Remarks by the Vice President to the AIPAC Policy Conference
Walter E. Washington Convention Center
10:35 A.M. EST
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Mr. President. (Applause.) It’s great to be here. It’s great to be here. (Applause.) Hey, Debbie.
Ladies and gentlemen, oh, what a difference 40 years makes. (Laughter.) I look out there and see an old friend, Annette Lantos. Annette, how are you? Her husband, Tom Lantos, a survivor, was my assistant, was my foreign policy advisor for years. And Tom used to say all the time, Joe -- he talked with that Hungarian accent -- he’d say, Joe, we must do another fundraiser for AIPAC. (Laughter.) I did more fundraisers for AIPAC in the ‘70s and early ‘80s than -- just about as many as anybody. Thank God you weren’t putting on shows like this, we would have never made it. (Laughter.) We would have never made it.
My Lord, it’s so great to be with you all and great to see -- Mr. President, thank you so much for that kind introduction. And President-elect Bob Cohen, the entire AIPAC Board of Directors, I’m delighted to be with you today. But I’m particularly delighted to be with an old friend -- and he is an old friend; we use that phrase lightly in Washington, but it’s real, and I think he’d even tell you -- Ehud Barak, it’s great to be with you, Mr. Minister. Great to be with you. (Applause.)
There is a standup guy. There is a standup guy. Standing up for his country, putting his life on the line for his country, and continuing to defend the values that we all share. (Applause.) I’m a fan of the man. (Applause.) Thanks for being here, Ehud. It’s good to be with you again.
Ladies and gentlemen, a lot of you know me if you’re old enough. (Laughter.) Some of you don’t know me, and understand I can’t see now, but in the bleachers to either side, I’m told you have 2,000 young AIPAC members here. (Applause.) We talked about this a lot over the years. We talked about it a lot: This is the lifeblood. This is the connective tissue. This is the reason why no American will ever forget. You’ve got to keep raising them. (Applause.)
Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve stood shoulder to shoulder, a lot of us in this auditorium, defending the legitimate interest of Israel and our enduring commitment over the last 40 years. And many of you in this hall -- I won’t start to name them, but many of you in this hall, starting with Annette Lantos’s husband, who is not here, God rest his soul -- many of you in this hall have been my teachers, my mentors and my educators, and that is not hyperbole. You literally have been.
But my education started, as some of you know, at my father’s dinner table. My father was what you would have called a righteous Christian. We gathered at my dinner table to have conversation, and incidentally eat, as we were growing up. It was a table -- it was at that table I first heard the phrase that is overused sometimes today, but in a sense not used meaningfully enough -- first I heard the phrase, “Never again.”
It was at that table that I learned that the only way to ensure that it could never happen again was the establishment and the existence of a secure, Jewish state of Israel. (Applause.) I remember my father, a Christian, being baffled at the debate taking place at the end of World War II talking about it. I don’t remember it at that time, but about how there could be a debate about whether or not -- within the community, of whether or not to establish the State of Israel.
My father would say, were he a Jew, he would never, never entrust the security of his people to any individual nation, no matter how good and how noble it was, like the United States. (Applause.) Everybody knows it’s real. But I want you to know one thing, which some of you -- I’ve met with a lot of you over the last 40 years, but the last four years as well. President Obama shares my commitment. We both know that Israel faces new threats, new pressures and uncertainty. The Defense Minister and I have discussed it often. In the area of national security, the threats to Israel’s existence continue, but they have changed as the world and the region have changed over the last decade.
The Arab Spring, at once full of both hope and uncertainty, has required Israel -- and the United States -- to reassess old and settled relationships. Iran’s dangerous nuclear weapons program, and its continued support of terrorist organizations, like Hezbollah and Hamas, not only endanger Israel, but endanger the world. (Applause.) Attempts of much of the world to isolate and delegitimize the State of Israel are increasingly common, and taken as the norm in other parts of the world.
All these pressures are similar but different, and they put enormous pressure on the State of Israel. We understand that. And we especially understand that if we make a mistake, it’s not a threat to our existence. But if Israel makes a mistake, it could be a threat to its very existence. (Applause.) And that’s why, from the moment the President took office, he has acted swiftly and decisively to make clear to the whole world and to Israel that even as circumstances have changed, one thing has not: our deep commitment to the security of the state of Israel. That has not changed. That will not change as long as I and he are President and Vice President of the United States. (Applause.) It’s in our naked self-interest, beyond the moral imperative. (Applause.)
