White House Media Affairs Office
May 3, 2010
I appreciate the opportunity to speak before the Anti-Defamation League, an organization we in the Obama Administration are honored to consider a partner in so many of our most important initiatives. I congratulate your legendary leader, Abe Foxman, and your remarkable staff, for their tremendous record of accomplishment year after year.
You will hear from a number of my colleagues throughout your conference, including our Special Envoy for Combating Anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal, our State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Ambassador Dan Benjamin, and my NSC colleague Ambassador Dennis Ross, who will speak at length on the pressing issue of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. For my part, I’d like to focus on the two areas on which I spend the bulk of my time: managing the bilateral U.S.-Israel relationship and our efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts through a comprehensive regional peace.
Ensuring Israel’s security in a hostile regional and international environment
President Obama’s approach towards Israel is grounded above all in the unbreakable bond between our two countries, our common values, the deep and interwoven connections between our peoples, and our shared interests. We take inspiration from the remarkable story of Israel: the Zionist dream first voiced by Theodor Herzl, whose 150th birthday we celebrate this week; the painstaking struggle to build a Jewish state in the historic homeland of the Jewish people, despite threats from all directions; and the extraordinary flourishing of a high-tech economy, a thriving cultural life, and a strong military in the modern State of Israel. We are proud to call Israel our partner in so many areas – science, technology, education, agriculture, and of course, security. The United States benefits greatly from the breadth and depth of this partnership. The President’s policies have upheld our ideals and served our mutual interests on the most important issues we face.
President Obama has made ensuring Israel’s security a key pillar of our Middle East policy. We do it because it is the right thing to do, standing by a key partner, whom the President has called “more than a strategic ally”, in the face of numerous threats to its citizens and even to its existence. And we do it because it serves our national security interests. As the Vice President said at Tel Aviv University, progress toward a more peaceful and stable Middle East comes when all understand that there is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.
This commitment to Israel’s security is not a slogan for us. We live it every day in the policies we carry out. Since taking office, President Obama has taken what was already a strong U.S.-Israel defense relationship, and broadened and deepened it across the board. Our annual military assistance to Israel has increased to nearly $3 billion. We have reinvigorated defense cooperation, including on missile defense, highlighted by the 1,000 U.S. servicemembers who traveled to Israel to participate in the Juniper Cobra military exercises last fall. We have intensive dialogues and exchanges with Israel – in political, military, and intelligence channels – on regional security issues and counter-terrorism, from which we both benefit, and which enable us to coordinate our strategies whenever possible. We have redoubled our efforts to ensure Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge in the region, which has been publicly recognized and appreciated by numerous senior Israeli security officials. And we continue to support the development of Israeli missile defense systems, such as Arrow and David’s Sling, to upgrade Patriot missile defense systems first deployed during the Gulf War, and to work cooperatively with Israel on an advanced radar system to provide early warning of incoming missiles.
The ties between our defense establishments are extraordinary. Throughout the U.S. military and the IDF, from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, down to generals, colonels, and majors in every branch, personal relationships have been forged, joint work is being done, and a sense of common purpose and shared mission animates the partnership.
We take these steps because the threats Israel faces are real, and because many of the same forces threaten us and our interests. Whether it is an Iran bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, Hizballah acquiring increasingly sophisticated weaponry from Syria, or Hamas smuggling weapons through the tunnels into Gaza, Israelis stand on the front lines, often at great cost, against forces that seek to take the Middle East in a lawless, dangerous, and unstable direction, putting our interests at risk. When President Obama wrote recently that “our alliance with Israel serves our national security interests”, and that “no wedge will be driven between us”, this is what he was talking about.
