Remarks by National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice to the National Jewish Leaders Assembly
National Press Club
Monday, July 28, 2014
Good afternoon everyone. Thank you so much Bob for that incredibly generous introduction. I also want to thank my friend Malcolm and express my personal gratitude for this invitation. And it’s good to be back at the Conference of Presidents and seeing so many friends and familiar faces. Many of you have come from Jewish communities across this country in a strong show of support for Israel.
These are indeed difficult days. Today, together, all of us who care about the State of Israel are again confronted with the challenges of a dangerous and imperfect world: Of sirens and shelters. Young people called yet again to war. (Audience interruption). Of a land where, in the haunting phrase of Yitzhak Rabin, “parents bury their children.”
Today is the first day of Av, the month when Jews commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. It’s a reminder that the Jewish people have endured much worse than rockets and survived much stronger enemies than Hamas. You have been tested by tragedy and time, by history and hatred. But each time, am yisrael chai: the people of Israel live.
This is a time of worry for all who care about Israel. But, here’s one thing you never have to worry about: America’s support for the State of Israel. As President Obama declared before the Israeli people in Jerusalem: “so long as there is a United States of America … you are not alone.”
That’s why, from the moment that terrorist rockets began to rain down on Israel, this Administration, from President Obama on down, has made it clear: Israel has the same, unequivocal right to self-defense as every other nation. No nation can accept terrorists tunneling into its territory or rockets crashing down on its people.
President Obama has been equally clear about who has been responsible for the violence. Hamas fired the rockets. Hamas deliberately targeted Israeli citizens, particularly civilians. Hamas refused an early plan for a ceasefire. Hamas, in a time of glaring human need, instead of investing in the future of Gaza’s children, built tunnels to kidnap and kill Israelis. So Hamas initiated this conflict. And, Hamas has dragged it on.
But, America and Israel are also united by a shared belief we each strive to honor: that every person is created equal and “b’tzelem elokim”—in the image of God.
I know we all share deep concern about the suffering and deaths of innocent people that arise from a conflict like this one – in Gaza as well as in Israel. The people of Gaza, many of whom disapprove of Hamas and suffer under its misrule, are trapped in the crossfire. The loss of children has been particularily heartbreaking.
As President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu discussed yesterday, the United States supports an immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire. That humanitarian ceasefire should lead to a permanent cessation of hostilities based on the November 2012 ceasefire agreement. For the sake of innocents on both sides, the rockets must stop. We need to bring the violence and civilian casualties to an end, and we are concerned that continued fighting could further destabilize the West Bank. We need to protect Israel’s security and help it reach an arrangement where it will not be attacked again in another year or two. We also believe that any process to resolve the crisis in Gaza in a lasting and meaningful way must result in the disarmament of terrorist groups. So we will work closely with Israel, regional partners, and the international community to achieve this goal once a sustainable ceasefire is agreed.
Let me also take a moment to acknowledge, as Ambassador Dermer did, the extraordinary efforts of Secretary Kerry. I must tell you: we’ve been dismayed by some press reports in Israel mischaracterizing his efforts last week to achieve a ceasefire. We know these misleading reports in turn raise concerns here at home in America.
The reality is that John Kerry on behalf of the United States has been working every step of the way with Israel, in support of our shared interests. Both in public and in private, we have strongly supported Israel’s right to defend itself against rockets and tunnel attacks, and we’ve engaged together in sensitive negotiations. We will continue to do so. And, we’ll continue to set the record straight when anyone distorts the facts.
As we pursue diplomacy, we are grateful that the amazing Iron Dome anti-rocket system – researched and funded jointly by Israel and America – stands watch over Israel’s cities.
During my most recent visit to Israel in May, I saw first-hand the technology at Palmachim Air Force Base. I met the young Israelis who operate the system—dedicated men and women now working around the clock. In recent weeks, on average, over 100 rockets a day have been fired at Israel. Iron Dome has literally meant the difference between life and death. And I’m deeply proud that President Obama helped make it possible. And, I’m proud that – with his enthusiastic support—the United States will more than double our investment in Iron Dome. The President also instructed the Secretary of Defense to inform Congress last week that we support an additional $225 million to accelerate the production of Iron Dome components in Israel this year and maintain Israel’s stockpile of interceptor missiles. Now, Congress has a critical opportunity this week to fund the President’s supplemental request, so that Israel can remain secure.
Iron Dome makes it clear yet again: America has Israel’s back. We have always had a truly special relationship—ever since President Truman made America the first nation in the world to recognize the State of Israel in May 1948, just 11 minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence. The seeds of friendship planted that day have grown into a mighty oak– strong, sturdy, and enduring.
Our governments have never been in closer touch, including through the delegation of senior officials from the Departments of State, Treasury, and Defense, and the CIA that I led to Israel, on behalf of the President, in May. We are in constant contact, constant consultation, constant cooperation. And by the way, that’s why I was late getting here—I was on the phone in the basement with my Israeli counterpart. So it is constant, it is daily and it is highly constructive.
Our commitment to protect Israel’s qualitative military edge remains absolute. Just ask Israel’s generals. Our security assistance to Israel is at a record high.