And to all of you, I thank you for continuing to remind the nation and the world of that commitment. And while we may not always agree on tactics -- and I’ve been around a long time; I’ve been there for a lot of prime ministers -- we’ve always disagreed on tactic. We’ve always disagreed at some point or another on tactic. But, ladies and gentlemen, we have never disagreed on the strategic imperative that Israel must be able to protect its own, must be able to do it on its own, and we must always stand with Israel to be sure that can happen. And we will. (Applause.)
That’s why we’ve worked so hard to make sure Israel keeps its qualitative edge in the midst of the Great Recession. I’ve served with eight Presidents of the United States of America, and I can assure you, unequivocally, no President has done as much to physically secure the State of Israel as President Barack Obama. (Applause.)
President Obama last year requested $3.1 billion in military assistance for Israel -- the most in history. He has directed close coordination, strategically and operationally, between our government and our Israeli partners, including our political, military and intelligence leadership.
I can say with certitude, in the last eight Presidents, I don’t know any time, Ehud, when there has been as many meetings, as much coordination, between our intelligence services and our military. Matter of fact, they’re getting tired of traveling back across the ocean, I think. (Laughter.)
Under this administration, we’ve held the most regular and largest-ever joint military exercises. We’ve invested $275 million in Iron Dome, including $70 million that the President directed to be spent last year on an urgent basis -- to increase the production of Iron Dome batteries and interceptors. (Applause.)
Not long ago, I would have had to describe to an audience what Iron Dome was, how it would work, why funding it mattered. I don’t have to explain to anybody anymore. Everybody gets it. (Applause.) Everybody saw -- the world saw firsthand why it was and remains so critical.
For too long, when those sirens blared in the streets of the cities bordering Gaza, the only defense had been a bomb shelter. But late last year, Iron Dome made a difference. When Hamas rockets rained on Israel, Iron Dome shot them out of the sky, intercepting nearly 400 rockets in November alone. It was our unique partnership -- Israel and the United States -- that pioneered this technology and funded it.
And it is in that same spirit that we’re working with Israel to jointly develop new systems, called Arrow and David’s Sling, interceptors that can defeat long-range threats from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah -- equally as urgent. (Applause.) And we are working to deploy a powerful new radar, networked with American early warning satellites, that could buy Israel valuable time in the event of an attack. This is what we do. This is what we do to ensure Israel can counter and defeat any threat from any corner. (Applause.)
But that’s only the first piece of this equation. Let me tell you -- and I expect I share the view of many of you who have been involved with AIPAC for a long time. Let me tell you what worries me the most today -- what worries me more than at any time in the 40 years I’ve been engaged, and it is different than any time in my career. And that is the wholesale, seemingly coordinated effort to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state. That is the single most dangerous, pernicious change that has taken place, in my humble opinion, since I’ve been engaged. (Applause.)
And, ladies and gentlemen, it matters. It matters. To put it bluntly, there is only one nation -- only one nation in the world that has unequivocally, without hesitation and consistently confronted the efforts to delegitimize Israel. At every point in our administration, at every juncture, we’ve stood up on the legitimacy -- on behalf of legitimacy of the State of Israel. President Obama has been a bulwark against those insidious efforts at every step of the way.
Wherever he goes in the world, he makes clear that although we want better relations with Muslim-majority countries, Israel’s legitimacy and our support for it is not a matter of debate. There is no light. It is not a matter of debate. (Applause.) It’s simple, and he means it: It is not a matter of debated. Don't raise it with us. Do not raise it with us. It is not negotiable. (Applause.)
As recently as last year, the only country on the United Nations Human Rights Council to vote against -- I think it’s 36 countries, don't hold me to the exact number -- but the only country on the Human Rights Council of the United Nations to vote against the establishment of a fact-finding mission on settlements was the United States of America.
We opposed the unilateral efforts of the Palestinian Authority to circumvent direct negotiations by pushing for statehood and multilateral organizations like UNESCO. We stood strongly with Israel in its right to defend itself after the Goldstone Report was issued in 2009. While the rest of the world, including some of our good friend, was prepared to embrace the report, we came out straightforwardly, expressed our concerns and with recommendations.
