President Obama and the American Jewish Community

Remarks by Antony Blinken to J Street Conference

Peace and Security for Israel

 Remarks as Prepared by Antony Blinken, Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President

J Street Conference, Washington, DC - March 26, 2012

Valerie took you to the mountain top.  Now I’m going to bring you back down to the valley.

It’s a little daunting to follow Valerie Jarrett.  She is President Obama’s closest advisor. 

And it’s tough enough to follow Shimon Peres, even by video.

So I feel a little bit like an Allen and Rossi.  If the name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, that’s the point.  Allen and Rossi was the act that followed the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thank you all for being here, and thanks especially to Jeremy Ben Ami, my colleague from the Clinton Administration, for inviting me to join you.

I’m especially pleased to be with three people I deeply admire for their work inside and outside government.

Mort Halperin -- another Clinton Administration colleague, who started serving his country under President Lyndon Johnson and never stopped.

Daniel Kurtzer -- for nearly 30 years, one of our nation’s most effective and distinguished diplomats and now a leading analyst of our core national security challenges.

And Anne-Marie Slaughter -- a charter member of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy team, who, sadly for us, has returned to her life as a world-class scholar of international affairs.

But mostly I want to thank all of you here today for the work that you do every day.

In just a few short years, J Street has emerged as an influential and constructive voice, not just here in Washington but far beyond.  That voice -- your voice – strengthens America’s foreign policy.  It’s a vital contribution to our discourse on one of America’s closest international relationships and most important national security priorities: Israel.

This session is focused on what the United States can do to advance the cause of peace between Israel and its neighbors.  So I’m going to focus my remarks on the Obama Administration’s approach to this most critical and, perhaps, most elusive of American foreign policy objectives.

Israel’s own leaders understand the imperative of peace.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak, and President Peres have each called for two states -- a secure, Jewish state of Israel that lives side by side with an independent Palestinian state. 

That vision is profoundly in Israel’s security interest and the best solution to the host of challenges it faces— from shifting demographics that will eventually jeopardize its status as a Jewish democracy… to emerging weapons technologies… to the historic changes sweeping the region.

Peace is also the only sure way for the Palestinian people to realize their legitimate and longstanding aspiration for a state of their own. We believe that, in President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, Israel has partners who share the goal of peace.

Most of you in this room, starting with Ambassador Kurtzer, who has been down this bumpy road many times before, know as well as I do, how difficult peace will be to achieve.

But America, too, has a profound interest in peace. And both Israel and the Palestinians continue to believe our involvement is important to making progress.

So, as President Obama said recently -- while there are those who question whether this goal will ever be reached -- we make no apologies for continuing to pursue peace.

We remain deeply engaged with Israel and the Palestinians, starting with the President, who as you know saw Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier this month, and spoke last week with President Abbas. We also continue to work closely with our Quartet and Arab partners.  In particular, we supported the recent talks that King Abdullah’s government convened in Amman, which we believe produced serious and meaningful discussions. 

We are now in a period of assessment. We remain in close consultation with the parties, the Jordanians and our other partners about the way forward.

Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum.

We have made no secret of our concern about the agreement between Fatah and Hamas that was announced in Doha. Our policy on Hamas has not changed—it is a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. And to play any role in achieving peace and building an independent state, it must renounce violence, recognize Israel and adhere to previous agreements.

We believe that President Abbas remains committed to these principles, and he has told us that any government he leads will remain committed to them, too.

The President has also made clear that there will be no lasting peace unless Israel is secure.  Period.

For more than 60 years since Israel’s founding—during periods of war and peace, calm and crisis—U.S. administrations of all strikes have worked to safeguard Israel’s security.

But I would maintain that no administration—and no President—has done as much as President Obama with Israel… and for Israel’s security.

Last fall, President Obama’s personal intervention helped avert catastrophe when a violent mob stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. 

Afterward, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the President:

“I requested his assistant at a decisive—I would say even fateful—moment.  He said he would do everything possible, and this is what he did.  He activated all of the United States’ means and influence—which are certainly considerable.  I believe we owe him a special debt of gratitude.”

That influence was but one vivid manifestation of our administration’s iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security, a commitment that has led to a level of cooperation that Mr. Netanyahu himself has rightly called “unprecedented.”

That commitment starts with President Obama’s profound understanding of Israel’s predicament.

Here’s how the President put it this September, speaking to the countries of the world at the United Nations General Assembly:  

“Let us be honest with ourselves.  Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it.  Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses.  Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them.  Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off the map.”

Even more important than what the President has said about our commitment to Israel’s security is what he has done.

If you have friends or relatives in Southern Israel, they can tell you what this has meant over the past few weeks.

In addition to the record levels of security assistance we were already providing Israel, our Administration secured an additional $205 million to help produce the short-range rocket defense system, Iron Dome.

During the recent attacks from Gaza, Iron Dome intercepted nearly 80 percent of the rockets it engaged —that’s dozens of deadly explosives that might otherwise have struck homes, schools or hospitals. Iron Dome has been a godsend for besieged communities along Israel's border with Gaza, and it has now been installed in the north, along the Lebanon border, as well.

