July 23, 2008 -- The following is a transcript of an interview of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., by ABC News anchor Charles Gibson from Wednesday, July 23, 2008, in Jerusalem, Israel.
Gibson: Senator, let's talk about the trip as a whole. The polls indicate that a considerably larger percentage of the people in the United States think John McCain would make a good commander in chief than you. So is the trip principally designed to narrow that gap?
Obama: Well first of all I think given John McCain's military service, it's understandable that, I think, people would have some of those perceptions. The main purpose of the trip from my perspective is looking at some of the most critical issues that the next president is going to have to deal with and developing some relationships that I think can be useful in solving some of those problems -- obviously Iraq and Afghanistan, the situation here in the Middle East and the talks, or the needed talks, between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and then strengthening our transatlantic relationship which historically has been a centerpiece of our ability to act in concert with our allies.
Gibson: But can you do that in a trip that's this hectic, I mean it's eight countries in seven days. Doesn't it become just a series of photo ops?
Obama: Well you know, I have to say that every day so far for me has been extraordinarily useful. To have the ability not only to travel with our troops to near the Afghan-Pakistani border and get an on-the-ground assessment of the threats that folks are experiencing and then to be able to have a conversation with Karzai and get his assessment of what's needed in order to deal with counter, in order to deal with the narcotics trade in Afghanistan and the way it's supporting terrorist activity there. Those are very useful to me. I don't know how it's playing, one of the nice things about being in Afghanistan and Iraq was I didn't have the opportunity to watch any cable news for a whole three or four days. But what I know is that not only has it been useful for me, but also being able to have conversations with the troops and express extraordinary gratitude for not only 21 and 22 year-olds who are showing leadership that is remarkable, but talking to National Guard members, people in their 40s and 50s who are putting their lives and home on pause in order to accomplish terrific things.
Gibson: But do you sense that when I mentioned in the polls earlier, because it shows up continually in the polls that if people have a reservation about you, it is that you are young, you are inexperienced and that you are very new to the international stage.
Obama: Well in order to deal with the first problem, that I'm very young, I'm cropping a lot of gray hair over the last year and a half. But there is no doubt that as somebody who has not been in the national political scene as long as John McCain, that people are going to have more questions, and I think that's perfectly appropriate. Hopefully as people watch what I've said over the course of the campaign as well as the way that I conduct myself over the course of this trip, people have some confidence that I know what I'm talking about.
Gibson: John McCain has been critical of you for, in his words, "making up your mind, before you travel" on the issues that you'll consider while you travel. Is there one thing that you can tell me, on which you've changed your mind as a result of this trip? Changed your mind?
Obama: Well we've only been out of the country for 3 or 4 days so there's going to be a processing that needs to take place. I will tell you that as a consequence of my trip in Afghanistan for example, I am more convinced than ever that if we don't address Pakistan and what's happening in that country, it's going to be very difficult for us to solve what's happening in Afghanistan. I understood that…
Gibson: That's your position stated before you came here.
Obama: Yeah, but, well as I said, part of what I'm finding is a deepening and a greater detail to some of the perspectives that I've had. I think that, overall though, most of the statements that I've made before this trip are based not on tactical issues but on broader strategic questions and most of those broader strategic questions are ones that are shaped by information that is available even before I come to a region like this. It has to do with broader questions about what's happening in Afghanistan, what's happening in Iraq.
Gibson: So let's talk about the Israelis and the Palestinians. And you've said it would be a top priority to get the peace process going again here, so let's explore how you get to a two-state solution. To begin with, would you commit yourself to, to regular Israeli-Palestinian-US summits?
Obama: Well I don't know whether I'd call them summits, but what I would commit to is a high level of engagement by the United States right away. Understandably, a lot of administrations come in, want to get their sea legs first, we've got enormous domestic problems and I understand that. But assigning people who are serious and who both the Israelis and the Palestinians know, speaks for me, has my ear, and is aggressive in trying to work the process. I think that is very important.