When Israel was isolated in the aftermath of the Gaza flotilla in 2010, I was in Africa. We spent a lot of time on the phone, Ehud and -- the Defense Minister and I. (Laughter.) And Bibi and I spent a lot time on that phone with my interceding, going to the United Nations directly by telephone, speaking with the Secretary General, making sure that one thing was made clear, Israel had the right -- had the right -- to impose that blockade. (Applause.)
Ladies and gentlemen, that's why we refuse to attend events such as the 10th anniversary of the 2001 World Conference on Racism that shamefully equated Zionism with racism. (Applause.) That's why we rejected anti-Semitic rhetoric from any corner and from leaders of any nation. And that's why I’m proud to say my friend, the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, spoke out against the kind of language in Ankara just this Friday. (Applause.) By the way, he’s a good man. You're going to be happy with Kerry.
And it was in the strongest terms that we vigorously opposed the Palestinian bid for nonmember observer status in the General Assembly, and we will continue to oppose any effort to establish a state of Palestine through unilateral actions.
There is no shortcut to peace. There is no shortcut to face-to-face negotiations. There is no shortcut to guarantees made looking in the eyes of the other party.
Ladies and gentlemen, Israel's own leaders currently understand the imperative of peace. Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak, President Peres -- they've all called for a two-state solution and an absolute secure, democratic and Jewish State of Israel; to live side by side with an independent Palestinian state. But it takes two to tango, and the rest of the Arab world has to get in the game. (Applause.)
We are under no illusions about how difficult it will be to achieve. Even some of you in the audience said, why do we even talk about it anymore? Well, it's going to require hard steps on both sides. But it's in all of our interests -- Israel's interest, the United States' interest, the interest of the Palestinian people. We all have a profound interest in peace. To use an expression of a former President, Bill Clinton, we've got to get caught trying. We've got to get caught trying. (Applause.)
So we remain deeply engaged. As President Obama has said, while there are those who question whether this goal may ever be reached, we make no apologies for continuing to pursue that goal, to pursue a better future. And he'll make that clear when he goes to Israel later this month.
We're also mindful that pursuing a better future for Israel means helping Israel confront the myriads of threat it faces in the neighborhood. It's a tough neighborhood, and it starts with Iran. It is not only in Israel's interest -- and everybody should understand -- I know you understand this, but the world should -- it's not only in Israel's interest that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, it's in the interest of the United States of America. It's simple. And, as a matter of fact, it's in the interest of the entire world. (Applause.)
Iraq's [sic] acquisition of a nuclear weapon not only would present an existential threat to Israel, it would present a threat to our allies and our partners -- and to the United States. And it would trigger an arms race -- a nuclear arms race in the region, and make the world a whole lot less stable.
So we have a shared strategic commitment. Let me make clear what that commitment is: It is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Period. (Applause.) End of discussion. Prevent -- not contain -- prevent. (Applause.)
The President has flatly stated that. And as many of you in this room have heard me say -- and he always kids me about this; we'll be in the security room -- and I know that Debbie Wasserman Schultz knows this because she hears it -- he always says, you know -- he'll turn to other people and say, as Joe would say, he’s -- as Joe would say, big nations can't bluff. Well, big nations can't bluff. And Presidents of the United States cannot and do not bluff. And President Barack Obama is not bluffing. He is not bluffing. (Applause.)
We are not looking for war. We are looking to and ready to negotiate peacefully, but all options, including military force, are on the table. But as I made clear at the Munich Security Conference just last month, our strong preference, the world’s preference is for a diplomatic solution. So while that window is closing, we believe there is still time and space to achieve the outcome. We are in constant dialogue, sharing information with the Israeli military, the Israeli intelligence service, the Israeli political establishment at every level, and we’re taking all the steps required to get there.
But I want to make clear to you something. If, God forbid,
the need to act occurs, it is critically important for the whole world to know we did everything in our power, we did everything that reasonably could have been expected to avoid any confrontation. And that matters. Because God forbid, if we have to act, it’s important that the rest of the world is with us. (Applause.) We have a united international community. We have a united international community behind these unprecedented sanctions.