The relationship is even stronger between our peoples. Just last week, 30,000 Israelis came to the funeral of Max Steinberg, a young man from Los Angeles who joined the Israel Defense Forces and was killed in Gaza. Another 20,000 came to pay respects to Sean Carmeli, from Texas.
Israel is not alone—not in war, not in peace.
And because America staunchly supports Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state, we’ll also continue doing what we can to bring about a just, comprehensive, and secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians –two states for two peoples, living side by side in peace and security. We are committed to strengthening Israel’s security in achieving this goal –and cementing Israel’s rightful place among the community nations.
Which brings me to my next point. We don’t just fight for Israel’s security. We also fight for Israel’s legitimacy.
As President Obama said in Jerusalem, “those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist, they might as well reject the earth beneath them or the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere.”
No country is immune to criticism – nor should it be. But when that criticism takes the form of singling out just one country unfairly, bitterly, and relentlessly—over and over and over—that’s just wrong, and we all know it.
I saw this firsthand during my years at the United Nations, where America always has Israel’s back when its basic right of self-defense is challenged. Believe me, I remember all too well the fight against the deeply flawed Goldstone Report. So, last week, when the United Nations Human Rights Council again passed a one-sided resolution calling for a commission of inquiry that will have no positive impact and should never have been created– the United States stood with Israel and said “no.” We were the lone vote in the Human Rights Council. Even our closest friends on the Council abstained. It was 29-1. But the “1”, as usual, was America. That’s what we mean when we say “you are not alone.”
We take that stand on principle. It’s important not just for Israel, but for the credibility of the United Nations itself. The UN does exceptional, lifesaving things around the world: empowering women and girls, keeping the peace in far-flung conflict zones, providing humanitarian aid whether in Gaza, Syria, or Congo and around the world. The world needs the United Nations. So when countries single out Israel for unfair treatment at the UN, it isn’t just a problem for Israel. It’s a problem for all of us.
And, today, we also see anti-Semitism flaring up around the world, including in Europe. The pretext is the passions coming out of the current conflict, but we all know it has its roots in something ancient and ugly—and we should not shy away from calling it by its name.
It’s one thing to use the right of free expression to criticize particular policies of a particular government. No nation is immune from criticism, fair and otherwise, including our own—take it from me as a former UN ambassador. But an anti-Jewish riot is not a policy critique. It’s not free expression when a protest turns into a mob that attacks a synagogue and a kosher grocery store. It’s one thing when the message is “end the fighting,” but when the message is “Death to the Jews,” it’s an outrage. And it’s dangerous when the mayor of a major city takes to Twitter to invoke Hitler and incite hostility against the Israeli Embassy, which he called “the despicable murderers’ consulate.” That’s just hate, and it’s got to stop. As the late Tom Lantos used to say, “the veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians, and we can never rest.”
And so when leaders in Tehran talk openly about ending the State of Israel, that’s just one more reason why America is determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Under President Obama’s leadership, we have marshaled unprecedented economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran. We have brought Iran to the negotiating table and signed a Joint Plan of Action that halted Iran’s progress on its nuclear program—and rolled it back in key respects for the first time in nearly a decade. This interim agreement has given us the time and space to try to negotiate a comprehensive solution. To date, we have made meaningful progress on some key issues, although we remain far apart on several others. As a result, we decided – along with the European Union, Germany and the other permanent members of the Security Council – to extend the agreement until November 24th.
Our goal remains clear: a comprehensive, verifiable deal that can assure the world that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon and that will offer confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. But let me be blunt about two things—maybe I should say two other things. First, we will not accept a bad deal under any circumstances—even if that means no deal. And second, we will do what we must to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
All this is rooted in a very special friendship between the United States and Israel, stretching back from before Israel’s birth to today. And, for me, it’s rooted in powerful personal experience. I will never forget my very first visit to Israel. I was just 14, and I went with my younger brother and my beloved late father, who was then on the Board of Directors of Trans World Airlines. On that trip, we bowed our heads at Yad Vashem, floated in the Dead Sea, walked the lanes of the Old City, climbed Masada, and picked fruit at a kibbutz. I learned by heart the words of the Sh’ma.
And here’s something that has always stayed with me: to go on that first trip, I was privileged to take one of the very first flights from Cairo to Tel Aviv, just after Israel and Egypt had signed the Camp David Accords. That peace seemed impossible for so long—but it wasn’t. That peace, enduring to this day, reminds us that human conflict and human problems can be resolved by human courage. You know that. It’s why you’re here today, and it’s why I came too.
My friends, these are difficult days. But as Israel’s former president, my friend Shimon Peres, likes to say: “There are no hopeless situations, just hopeless people.” We all know a few of them. So let us remember, especially in troubled times, that despair is a sin, and service is a duty. America doesn’t lose hope. The Jewish people don’t lose hope. And the State of Israel doesn’t lose hope. That’s why Israel’s national anthem is “Hatikvah”— the hope. And that’s why, in this imperfect and dangerous world, we ask together for God’s blessing and help. We pray for security and for peace — but we know that it’s not enough just to pray for it. We’ve got to work for it—together, united, and determined. Because, as President Kennedy once said, “here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” And that is what we strive to do together every day. Thank you.