Gibson: To truly be effective, wouldn't it require your inclusion?
Obama: Well, at some point it will require my inclusion. I think the parties have to confidence…you know, I had dinner with King Abdullah yesterday who is as savvy a student of this region and a good friend of Israel's, and he said one of the things that's very important for any administration is to establish very clearly who are the people who, when they speak, are speaking for the President and have the President's ear. And I think if you can establish that confidence, that trust, that [inaudible] discussions are not just for show or domestic consumption but are serious, substantive and the President's weight are behind those discussions -- I think that can make a huge difference.
Gibson: How can you even start without the inclusion of Hamas?
Obama: Well I think that one of the biggest challenges in this entire process is going to be finding Palestinian leadership that is ready to deal and follow through on it and that starts I believe with Abu Mazan, with Abbas, with Fayyad, with the Palestinian authority in the West Bank. If we can't get anywhere with them, then we're not going to get anywhere with Hamas, and right now I think that both sides are having serious talks. I think what the Bush administration did with Annapolis was a positive thing, I think both sides are moving with a very abbreviated deadline.
Gibson: But would not Hamas have to be brought in?
Obama: You know, I think that is going to be a decision that the parties involved, Israel and the Palestinians, are going to have to work through. There is no doubt that it is going to be difficult to get a complete deal that includes Gaza unless they are factored in. How that is structured, I think has to be determined by the parties and in particular, Israel has to make a decision. When you've got a Hamas-led territories that are raining down rockets into their territory on an ongoing basis, I think it's very important for the United States to defer to the Israelis in terms of what they believe is going to be—
Gibson: Well you have a blockade of Gaza. It's awfully difficult to get them to participate.
Obama: Look, nobody said it's going to be easy, Charlie.
Gibson: You've said the Israelis, you've said in the past the Israelis would have to make difficult concessions to make the peace process going again. What?
Obama: Well, look, the conversations in Annapolis, the roadmap and previous agreements I think recognize that if you're going to have a two-state solution then there's going to be some discussion about territory and how do you construct a coherent Palestinian state. And whenever you're talking about territory, for the Israelis that means they're going to have to think through their settlement policy, and it means they're going to have to consider what territory they can give up while still making sure that their security is guaranteed. And so that's never easy. I mean when Sharon, who had I think a strong a reputation as a security hawk, moved very small settlements out of Gaza, you saw an explosive situation politically here in Israel. Those are tough decisions and I think it's very important for the next US president to understand that it's hard for either side to make those kinds of concessions, unless they can show that it will ultimately result in a better life for their people. In the case of the Israelis, better security, and in the case of the Palestinians, improved economic prospects.
Gibson: And then there's the issue of Jerusalem. You've said in the speech, to AIPAC, Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel. And it must remain undivided. When you said that did you not realize the significance that that has for so many people in this region?
Obama: Well, number one, the fact is that Jerusalem is Israel's capital. And so I was simply saying a fact, with respect to…
Gibson: You said "must remain undivided," (crosstalk) those are code words.
Obama: Well the issue of it being undivided, I have said and I said immediately after the speech that that word was poorly chosen, that what I was referring to is making sure that we're not setting up barbed wire across Israel…
Gibson: But Senator, it was a very simple, declarative statement. It must remain, and you started the paragraph by saying, "Let me be clear"—
Obama: Charlie, the day after, or the day of making the speech I conceded that the wording was poor, and it's immediately corrected—
Gibson: Rookie mistake?
Obama: Well I wouldn't say rookie mistake, I think that veterans make mistakes as well.
Gibson: So when you come down to it, what's your feeling? Jerusalem, undivided, as the capital, or re-divided?
Obama: I think that it is going to have to be one of those final status decisions that are going to be made by the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Gibson: In the two states, what do you envision as the capital then, of Palestine?
