I’d like to start by thanking Jim Tisch and your legendary chairman, Natan Sharansky, for the generous invitation to speak with you today. I am particularly honored because I am very familiar with the 80-year history of the Jewish Agency and its deep roots in both the founding and strengthening of the State of Israel and its ongoing commitment to securing a bright future for the Jewish people. Those are two missions that can only be described as Avodat Kodesh, and you have the deep respect and admiration of the United States for undertaking them. I am also delighted to see so many friends and colleagues here this morning.
Natan asked me to speak about a variety of regional and international topics, starting with the special relationship between the United States and Israel, a subject that has been the center of my life’s work. So with your indulgence, I’d like to tell you a little bit about where I’ve come from, and how my background informs my work as U.S. Ambassador in Israel.
I’ve spent many years working as a senior U.S. government official, in the executive and legislative branches of our government. I am a proud member of our Jewish community in Washington, D.C., active in a Conservative synagogue and the Jewish day school that my children attended and where my wife, Julie, worked for many years. And my profound respect for the State of Israel and its remarkable achievements stems from a lifetime of exposure to the extraordinary people who brought Theodore Herzl’s Zionist dream to life.
But because not everyone knows my history, I thought I would start with a little background about how I got here. I first discovered Israel as a young boy of four, joining my parents, sister, and brother on a sabbatical semester in the fall of 1973. We enjoyed all the experiences of living here – learning Hebrew, making Israeli friends, sampling new foods, and exploring a land with which we knew we had an ancient connection.
But the experience changed utterly on Yom Kippur, when emergency phone calls, air raid sirens, and soldiers rushing through the streets shattered the calm.
Over the next three weeks, while Israelis fought and died to save their country, we struggled to understand what was happening and overcome our fears. My parents, refusing the entreaties of their own parents to return home with the grandchildren, decided to stay, helping out where they could – volunteering in the Angel bakery and in the chicken coop of a moshav, whose workers had gone to the front – and comforting us during scary nights in the bomb shelter or in our blacked out Kiryat Moshe apartment.
By the end of the war, and even more so, by the end of our stay, our family’s relationship with Israel had been utterly transformed, from a solid but light connection to the deepest of bonds. Throughout the remainder of my childhood, family dinner conversations turned easily to events in Israel, from the thrill of the peace with Egypt to the anguish of the Lebanon War. The ample bookshelves in my parents’ home grew laden with studies in Zionism, Jewish history, and Israeli literature.
Later, I spent a half a year after high school in Israel on a Reform Movement program, living with an Israeli family in Jerusalem, studying at Hebrew Union College, traveling widely throughout the country, and volunteering on Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava. I returned for my sophomore year of college at Hebrew University, supplementing my studies with work as a waiter at the wedding hall in the Beit Knesset HaGadol and long Shabbat walks in Rehavia.
In the years since, I have made Israel, its history and people, its quest for peace and security in the Middle East, and its relationship with the United States, the centerpiece of my academic studies at Brandeis and Harvard, my work on Capitol Hill, and my service in the Clinton and Obama Administrations.
Now when I met with Natan shortly after my arrival in Israel, and we discussed the Jewish Agency’s initiatives, including the MASA program, and I recounted my personal history, Natan got very excited and said, “See, you came on Israel programs after high school, and now you are the U.S. Ambassador to Israel. Michael Oren did the same thing and he is now the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. You are like the poster children for the MASA program.” And I must say, I consider that a high compliment.
U.S.-Israel Special Relationship
I recount this personal history, not because my story is necessarily so compelling, but for whatever insights it can give us about the connection of the American Jewish community to the U.S.-Israel relationship.
In many ways my story is not unique. American Jews of many backgrounds have forged and nurtured strong bonds with Israel. We all know that Jewish Americans are by no means a monolithic group. They are diverse in their religious practice and affiliation, and in their political views on issues across the board, both domestic and international.
But it is impossible to deny the special connection that most in the American Jewish community feel for Israel.
And wherever they fall on the political spectrum, and whatever their views on American policy, Israeli policy or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the vast majority of American Jews care deeply about Israel and want the United States to be Israel’s partner in ensuring its future as a secure, democratic, and Jewish State.
But it’s not just Jewish Americans who care deeply about Israel, of course. It’s Americans across the board. That is why President Truman is roundly praised for making the United States the first nation to recognize the Jewish State 11 minutes after the proclamation. And it’s also why when Soviet Premier Kosygin asked President Johnson why the United States supports Israel, when there are 80 million Arabs and only three million Israelis, President Johnson replied simply: “Because it is right.”