President Obama has also steadfastly defended Israel against attempts to de-legitimize it, whether at the UN or other international bodies, while always standing up for Israel’s right to self-defense against terrorism and other threats. These are commitments that will not change. When it became clear that the Durban II Conference would unfairly and unreasonably single out Israel for criticism, we did not hesitate to pull out of the conference and lead many of our allies to do the same. We have repeatedly and vigorously voted against and spoken out against the Goldstone Report. When Turkey summarily cancelled Israel’s participation in a key military exercise last fall, we did not hesitate for one minute to pull out as well, and we have worked diligently to preserve a positive relationship between Israel and Turkey, which has been an important contributor to security in the region.
Pursuing comprehensive peace in the Middle East
Our pursuit of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East is inextricably linked to the U.S.-Israeli partnership, as there has never been an Israeli government that did not pursue this goal fervently. The President made this a top priority from Day One because he knew that achieving peace would take time, and that neglecting this issue for several years only increased the danger Israel faces from Hizballah, Hamas, and Iran. Those dangers will by no means be eliminated if Israel achieves peace agreements with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors, but the regional environment in which they operate would be far more friendly to Israel, and far less to those who pose such threats.
He also knew that achieving a two-state solution is the only way to guarantee Israel’s future as a secure, Jewish, democratic state, which is in Israeli and American interests. It would also give people across the region hope in their struggle to overcome the forces of radicalism. He appointed George Mitchell as our Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, with the goal of achieving an outcome of two states living side by side in peace and security, as part of a comprehensive regional peace that brings to an end the conflict between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon, and normal relations between Israel and all Arab states.
We recognize the doubts, fears, and skepticism with which many Israelis view such declarations. After several failed attempts to negotiate peace, a terrible intifada of suicide bombs, and withdrawals from Gaza and south Lebanon rewarded by thousands of rockets and missile attacks, such doubts are understandable. Today, Hamas continues to rule harshly in Gaza, rejecting any compromise with Israel, smuggling weapons, and cruelly holding Gilad Shalit in captivity. He should be released to his family without delay. Our policy on Hamas has not changed: to gain the legitimacy it seeks, Hamas must comply with the conditions set down by the Quartet – recognizing the State of Israel, renouncing violence, and abiding by past agreements.
But we also know that the status quo is not sustainable. Demography makes it unsustainable: Israel cannot remain a secure, Jewish, democratic state without the emergence of a Palestinian state. In this, most fundamental sense, the rise of a peaceful, viable Palestinian state, in which the Palestinian people can live, travel, conduct business, govern themselves, and enjoy the dignity of a sovereign people, is not only what Palestinians deserve – it is strategic Israeli interest and a strategic American interest.
This goal, this requirement to fulfill the needs of all parties, can only be achieved through negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. But it can be achieved. After previous failed peace efforts, with so much mutual mistrust and suspicion, it is easy to give up hope. But we still have hope, and we believe, from our conversations with them, that Israeli and Palestinian leaders still have hope. We believe that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can agree to an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and Israel’s goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israel’s security requirements.
In recent weeks, Senator Mitchell and our entire administration have been working hard to get proximity talks between Israelis and Palestinians launched, as a first step toward the direct negotiations that will be required to reach agreements on key final status issues. Those efforts were sidetracked following Israel’s announcement of the approval of 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem during the Vice President’s visit and the day after proximity talks were announced. Since then, we have worked with both parties to restore trust, and to try to ensure the parties will not take actions that undermine trust or appear to prejudge the outcome of negotiations. But we have also made clear to both sides that the talks need to get underway and, that we cannot let every controversy become a crisis or lead to a breakdown. With the Arab League’s endorsement of these talks at their meeting two days ago in Cairo, we are hopeful that we will be able to move forward with proximity talks in the near term. These talks will give us a chance to explore the parties’ positions, attempt to narrow gaps, and conduct an exchange of views on permanent status issues, enabling them to move into direct talks to reach agreements as soon as possible.