Obama: You know, Charlie, I'm going to let the parties sort that out. That's a decision that is fraught with sensitivities and a whole lot of history and I don't think that it's the United States job to make that decision. It's important to put a mirror up to both the Palestinians and the Israelis and say, this issue alone can't block the broader pursuit of peace. And so we have to find a formula that is workable on both sides and push them to work it through, but it's not our job to say here's how we set up that compromise.
Gibson: If you were president would you move the US embassy to Jerusalem?
Obama: Charlie, you know I think we're going to work through this process before we make these kinds of decisions.
Gibson: Aren't these things that you've thought through in your head?
Obama: Well, they are, but they aren't necessarily things that I should say on Charlie Gibson's evening news.
Gibson: Do you sense that there's a considerable portion of Israelis, and even American Jewry, who are very reserved and even distrusting of your commitment to Israel?
Obama: Well I think that, again, because I'm relatively new to the national scene and because the stakes are so high for Israel and those who are friends of Israel, people understandably want to lift the hood and kick the tires. And that takes some time. Those who know my track record have absolutely no doubt about my unwavering support for Israel and its security.
Gibson: Because there are people who point to very sympathetic remarks you made towards Palestinians, particularly when you were a state senator, your expressed willingness to deal with Iran, which is a flash point for people here. They're worried about you.
Obama: Well, the sympathies that I expressed for the Palestinian people can be heard among Israelis as well. I think that, you know one of the organizing principles of my politics, and ultimately my foreign policy, is that we've got to be able to see through the other person's eyes and stand in their shoes. And I don't think that is at all contradictory to Israel's security. With respect to Iran, um, I have said before and I will repeat, that there is not a shred of daylight between myself and Israel when it comes to the desire and the insistence that we have a nuclear-free Iran. There is a strong belief on my part that the only way that we are going to be able to solve the problem of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons is if we are serious in terms of tough, direct diplomacy. And we have put Iran on notice about big carrots and big sticks, and if we put the world on notice that we have exhausted other avenues, um, that's how we're going to organize the world's community to get serious about dealing with this problem.
Gibson: Let me turn to Iran in just a moment, but before I leave this Israeli-Palestinian issue-- we spent last night in a series of Palestinian cafes and restaurants talking to people about this, needless to say they talk about it a great deal, and if I can characterize what they said to me in a general nature, we had hoped that Obama might be different, but American politicians let us down so often, and he is someone falling in line with the Israeli position in order to get votes in America. We understand that, but it disappoints us. What do you say to them?
Obama: What I would say to them is that, the capacity of the Palestinian people to organize themselves, uh, to present a workable and hopeful vision for the future exists, and I want to help get them there. But it has to be based on a realistic assessment of the world, and in this part of the world that means that they are not going to get what they want unless the Israelis get what they want. And what the Israelis want is security and when they see a few blocks from this hotel where we're sitting right now, 11 Israelis injured, some of them severely, because of a terrorist rampage by a Palestinian, that is counterproductive, and that's not going to get the Palestinians what they want.
Gibson: I'm curious that you say that they have to be realistic about what's possible. Do they have to be realistic about the fact that American political candidates have to follow the Israeli line?
Obama: They have to be realistic, and I said this before, the last time I was here I went to Ramallah and I was speaking to some students, wonderful young people, in the West Bank in Ramallah, and I told them, if you think that the friendship, the special relationship between Israel and America is going to go away somehow, you are wrong. And that's true whether it's an Obama administration or a McCain administration.
Gibson: Let me turn to Iran. John McCain has said that the only thing worse than war with Iran would be a nuclear Iran. John Abizaid was one of the top military leaders in the United States has said, well we may have to live with a nuclear Iran. I know it's a choice that you don't want to make, who's right?
