Thank you and good afternoon.
I would first like to express my appreciation to Steve Linde—and to the entire management team, as well as the reporters and staff of this venerated newspaper for inviting me once again to address the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference. I am honored to join so many distinguished panelists and speakers, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the attendance of so many influential members of the news media, diplomatic corps, analysts, and members of the public.
An independent and free press is one of the essential foundations of any democracy, as demonstrated so clearly by media in the United States and Israel.
Our shared commitment to freedom of the press—a sacred value theJerusalem Post has promoted for more than 80 years—undergirds our free, open and democratic societies. So I congratulate and commend the Post on the fine and important work you do day in and day out.
The bulk of my remarks will address U.S.-Israel relations, but let me first address the tragic and ghastly events in Paris over the weekend, a series of terrorist strikes that President Obama aptly called an attack “on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”
France is the United States’ oldest ally. Our unique relationship has never wavered. France was at our side on one of our darkest days, September 11, 2001. And the United States is at France’s side today.
Speaking in Paris yesterday, Secretary Kerry said, “We must do what is in our power, and that begins with a sense of fierce solidarity.” It continues, he said, “with a vow that we will never be intimidated by terrorists and with a promise that we will never allow these murderers to achieve their violent aims.”
As I told my colleague, French Ambassador Patrick Maisonnave yesterday, we offer our condolences to the French people and to the families of those murdered.
But we offer more—a sacred commitment to continue the fight to its conclusion, shouldering our share of the burden in combating this scourge, to ensure that together, we prevail over evil and terror.
ISIL, or Daesh, may have launched an attack against France, but it was also an attack against the entire free world. The United States will do whatever it takes to help France confront ISIL and bring all perpetrators to justice. That activity is already underway.
As President Obama announced earlier this week, the United States is now “streamlining the process by which we share intelligence and operational military information with France.”
Since long before these horrific attacks, France has been an active, contributing member of the anti-ISIL coalition. Already in this war, we and our allies have conducted over 8,000 airstrikes against ISIL targets, and we have stopped their territorial advance and enabled allied local fighters, like the Kurds, to take back significant amounts of territory.
“We have always understood that this would be a long-term campaign,” said President Obama, and our coalition, with France in a leading role, is now intensifying our military action – targeting ISIL leadership strongholds, such a Raqqa; eliminating key terrorists like Jihadi John; and attacking ISIL’s financial infrastructure, including a fleet of oil tanker trucks.
At the G-20 earlier this week, leading nations also committed to intensify the non-military elements of this campaign, through strengthened border controls, greater information sharing, and renewed efforts to prevent the flow of foreign fighters in and out of Syria and Iraq.
Of course, ISIL’s successes have been made possible in the environment created by the Syrian civil war, in which the brutal Assad regime has inflicted such immense suffering on the Syrian people, and extremism has flourished. Our challenge in Syria is to create conditions under which a clear and broadly acceptable and viable alternative to both Assad and ISIL can emerge.
To that end, President Obama has set out three interrelated goals.
First, 14 months ago, the President committed the United States to the defeat and dismantlement of the terrorist organization Daesh, directing his national security team to develop and implement recommendations for degrading and defeating Daesh rapidly, completely, and permanently.
Second, we are intensifying our diplomatic efforts to finally bring an end to the civil war in Syria.
And third, we are determined to support our friends in the region, and to ensure that the instability created by the Syrian crisis does not spread beyond its borders.
Last week, Secretary of State Kerry traveled to Vienna for a meeting of the International Support Group for Syria (ISGS). The statement issued by the ISGS is an important step toward marshalling international support and cooperation in ending the Syrian crisis and achieving a political solution that realizes the goals of the Syrian revolution. This is a continuation and intensification of our efforts to implement a sound and legitimate policy that achieves a ceasefire, negotiates a political transition, and brings Syrian suffering to an end.
Through American leadership, and the cooperation of other concerned states, this new International Support Group for Syria holds out the possibility of breathing new life into our efforts to achieve these goals.
Israelis are understandably nervous given the uniquely complex threat environment and their proximity to the multi-sided civil war, which includes no small number of actors hostile to Israel.
Israel is right to highlight its interests in not allowing any outcome in Syria to permit Iran to conduct or sponsor terrorist attacks on Israel across the Golan Heights frontier, or to expand its provision of sophisticated weapons systems to Hizballah in Lebanon. Israel must also watch the other extremist elements in Syria, such as ISIL and the al-Nusra Front, with a wary eye.
And the United States will work to protect these Israeli interests, which are also American interests, as the diplomatic process unfolds.
