what the nature of the problem is.  That's how we can begin to solve it.
But it's going to take a long time to solve many of these issues, and I don't expect that some of these problems will ever go away completely.
Q  Mr. President, first, thank you for your excellent speech.
THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.
Q  Second, I would like to ask you a question about American policy.  I go often to the United States in my work, and I meet a lot of people.  And my last trip -- and it was after your inauguration, a few weeks -- you met with the key members of your party in the Congress at that time.  And we read in the papers that what you did is you convinced them of your approach to the peace in the Middle East.  And everybody was -- then the expectation rose in the Arab world and in the Muslim world.
When they saw Mr. Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, "refusing" a two-state solution, "refusing" the freeze of the settlements, and the not talking about this issue, and then when we saw this letter of 300 members of the Congress, some of the Arabs thought that maybe it was AIPAC again, which is trying to influence the Congress.  So my question is, do you feel that, as an administration, can you pressure Mr. Netanyahu, if need be, domestically and can you -- do you think that also Mr. Netanyahu can endanger the historic alliance and relation between his country and the United States?
THE PRESIDENT:  Well, first of all, I tried to make very clear in the speech, the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable.  It transcends party; it will be there if there's a Democratic President or a Republican President, if there is a Democratic Congress or a Republican Congress.  The ties are just very deep.  They're cultural, they're historic, they're familial.  I mean, I think Nahum would be the first one to acknowledge, I don't know what number of American-born Jews are now Israeli citizens, but it's a pretty high number.  There's constant -- I mean, there's constant flow back and forth.  So there's just -- they're very close ties.
So expecting a break between the United States and Israel is I think not something that people should anticipate.
I think that -- the second thing I want to emphasize is, it's only been four months -- five months.  Netanyahu has only been in office, what is it, a month and a half?  I mean, since the government formed.  I mean, he was elected April 1st.  So, two months.  We've been waiting 60 years.  So we maybe might just want to try a few more months before everybody starts looking at doomsday scenarios.
This is difficult, and it's going to take some time.  Now, it's going to take time for Palestinian leadership.  We just discussed the issue of how Palestinians unify around some core principles that could facilitate talks from going forward.  That's not an easy task.  There are some very deep-seated arguments between Hamas and Abbas and Fatah.  And I think we would be naive to think that somehow overnight those problems are going to be solved.
If Hamas wants to participate, it's going to have its own political problems internal to Hamas, because there are some who will never agree to recognizing Israel, in part because they would prefer being in the role that they're in now, which is in opposition and obtaining financing and support and living in Damascus and doing what they do to governing.  And I think that's going to have to be tested.  They're going to have to make some decisions.  That's going to be difficult.
For Israel, these are also difficult decisions.  I believe that, as I said in the speech, these settlements are an impediment to peace.  But that's not to deny the fact that there are people who are already living in some of these settlements; that there is a momentum to some of these settlements.  Turning back those settlements involves very tough choices. 
So all these things are going to take time.  But this is why I say America can't -- we cannot do this for the parties.  I mean, I do think that sometimes there is a schizophrenic view in the Middle East of America.  On the one hand, everybody wants America to stop meddling, don't interfere, don't be imperialist.  And then, on the other hand, when is America going to solve the Palestinian crisis?  Why haven't they done this?  Why haven't they created democracy and human rights in -- throughout the Muslim world?  Well, you can't have it both ways, right?  We can't, on the one hand, be the respectful partner who's listening to other countries, and on the other hand you expect us to solve every problem, and nobody else makes an effort.  And part of what I've tried to do today is to instead say, we will be a partner, we will work with you, but everybody is going to have to carry their own weight on this thing.
Q  Are the Arabs who are now the allies of the United States of America, are they ready to be real partners?  Because in the past, some of them were not partners, real partners, especially --
THE PRESIDENT:  Give me an example.
Q  For example, in the time of Yasser Arafat and the meetings between President Clinton, I think, and Mr. Arafat and maybe Mr. Barak.  Most of the Americans I met said, well, it was Arafat who backed off, although some people say, no, this is not the story -- but this is what I heard.  And when I asked some of my friends in the States, they said, well, the Arabs, which means at that time Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who were the allies of Yasser Arafat and allies of the United States, did not force him or did not try to convince him just to accept what was the parameter of solution, which was at that time offered and I don't think described something better.
THE PRESIDENT:  Let me just say this.  One of the things I've learned about being President is I always read about things that I don't remember happening, even though I was in the room -- probably because they didn't happen.  So I don't try to guess or speculate on what happened a decade ago with respect to why a peace deal was not completed.  What's more important from my perspective is how do we now move forward.