Obama: Well I'm going to do everything in my power not to have to make that choice. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, it triggers a potential arms race, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, that is not only life threatening to Israel but it is a profound, a game-changing shift when it comes to our national security. We have to do everything we can to prevent it. War is not a good option, at a time when we're in the midst of a war in Iraq and when in the midst of a war in Afghanistan. Iran is a big country, they have dispersed their nuclear capabilities in a way that you're not going to see. Smooth, surgical strikes, solving the problem entirely the way that Israel was able to deal with Iraq's nuclear facility. And so what we have to do is avoid that choice by applying the tough diplomacy that makes the calculus for the Iranians different. And you know part of the problem Charlie, and part of what I think Israelis understandably are wary of, is we have a history of weak sanctions, weak inducements, that the Iranians ignore and the North Koreans before them ignored, and so you have this slow drift towards nuclear weapons becoming a fact of life. This is one of those moments where the next president has to sound the alarm to the world community and be absolutely clear, precisely to avoid the horrible options that you presented. We've got to get serious about applying tough sanctions.
Gibson: But you said in that speech to the Israeli lobby, you said, I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But just because you put the word tough in front of the word diplomacy doesn't necessarily mean that you get anywhere. So what if Israel decides in the name of its own security that it needs to make strikes on Iran?
Obama: Well, it is not my job certainly as a candidate for president, to tell the Israelis what their defense posture should be. I have said that I would not take military options off the table when it comes to Iran and dealing with their nuclear capacity. Beyond that I think that we have to make sure that we are doing everything we can to avoid having to make that choice.
Gibson: But you also said in that speech, I will always stand up for Israel's right to defend itself. That seems to me, it puts you in the position of saying, if the Israelis feel in order to defend themselves, they need to attack those sites that you would be on board.
Obama: Well, that's not what I said. What I said was that I will always defend Israel's right to defend itself, in the same way that I would defend the right of any country to defend itself. That doesn't mean that I am prescribing a particular option or suggesting that this particular approach is the best one.
Gibson: A former US ambassador to Israel that we talked to before coming over here said that there's an existential threat to the Israelis now, in a way that there hasn't been perhaps in 30 years and that the one thing they'll be listening for from candidate Obama, is: does he get it? Is he in the trenches with them? How does he reassure them? How do you?
Obama: Well, I think you're right that the Israelis right now feel that their country is at risk, that this is not just a matter of legitimate and profound concerns about loss of life. If Iran has nuclear capability, not only does that put Israel in Iran's sights, and they've got to take that seriously, but it also triggers a nuclear free for all in a neighborhood where a large proportion of the population has hostility towards Israel. You've got to take that very seriously. And you know, in both private meetings and public meetings, I want Israelis to understand that not only is Israel's security paramount in my mind but US national security interests align with Israel on this matter, that we can't afford to have a situation in which you have nuclear arms all across the Middle East. One of the things that I've worked on consistently since I've gotten into the Senate is the issue of non-proliferation. The one thing that above all others we have to avoid is nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. If we are looking at a region in which nuclear weapons are floating around, that isn't just an existential threat for Israel, that is the one thing that could potentially change America's way of life and our defense posture and that's just not acceptable.
Gibson: Final question: so many presidents, many more experienced in this area than you, have tried to find peace in the Middle East and have failed. What makes you think you can do better?
Obama: Well I, look, I approach this with great humility. I think when you are looking at a region, uh, that has seen war and rumor of war for centuries, millennia, the notion that any single individual has the key to bring about peace is delusional. What I can say is that there is an enormous opportunity at this moment for the president of the United States to change the dynamic, to break out of the gridlock that we have seen, where there is increasingly despair and hopelessness on both sides of these disputes. I mean what's remarkable is how well Israel is doing economically, in many ways this country is just booming, it's blossoming, and yet that dread, that sense that it could all go away affects people's everyday lives. And on the Palestinian side, I think the bitterness and the sense that there is no way out is infecting the population in ways that people haven't seen in a generation. That means that it's possible out of that desperation, we may be able to at least move forward and make progress. And I think all you can hope for in this kind of situation is real progress. And that's something that I think I can execute.
Gibson: Senator, good to talk with you.
Obama: Great to talk with you Charlie.