We have left Iran more isolated than ever. When we came to office, as you remember -- not because of the last administration, just a reality -- Iran was on the ascendency in the region. It is no longer on the ascendency. The purpose of this pressure is not to punish. It is to convince Iran to make good on its international obligations. Put simply, we are sharpening a choice that the Iranian leadership has to make. They can meet their obligations and give the international community ironclad confidence in the peaceful nature of their program, or they can continue down the path they’re on to further isolate and mounting pressure of the world.
But even preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon still leaves them a dangerous neighbor, particularly to Israel. They are using terrorist proxies to spread violence in the region and beyond the region, putting Israelis, Americans, citizens of every continent in danger. For too long, Hezbollah has tried to pose as nothing more than a political and social welfare group, while plotting against innocents in Eastern Europe -- from Eastern Europe to East Africa; from Southeast Asia to South America. We know what Israel knows: Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. Period. (Applause.) And we -- and me -- we are urging every nation in the world that we deal with -- and we deal with them all -- to start treating Hezbollah as such, and naming them as a terrorist organization. (Applause.)
This isn’t just about a threat to Israel and the United States. It’s about a global terrorist organization that has targeted people on several continents. We’ll say and we’ll do our part to stop them. And we ask the world to do the same. That’s why we’ve been talking to our friends in Europe to forcefully declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization. This past month I’ve made the case to leading European heads of state, as Barack and Israelis know, together we have to continue to confront Hezbollah wherever it shows -- sews the seeds of hatred and stands against the nations that sponsor campaigns of terror.
Ladies and gentlemen, the United States and Israel have a shared interest in Syria as well. Assad has shown his father’s disregard for human life and dignity, engaging in brutal murder of his own citizens. Our position on that tragedy could not be clearer: Assad must go. But we are not signing up for one murderous gang replacing another in Damascus. (Applause.)
That’s why our focus is on supporting a legitimate opposition not only committed to a peaceful Syria but to a peaceful region. That’s why we’re carefully vetting those to whom we provide assistance. That’s why, while putting relentless pressure on Assad and sanctioning the pro-regime, Iranian-backed militia, we’ve also designated al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization.
And because we recognize the great danger Assad’s chemical and biological arsenals pose to Israel and the United States, to the whole world, we’ve set a clear red line against the use of the transfer of the those weapons. And we will work together to prevent this conflict and these horrific weapons from threatening Israel’s security. And while we try to ensure an end to the dictatorship in Syria, we have supported and will support a genuine transition to Egyptian democracy.
We have no illusions -- we know how difficult this will be and how difficult it is. There’s been -- obviously been a dramatic change in Egypt. A lot of it has given us hope and a lot of it has given us pause, and a lot of it has caused fears in other quarters.
It’s not about us, but it profoundly affects us. We need to be invested in Egypt’s success and stability. The stable success of Egypt will translate into a stable region. We’re not looking at what’s happening in Egypt through rose-colored glasses. Again, our eyes are wide open. We have no illusions about the challenges that we face, but we also know this: There’s no legitimate alternative at this point to engagement.
Only through engagement -- it’s only through engagement with Egypt that we can focus Egypt’s leaders on the need to repair international obligations -- respect their international obligations, including and especially its peace treaty with Israel. It’s only through active engagement that we can help ensure that Hamas does not re-arm through the Sinai and put the people of Israel at risk. It’s only through engagement that we can concentrate Egypt’s government on the imperative of confronting the extremists. And it’s only through engagement that we can encourage Egypt’s leaders to make reforms that will spark economic growth and stabilize the democratic process. And it’s all tough, and there’s no certainty. There’s no certainty about anything in the Arab Spring.
I expect President Obama to cover each of these issues in much greater detail. I’ve learned one thing, as I was telling the President, I learned it’s never a good idea, Ehud, to steal the President’s thunder. It’s never a good idea to say what he’s going to say the next day. So I’m not going to go into any further detail on this. (Laughter.) But in much greater detail he will discuss this when he goes to Israel later this month, just before Passover begins.
I have to admit I’m a little jealous that he gets to be the one to say “this year in Jerusalem,” but I’m the Vice President. I’m not the President. (Applause.) So I -- when I told him that, I’m not sure he thought I was serious or not. But anyway. (Laughter.)
As will come as no surprise to you, the President and I not only are partners, we’ve become friends, and he and I have spoken at length about this trip. And I can assure you he’s particularly looking forward to having a chance to hear directly from the people of Israel and beyond their political leaders, and particularly the younger generation of Israelis. (Applause.)