To guard against more distant, but also more dangerous threats, we have worked with Israel on the Arrow weapons system, to intercept medium-range ballistic missiles… and David's Sling, for shorter-range missiles. 

And we have collaborated on a powerful radar system linked to U.S. early warning satellites that could buy Israel valuable time in the event of a missile attack.

But it’s not just about materiel and technology; it is also about relationships. We have launched the most comprehensive and meaningful strategic and operational consultations, across all levels of our governments, in the history of our alliance with Israel.

Later this year, our nation’s armed forces will conduct their largest ever joint military exercise with Israel, Austere Challenge. 

In 2011, nearly 200 senior-level Department of Defense officials visited Israel, and senior Israeli officials visit the U.S. just as often.

And despite tough fiscal times, President Obama has requested $3.1 billion in military assistance for 2013—the most ever.

We know that Israel sees the threat posed by Iran as existential. And make no mistake: An Iran armed with nuclear weapons would pose a direct and serious threat to the security of the U.S. as well.

That is why we do not have a policy of containment.  Instead, we are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Now, you have all heard a lot of loud talk about Iran, and you are likely to hear a lot more in the coming months. This “loose talk of war,” as President Obama describes it, has an unintended effect—it benefits the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which Iran depends upon to fund its nuclear program… diluting the impact of sanctions… and by feeding false hope that it is possible to drive a wedge between the United States and Israel. 

So for the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, our approach is different. We believe now is the time to speak softly and carry a big stick—to let our increased pressure sink in, and to leverage the broad international coalition that we have built. 

The United States and Israel both assess that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon, and we are exceedingly vigilant in monitoring their program.

There remains time and space for diplomacy – backed by increasing pressure – to succeed. Iran’s leaders still have the opportunity to make the right decision and abandon their current course.

We have backed up that commitment by building an unprecedented coalition to impose the most far-reaching sanctions Iran has ever faced. 

As a result, Iran finds itself increasingly isolated from the international community. 

It finds it harder than ever to acquire materials for its nuclear and weapons programs and to conduct transactions in dollars and euros. It has struggled to buy refined petroleum and the goods it needs to modernize its oil and gas sector.

Already close to $60 billion in Iranian energy-related projects have been put on hold or shut down.  World-leading companies are deciding to stop doing business there, including: Shell; Total; ENI; Statoil; Repsol; Lukoil; Kia; Toyota; Siemens; and many others. And the foreign subsidiaries of U.S. firms such as GE, Honeywell and Caterpillar, among many others.

Most recently, the Administration worked with Congress to make sanctionable a host of transactions involving the Central Bank of Iran. And we are now working with partners to implement this new law in a way that maximizes the pressure on the Iranian regime.

The regime is feeling the pressure. You don’t have to take my word for it.  Here’s what Iran’s President, Mr. Ahmadinejad, said about sanctions to Iran’s parliament late last year:

“The West has imposed the most extensive and dastardly sanctions ever… Every day, all our banking and trade activities and our agreements are being monitored and blocked.  This is the heaviest economic onslaught on a nation in history…”

The purpose of this pressure is not punishment.  It is to convince Iran that the price to be paid for failing to meet its international obligations is too high… and the time is now to make good on its commitments to the international community.

Finally, standing up for Israel's security also means remaining ever vigilant against attempts to delegitimize Israel in the international arena.

As President Obama has said, including in the speech he gave in Cairo, Israel's legitimacy is not a matter for debate.

That is why we stood by Israel last week at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and voted against a one-sided resolution that will not advance the cause of peace, but instead will distract from efforts to help the parties return to direct negotiations.

That is why we stood up strongly for Israel's right to defend itself after the Goldstone Report on the 2009 Gaza War was issued.

That is why, when Israel was isolated in the aftermath of the flotilla incident, we supported them.

That is why we refuse to attend events that endorse or commemorate the flawed 2001 World Conference Against Racism -- we will always reject attempts to equate Zionism with racism.

And that is why we oppose attempts to introduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the U.N. or its agencies, because, as the President has said, there is no shortcut to peace—these issues can only be resolved through negotiations.

Our Administration is proud of this record.

That doesn’t mean everyone agrees with all aspects of our approach – which is as it should be in a democracy. We welcome the debate.

Nor does it mean that we will always see eye-to-eye with Israel on every issue. Even the closest of allies disagree – just as Israelis do amongst themselves—and when we do, we make our views clear. That is a sign of our mutual respect and of a relationship robust and mature enough to overcome our differences.

What does concern us, and what could actually harm U.S.-Israeli relations, and the security of the Jewish state, is subjecting either to the vagaries of partisan politics or turning them into election-year talking points.

This is not about stifling discussion, disagreement or dissent. It is about a simple proposition:  when it comes to discussing U.S. policy toward Israel in our political arena, by all means we should question each other’s judgments -- but not each other’s motives.

J Street has admirably stood for the idea that healthy policy debate need not descend into division -- particularly when our shared interests are so profound.

Your slogan is “Pro Israel, Pro Peace.” For generations, there has been a broad bipartisan consensus in America on those ideas. The stakes are too high—for us, and for Israel—to let that change now.

So thanks again for everything you do.  And thanks for listening.

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