As our diplomatic efforts move forward, we recognize the need to strengthen Palestinian leaders who are committed to peace, and develop the institutions necessary for a peaceful, successful Palestinian state. President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad represent a Palestinian leadership that we believe is committed to peace and building the institutions that can support it. We strongly support Prime Minister Fayyad’s plan to build the institutions of Palestinian statehood, which represents a new chapter in the Palestinian national movement – focused on building now for the future, rather than dwelling on grievances of the past. We are supporting the training of Palestinian security forces, who are demonstrating effectiveness and professionalism in the West Bank, according to the toughest graders of all – Israeli security officials. At the same time, we take a firm position that Palestinian leaders must press forward with institutional and economic reforms, be vigilant in fulfilling their security responsibilities. Palestinian and other Arab leaders must also prepare their populations for peace, by ending all acts and statements of incitement, educating for coexistence, reaching out to the Israeli public, and beginning the process of normalization with Israel. We will not hesitate, as we have in recent weeks, to condemn acts of incitement and calling into question historic Jewish connections to Jerusalem.
Israel under Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken important steps demonstrating their commitment to peace, by embracing the two-state solution, dismantling roadblocks and checkpoints, increasing economic opportunities in the West Bank, and announcing a 10-month settlement moratorium. It will be important in the weeks and months ahead to see additional enhancements of freedom of moment and economic activity for Palestinians, further efforts to empower the Palestinian Authority and its security forces, and a concerted effort to ease the harsh economic conditions in Gaza.
Arab governments, too, have responsibilities we will expect them to fulfill. Their support for proximity talks is welcome, but our expectations do not end there. We need them to be vigilant in denying funding and weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hizballah, continue to support President Abbas in negotiations, provide consistent financial support for the Palestinian Authority and its institution-building program, and reach out to the Israeli public and resume exchanges of various kinds with Israel to demonstrate that Israel’s isolation in the region is ending.
As these negotiations unfold, the commitment of the leaders and their publics will surely be tested. They will be tested by the actions of those in their own societies who oppose peace. They will be tested by decisions made by the other party. They will be tested by their own doubts. At times, we may ask the parties to do difficult things – nothing that would ever compromise Israel’s security or Palestinian goals for an independent and viable state, but difficult nevertheless. We know very well that a solution cannot be imposed on the parties from the outside – peace can only come from direct talks and the two sides taking account of the needs of the other. At the same time, there could be times and contexts in which U.S. ideas can be useful. When appropriate, we are prepared to share them. What we will try to instill at all times in Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab negotiators is the need to invest in the other party; to view the negotiations as a shared enterprise toward a common goal; to look for shared successes, not zero-sum approaches; to acknowledge both publicly and privately the helpful and difficult steps taken by the other party; to always consider what steps they can take to help the other party succeed, and what actions they may consider justified, but might nevertheless defer in the interest of minimizing difficulties for the other side.
We have and will continue to put so much effort into this enterprise because, as President Obama has said, achieving peace is in the interest of Israelis, Arabs, and Palestinians, and it should be pursued for its own sake, and it is also very much in our national security interests. We do not believe that resolving these conflicts would bring an end to all conflicts in the Middle East, nor cause Iran to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons. We do not believe this conflict endangers the lives of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. But we do believe that ensuring Israel’s future as a secure, Jewish, democratic state is very much in our national interests. We do believe that depriving Iran of a conflict they can exploit by arming their terrorist proxies is very much in our national interests. And we do believe that a world in which the story of successful Palestinian state-building and peacemaking with Israel, rather than Palestinian suffering and conflict with Israel, leads the news across the Arab world, would do much to transform attitudes positively and deprive extremists of an evocative propaganda tool.
Nearly a year ago in Cairo, President Obama called for a new spirit of partnership in the region and beyond, with broader engagement on education, economic development, health, science and technology. In that speech, watched by Muslims around the world, President Obama made clear that America’s bonds with Israel are unbreakable and that Arab states must recognize Israel’s legitimacy, and that those who accept our outstretched hand must do so on that basis. If we can succeed in our quest for Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace, the primary beneficiaries will of course be the parties themselves, relieved of the burdens of a conflict that has gone on too long. But it will be our victory as well, and will contribute to broader interests and goals that we have in common with peace-loving people across the Middle East.