And I must note just as I’m getting a chance to speak to 2,000 young, American Jews involved and committed to the state of Israel and the relationship with the United States, he’s as anxious to do what I got a chance to do when I was there last, Ehud with you, as you flew me along the line. I got to go to Tel Aviv University to speak several thousand young Israelis. The vibrancy, the optimism, the absolute commitment is contagious, and he’s looking forward to seeing it and feeling it and tasting it.
The President looks forward to having conversations about their hopes and their aspirations, about their astonishing world-leading technological achievements, about the future they envision for themselves and for their country, about how different the world they face is from the one their parents faced, even if many of the threats are the same.
These are really important conversations for the President to have and to hear and for them to hear. These are critically important. I get kidded, again to quote Debbie, she kids sometimes, everybody quotes -- Democrat and Republican -- quotes Tip O’Neill saying, all politics is local. With all due respect, Lonny, I think that's not right. I think all politics is personal. And I mean it: All politics is personal. And it’s building personal relationships and trust and exposure, talking to people that really matters, particularly in foreign policy.
So, ladies and gentlemen, let me end where I began, by reaffirming our commitment to the State of Israel. It’s not only a longstanding, moral commitment, it’s a strategic commitment. An independent Israel, secure in its own borders, recognized by the world is in the practical, strategic interests of the United States of America. I used to say when I -- Lonny was president -- I used to say if there weren't an Israel, we'd have to invent one.
Ladies and gentlemen, we also know that it's critical to remind every generation of Americans -- as you're doing with your children here today, it's critical to remind our children, my children, your children. That's why the first time I ever took the three of my children separately to Europe, the first place I took them was Dachau. We flew to Munich and went to Dachau -- the first thing we ever did as Annette will remember -- because it's important that all our children and grandchildren understand that this is a never-ending requirement. The preservation of an independent Jewish state is the ultimate guarantor, it's the only certain guarantor of freedom and security for the Jewish people in the world. (Applause.)
That was most pointedly pointed out to me when I was a young senator making my first trip to Israel. I had the great, great honor -- and that is not hyperbole -- of getting to meet for the first time -- and subsequently, I met her beyond that -- Golda Meir. She was the prime minister. (Applause.)
Now, I'm sure every kid up there said, you can't be that old, Senator. (Laughter.) I hope that's what you're saying. (Laughter.) But seriously, the first trip I ever made -- and you all know those double doors. You just go into the office and the blonde furniture and the desk on the left side, if memory serves me correctly. And Golda Meir, as a prime minister and as a defense minister, she had those maps behind her. You could pull down all those maps like you had in geography class in high school.
And she sat behind her desk. And I sat in a chair in front of her desk, and a young man was sitting to my right who was her assistant. His name was Yitzhak Rabin. (Laughter.) Seriously -- an absolutely true story. (Applause.) And she sat there chain-smoking and reading letters to me, letters from the front from the Six-Day War. She read letters and told me how this young man or woman had died and this is their family. This went on for I don't know how long, and I guess she could tell I was visibly moved by this, and I was getting depressed about it -- oh, my God.
And she suddenly looked at me and said -- and I give you my word as a Biden that she looked at me and said -- she said, Senator, would you like a photo opportunity? (Laughter.) And I looked at her. I said, well yes, Madam Prime Minister. I mean I was -- and we walk out those doors. We stood there -- no statements, and we're standing next to one another looking at this array of media, television and photojournalists, take -- snapping pictures. And we're looking straight ahead.
Without looking at me, she speaks to me. She said, Senator, don't look so sad. She said, we have a secret weapon in our confrontation in this part of the world. And I thought she was about to lean over and tell me about a new system or something. Because you can see the pictures, I still have them -- I turned to look at her. We were supposed to be looking straight ahead. And I said, Madam Prime Minister -- and never turned her head, she kept looking -- she said, our secret weapon, Senator, is we have no place else to go. We have no place else to go. (Applause.)
Ladies and gentlemen, our job is to make sure there's always a place to go, that there's always an Israel, that there's always a secure Israel and there's an Israel that can care for itself. (Applause.) My father was right. You are right. It's the ultimate guarantor of never again. God bless you all and may God protect our troops. Thank you. (Applause.)
11:09 A.M. EST