In fact, one paradoxically reassuring byproduct of the current regional turmoil is that it underscores the strategic importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship–a bond of two allies with common strategic interests who face an array of dangers that threaten us and our partners and allies. Our strategic alliance is buttressed by our shared democratic values, which struggle to take hold, and indeed, are under assault, throughout this region.
This strategic context formed the backdrop of President Obama’s productive meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu last week.
Now, 2015 has not been the easiest year in our bilateral relationship, particularly with respect to our policy disagreement on the nuclear agreement negotiated by the P5+1 with Iran. It was an honest disagreement, between two close allies, with an identical strategic objective of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but with different ideas about the best way to achieve it.
Policy disagreements are certainly not unprecedented in the long history of this relationship.
But the day-to-day media coverage, with its intense focus on our leaders’ personal relationship, and the political environments in both countries, tend to magnify the differences and significantly underplay our two nations’ extensive achievements – our two leaders’ achievements – in security cooperation during the same period.
As someone who participated in the meeting last week at the White House—as well as in every meeting these two leaders have had since coming to office in 2009—I can tell you that neither leader denied recent differences, but they did not dwell on them either. Both leaders took a forward-looking approach and used their meeting as an opportunity to resume their serious and focused cooperation on a wide range of shared security interests.
I would like to spend a few minutes talking about the key issues that the leaders covered.
As Vice President Biden clearly stated again last week, “We simply will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, period.”
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will keep Iran farther away from a nuclear weapon, for a longer period of time, and with greater transparency and monitoring than any other alternative. It will also enablethe international community to respond, with a full range of options, to any efforts by Iran to circumvent the agreement – options which include partial or full snapback of sanctions, and even the use of military force.
Iran has a long list of steps it must take to downgrade its nuclear program before it will receive a single dollar of sanctions relief.
These include: removing thousands of centrifuges from Natanz and Fordow, disposing of its stockpile of enriched uranium, disabling its heavy water reactor at Arak, addressing the possible past military dimension of its nuclear program, and setting up a highly intrusive system of inspections and monitoring.
All of these steps must be certified by the IAEA. Together, they will block every path Iran could take to a nuclear weapon during the term of the agreement, and likely well beyond.
Our focus now shifts to enforcement, monitoring, and verification. At the White House, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed on the importance of holding Iran’s feet to the fire to ensure it fully complies with its obligations in the agreement.
Israeli input and recommendations to American experts helped shape the conceptual and technical aspects of the nuclear agreement. Now, we look forward to further cooperation with Israeli experts on the monitoring and compliance process.
With the Iran nuclear program addressed, the Prime Minister and President turned to ways to intensify our cooperation on the non-nuclear threats posed by Iran.
There is no disagreement between us about Iran’s upgrading of its conventional forces including ballistic missiles, its continued support for terrorist proxies, it arming of Hizballah and Hamas, it destabilizing of its neighbors, or indeed, its threats to destroy Israel.
We will continue to work with Israel to combat these threats, through intelligence sharing, the interdiction of weapons transfers, sanctions and designations against terrorist entities.
We are using many of the same tools to work with Israel to ensure its security is protected from the other threats in the region, including terrorist groups like ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, spillover violence from the war in Syria, and instability in Israel’s neighbors.
In view of this dangerous regional environment, the President and Prime Minister agreed to resume senior level talks in December with the aim of reaching a new long-term Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on American security assistance to Israel. It is a complex exercise that involves appropriately identifying the threats and matching them with the most effective capabilities and systems.
Along the way, Israel will have significant decisions to make about how to prioritize different systems in its long-term acquisition planning. And we will all have to take account of budget realities in both countries.
Our future security assistance will raise the bar further on the already unprecedented heights we have reached in our security cooperation, including: our three billion dollars in annual military assistance; an additional one billion dollars in support of Iron Dome since 2010, with life-saving results; hundreds of millions more for the David’s Sling and Arrow 3 missile defense programs; extensive joint military training; expanded intelligence sharing, and many other areas.
And it includes the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most sophisticated fighter aircraft in the world. The F-35 will be the backbone of the Israeli Air Force for the next generation. Israel will be the only air force in the Middle East to fly it, starting with the first arrivals 13 months from now.
Our talks on the MOU will be undergirded by America’s bedrock commitment to ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME), which is crucial to Israel’s ability to defend itself, by itself.
This commitment is longstanding and nonpartisan. It reflects our moral commitment, and is buttressed by legal obligations. It is not affected by other policy considerations.
I also expect this dialogue will include a broader discussion on enhanced defense cooperation in such areas as cyber security, intelligence and counter-tunneling technology.
The President and the Prime Minister also addressed the recent wave of violence and terrorism, the tensions at Jerusalem’s holy sites, and the outlook for a two-state solution.