And I think that all the parties involved are going to have to seize this moment.  And it's going to require some risks.  And part of the reason that I tried to emphasize this in a public speech is leaders have to have followers and it's important for the publics in Muslim communities to be supportive of the efforts of Arab states to solve this problem and ultimately help to create a two-state solution and better -- or normalized relations with Israel; just as it's important for the Israeli population to provide space for their leadership to make difficult decisions; and it's important for the Palestinian people to provide an atmosphere in which the Palestinian leadership can make difficult decisions.
You know, politicians, they lead but ultimately they can't be so far ahead of their people that those bonds between the leader and the people are ruptured.  And so if we're going to be serious about this, then the people have to at least try to keep pace with what I hope will be leadership across the board.
Jamal, last question.
Q  All right, Mr. President.  In your speech, you made a reference to the conflicts which are poisoning the relations between the Muslim world and the West, and America in particular.  You just came from a partner country, a strategic partner, Saudi Arabia.  In your effort to resolve conflicts in Iraq, in Afghanistan -- maybe you have noticed that Saudi Arabia keep its distance with the previous administration from those two countries.  Did you develop any plans with King Abdullah, who will share the same views as you so you would work together, in your work in Iraq and Pakistan and Afghanistan?
THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I certainly discussed these issues with His Majesty.  I try not to disclose the contents of private meetings unless there's been a joint decision that we will discuss them, because I want to always have frank conversations with these leaders.  But I can say this.  Saudi Arabia is obviously absolutely critical to solving a range of problems in the Middle East.  It is an economic leader because of not only its oil wealth but its broad-based development strategies.  It is a thought leader and a religious leader because of Mecca and Medina.
And so if we are talking about Iraq, for example, I think normalizing relations and exchanging ambassadors between Saudi Arabia and Iraq will be helpful to Iraq and its stabilization.  With respect to Pakistan and the situation in Afghanistan/Pakistan, we're seeing a lot of displaced people.  Making sure that there are resources that are put in place so that those displaced persons don't experience enormous suffering, but also so that you don't have further radicalization of an entire population that has been uprooted because of conflict, Saudi Arabia is going to be critical.
So on all these issues, I think Saudi leadership is something that is desirable.  I also happen to have what I consider, and I hope he considers as well, a very good and warm relationship with His Majesty.  I think he is a very wise man and he is a very honest man, and I have great respect for him.
Q  A question about the other audience who were not here at the gathering.  You spoke to a very receptive, cheerful -- they declared their love to you, also.  But the radicals, whom we need to address, Osama bin Laden is alive.  They have their influence, they have --
THE PRESIDENT:  Yes, of course, yes, absolutely.
Q -- but they have their influence.  What are you going to do about that?  And a king like King Abdullah and others --
THE PRESIDENT:  Well, al Qaeda we will defeat because they kill innocent people.  And so I hope I've made that very clear.  I am a strong believer in dialogue, but I don't think that any nation should tolerate an international network that is willing to murder men and women and children who have done nothing. 
That can't be the basis for justice.  That can't be the basis for any governing ideology.  I mean, who would live like that -- that I decide somebody lives with a different religion or has a different skin color or looks like somebody that I don't like, and I'm just going to go ahead and target them, deliberately?  That philosophy is bankrupt. And so we will go after them.
Now, that's not easy, obviously.  And part of the reason it's not easy is because they are adept at exploiting the very real tensions that exist that I discussed today.
So my audience is not them.  I don't expect to change their minds, obviously.  My audience is, though, say, the 20-year-old young man in Cairo in maybe one of the poorer sections of Cairo or in Gaza or in Damascus or in Tripoli who is still searching, is still looking for a way.  And my message to that young man or that young woman would be, it is possible for you to be true to your faith, true to your traditions, but instead of destroying you can build.  And if you see injustice, then the way to achieve the changes you seek is not through violence, but is through persuasion.  And if I reach a few of those 20-year-olds or I reach their parents and maybe they have a conversation and debate with those young men and women, then perhaps that can make a difference when somebody tries to recruit that person to join an extremist organization.
Q  Any quick solutions to Gaza?
THE PRESIDENT:  No quick solutions to Gaza, but by the end of this year my country will have invested $900 million, almost a billion dollars, in humanitarian relief in Gaza.  I think it's very important that we find ways to loosen the borders so that more supplies, more medicine, more infrastructure development, can get into Gaza for rebuilding.  I think part of that is the international community working to ensure that the smuggling of weapons that are then fired into Israel are no longer taking place.  That's going to be a difficult task, but it's one that we're going to have to work on, because in the absence of that we're not going to solve it.
Okay, everybody, I have to go see the Pyramids.  (Laughter.)
3:21 P.M. (Local)