Americans look at Israel and see a country much like their own, which struggled to survive from its very founding, and not only succeeded against all odds, but thrived. America and Israel are unique in the world, in that our founding fathers and mothers made a conscious decision to leave their place of birth in search of a better future, in the case of Israel, to rebuild the ancient homeland of their ancestors.
They wanted to be free from fear and to be part of something greater than themselves. Both our countries were established on the very premise that all people have a right to live and to thrive and to determine their own futures. These are the unique bonds between Israel and America that form the foundation of our special relationship.
I am deeply honored that President Obama has entrusted to me the task and responsibility of strengthening and deepening these ties.
President Obama’s approach towards Israel is grounded in his firm conviction that it is a profoundly important interest of the United States for Israel to succeed and thrive into the future as a strong, secure, Jewish, democratic state here in the historic homeland of the Jewish people.
Our stake in Israel’s future flows, without a doubt, from the common interests of two allies facing common threats – from terrorists, from Iran, and from instability in a sensitive part of the world – as well as from the tremendous investment we have made in each other through unparalleled security cooperation. But, as President Obama has said, the U.S.-Israel relationship is more than a strategic alliance, it is a moral bond between the peoples of two democracies.
Helping ensure Israel remains strong, secure, Jewish and democratic animates our policies across the Administration, and explains our extraordinary security cooperation, which encompasses military assistance, close working relationships at senior and working levels, joint training and exchanges, and joint technology development. Over the decades, we have invested tens of billions of dollars in Israel’s security, always with the goal of ensuring that Israel maintains its qualitative military edge and has the means to defend itself. With strong bipartisan support, we provide an annual military assistance package of about $3 billion, which enables Israel to purchase the most advanced US military technology, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft.
Our most senior political, diplomatic, military, and security leaders are in nearly constant dialogue, through visits and phone calls, to ensure the closest possible coordination of our policies. That coordination will continue when President Obama hosts Prime Minister Netanyahu next week for their ninth meeting, more than any other foreign leader the President has hosted in the United States.
It is no exaggeration to say that today, U.S.-Israel defense cooperation and U.S. security assistance is at its strongest ever, as President Obama mentioned in his State of the Union address last month. Defense Minister Barak agrees. In December, he said that “the U.S. stands besides Israel in terms of its security more than ever before.”
But I also want to emphasize the mutuality of this partnership. When we say that Israel’s survival as a strong, secure, Jewish, democratic state is an American national interest, and when the President says the bonds between the United States and Israel remain unbreakable and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad, it represents both the fact, and our deep and enduring belief, that this is a two-way relationship.
Over the years, we have put in place regular and deep intelligence exchanges that surpass what we do with many of our intelligence partners. The sharing of intelligence, analysis and assessments is constant, rich, and flows in both directions. Israel brings unique capabilities in collecting and analyzing intelligence on certain actors hostile to both of us, from which we benefit enormously.
Joint military training and coordination of our counter-terrorism and civil preparedness efforts are other areas of great collaboration. Israel has tremendous expertise in these fields, from which American forces and experts learn and improve our own capabilities. The deep ties between our militaries include joint training opportunities that our own troops look forward to and initiate themselves.
We collaborate on defense technology development, from which the benefits flow in both directions. Our work to jointly develop missile defense systems has led to technological breakthroughs that we are both employing to defend ourselves. The successes of the Arrow and Iron Dome programs, and the David’s Sling program, which is still in development, are critical advances that enhance Israel’s strategic position.
We are particularly proud of our support for the Iron Dome system, which grew out of President Obama’s visit to Sderot in 2008 as a presidential candidate, where he visited families whose homes had been destroyed by Hamas rockets. That experience led him to seek an additional $200 million, above our annual assistance package, to support accelerated deployment of the Iron Dome system, which has proven itself as a lifesaving technology. Two of my first visits as US Ambassador were to an Iron Dome battery deployed near Ashkelon and to the Rafael company in northern Israel, where I was able to watch US tax dollars at work, as the talented technicians on the production floor assembled the interceptor missiles, each one of which could save multiple Israeli lives.
I also want to mention an Israeli technological breakthrough that has had enormous strategic significance for the United States. I just recently visited Kibbutz Sasa, the home of Plasan. Plasan met the call to help protect American soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan when they were able to surge the production of up-armor kits for Humvees and for mine-resistant vehicles. These armor kits were critical in saving the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen when they faced the threat of IEDs and RPG attacks.