In his public remarks, President Obama reiterated America’s solidarity with the Israeli people in the face of Palestinian terrorism and violence against innocent citizens. “Israel has not just the right,” he said, “but the obligation to protect itself.”
There is no acceptable excuse, no justification, and no legitimate basis for terrorism. We condemn it in the strongest terms, period.
And we forcefully engage the Palestinian Authority leadership to stop the incitement that often stands behind it.
As Israel mourns the murder of so many of its citizens – most recently, Rabbi Yaakov Litman z”l and his son Netanel Litman z”l, who were gunned down just before Shabbat – and prays for the recovery of dozens more—a list that includes American citizens—America’s leaders and countless other Americans stand in steadfast solidarity with you.
With Israel, just as with France, America’s condemnation, our total rejection of terror — whether in the form of rocks, knives, motor vehicles, guns, suicide bombers, or rockets — is unequivocal and rooted in the kinship of our open and democratic societies.
At their meeting, President Obama also reiterated America’s commitment to assisting Israelis and Palestinians in finding durable solutions to the ongoing crisis and restoring security.
Secretary Kerry effectively engaged leaders from Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority in Berlin and Amman last month, and met again last Wednesday with the Prime Minister in Washington, to further explore positive steps the parties can take to ease tensions.
President Obama also focused part of last week’s meeting on getting back on a path toward a “two-states-for-two-peoples” solution.
“Legitimate Palestinian aspirations,” he said, can only be “met through a political process.”
But we are realistic enough to recognize that a two-state solution will not occur during the remainder of the Obama Administration, and we may be in an extended period when it is not even possible to conduct negotiations.
There is a grave risk during such a period of sliding further toward a binational outcome that will cost Israel its Jewish or its democratic character, and will not deliver Palestinians their dream of independence. The binational outcome is not one that either side wants. But it will become increasingly likely if the current political stalemate persists.
Leaders who wish to avoid such a future must think creatively and proactively about how to prevent that outcome.
So we are urging both sides to consider seriously what steps they can take, even in the absence of negotiations, that are consistent with the transition to two states envisioned by previous agreements, and at least provide some momentum in that direction until the next negotiations can take place.
Our Acting Special Envoy, Frank Lowenstein, will be in the region soon to address these issues.
In our on-going dialogue with all sides, we continue to discourage unilateral actions that damage and undermine prospects for renewing, and successfully completing, negotiations for a two-state solution.
Such actions include Palestinian appeals to the ICC and U.N. bodies, and Israeli settlement expansion and home demolitions.
We also maintain a dialogue with the Israeli government about the actions it is taking to combat extremism and the importance of bringing to justice those responsible for such horrifying terrorist attacks as the arson in Duma that took the lives of three members of the Dawabshe family last summer.
Our relationship has many other features worth upgrading and celebrating, including our extensive people-to-people connections and our burgeoning economic ties.
Next month, President Obama looks forward to welcoming President Rivlin to the White House, further underscoring the close bonds between our peoples. President Rivlin has demonstrated extraordinary courage and leadership in combating extremism, encouraging coexistence and mutual understanding, and ensuring that Israel’s democratic rights, responsibilities, values, and economic opportunities, extend to all of its citizens.
I know President Obama looks forward to meeting President Rivlin and discussing these and other issues with him.
At this point, it is no longer a secret that they will also be enjoying some latkes together at the annual White House Hanukah reception.
Economics and trade are the newest, and fastest rising, pillar of this extraordinary alliance. The pursuit of our common prosperity, and the goal of expanding economic opportunity, are now fully fused into the DNA of this relationship. We have transformed a political and strategic relationship into a powerful engine for economic growth.
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the U.S.-Israel Free Trade Agreement–the first such agreement America signed with any nation. Since the FTA was signed in 1985, trade has multiplied more than eightfold, to nearly $50 billion. And here in Israel, we put our money where our mouth is: I am proud that our Embassy plays a vital role in supporting numerous programs for Israelis that open doors to better jobs and economic opportunities for all segments of society.
Meanwhile, we never stop exploring opportunities to help Israel build regional economic ties with its neighbors. The natural gas deals with Jordan and Egypt that will be made possible by expanded offshore production will strengthen Israel’s relationship with those key strategic partners. They also offer a foretaste of what might be possible once Israel finds itself at peace with the Palestinians and other Arab states.
To sum up, the state of our unique alliance is strong and there is a robust agenda to tackle over the next year and beyond.
In the months ahead, there will be debates on all the issues I have discussed, and there will be a need—no less than before—for robust reporting and public discourse. And so, wide and diverse audiences will continue to rely on the Jerusalem Post for its original reporting, thoughtful analysis, and commitment to truth and transparency.