All of these examples of security cooperation are motivated by those common interests and challenges we share. It is due to our common goals that we discuss these issues at the highest levels and in the most intimate ways in order to seek the best way forward. These discussions are a sign of the health and strength of our partnership. We rarely disagree on the desired outcome, so we focus on coordinating the best method to achieve it.
One of the most prominent issues on which we coordinate is the joint interest of the United States and Israel to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability. Through extraordinarily close, high-level coordination, including during the visit of National Security Adviser Tom Donilon last weekend, we have achieved between the United States and Israel a common understanding of the nature of the threat a nuclear-armed Iran would pose, a common intelligence basis on which to judge the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, a common strategy – together with many other nations – to use unprecedented sanctions and economic pressure to induce Iran to change course, and a common principle that no options are off the table to achieve our goal.
We view a nuclear-armed Iran as unacceptable, because of the grave threat it would pose to the security of the United States, our allies and forces in the region, and the world. For Israel, it can be an existential threat. It would also lead to a nuclear arms race across the Middle East, the collapse of the global nuclear non-proliferation system, an emboldened Iran sponsoring Hizballah and Hamas terror – as it does today – but under a nuclear umbrella, and severe threats to freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf. It would be too dangerous to permit this regime, which calls for Israel’s destruction, sponsors terrorism, seeks to dominate and intimidate it neighbors, to acquire nuclear weapons.
For all these reasons, President Obama has said many times, the United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. And when he says no options are off the table to achieve that goal, he means that he has directed our military to do the necessary planning to ensure that other options will be available to the President at any time that he might determine they are necessary. And that has been done.
Despite strong pressure from the international community, Iran continues to engage in a variety of destabilizing activities and refuses to address the international community’s serious concerns with Iran’s nuclear program.
These concerns have been underscored by Iran’s refusal to permit IAEA inspectors access to sensitive sites, and by the detailed description of Iran’s efforts to advance its nuclear program in two recent IAEA reports. As a consequence, we have we have taken steps in coordination with our partners to increase dramatically the pressure on Iran. We have led the world in imposing the toughest sanctions ever on the Iranian regime, building on U.N Security Council Resolution 1929. Sanctions have imposed steep costs on the regime. Iran’s leaders admit publicly that sanctions are hurting their economy, especially targeted sectors like energy, finance, and transportation. We are urging all governments to further increase the pressure on Iran and to deepen the impact of these measures through the application of sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and concerted efforts to reduce Iran’s oil revenues.
On December 31, President Obama signed new legislation to target the Central Bank of Iran and Iran’s crude oil revenues, and intended to encourage a multilateral initiative to reduce Iran’s oil revenues. The new legislation sharpens the choice for Iran: rejoin the international community as a responsible nation and fulfill your obligations with respect to your nuclear program, or face escalating pressure and isolation. The new law provides for sanctions on foreign financial institutions that are found to knowingly engage in certain transactions, including those related to petroleum and petroleum products, with the Central Bank of Iran and designated Iranian financial institutions.
We are making clear that the best possible way for partners to avoid potential sanctions under this law is to wind down all business with the CBI as quickly as possible and to significantly reduce their volumes of crude oil purchases from Iran.
We are also working with oil consuming countries to help them respond to the new legislation and find alternatives to energy supplies from Iran. Allies like the EU share our goals and are imposing measures of their own, such as an embargo of Iranian oil purchases, which we support.
Taken in combination with the many other sanctions that have been imposed and continue to be implemented, we believe that such aggressive new pressure can have an impact on Iran’s strategic calculus. Changing Iran’s calculus is essential to achieving a diplomatic solution. Recent behavior shows Iran’s desperation in the face of increasing international pressure. Iran is isolated and is seeking to divert attention from its behavior and domestic problems. Until Iran chooses to address international concerns about its nuclear program, we will implement all multilateral, regional, and national sanctions against Iran, and encourage our partners to do so as well. All of these measures have produced unprecedented pressure on Iran, which will only build in the months ahead. And we will not let up until we achieve our goal.
We face a number of other challenges in this region, on which the United States and Israel coordinate extremely closely, including our responses to the unprecedented transitions in the Arab world, and helping Israel and the Palestinians achieve their goal of two states living side by side in peace and security.
I know you have a busy program here today, so I’ll save discussion of those issues for another occasion. Let me just conclude my remarks by once again expressing my profound appreciation to the Jewish Agency for your continued commitment to Israel’s future, the U.S.-Israel relationship, and the future of the Jewish people. It’s been a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.