Thank you, Richard for the introduction and for the invitation to speak before this distinguished group for the second year in a row. Thank you also to Malcolm and Alan— I was privileged also to address the conference in New York a year and a half ago at the send-off you gave me. And Julie and I continue to cherish the Tfilah L’shalom HaMalchat (Prayer for our Government) you gave us, which we are proud to have hanging in our home, carrying your blessings with us on this mission.
Ladies, Gentlemen, (Prime Minister Netanyahu), and distinguished guests here with us tonight. As many of you know, we’ve been a bit busy this past week – I think I’ve been asked almost every day since I arrived when President Obama would be coming to Israel, and I consistently said I had no news to share, but I knew he looked forward to coming. Well, you can officially count me as thrilled and I think a lot of others are as well, because it is official: the President is coming. Only four other sitting U.S. presidents have ever visited Israel.
The choice of Israel as the first visit overseas visit of President Obama’s second term is emblematic of the strong bilateral U.S.-Israel relationship, an opportunity to reaffirm our deep and enduring ties, as well as recognition that we have a common set of interests to advance and protect and a common set of challenges to tackle together. Iran and Syria are among the most pressing concerns that require strong mutual resolve and coordination, along with returning to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Prime Minister and President of the United States have singled these critical issues out for intense focus during the visit, along with our broad bilateral agenda. We are grateful to President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu for their invitation and I know President Obama looks forward to meeting with them both.
Almost a year and a half ago, President Obama sent me to Israel as his Ambassador, and in the time since, I’ve been delighted to meet with Israelis from across the country, and proud to say I’ve seen many instances of cooperation between the United States and Israel, not just on the government-to-government level, but also on the people-to-people level. The unbreakable bond that our two countries share is rooted in the common interests and shared values that our people prize and hold dear. And this bond is constantly being strengthened by the dedication and hard work of individuals and organizations, such as those represented in the Conference of Presidents.
As you know we are located in one of most complicated regions in the world and there are many serious issues to address, some of which I will go into in a minute. But, I can honestly say that my task as Ambassador here is made much easier by the knowledge that there are such committed organizations of American citizens, such as yours, who share the goal of deepening the U.S. – Israel relationship.
It goes without saying that the relationship between the United States and Israel is bi-partisan, multifaceted, and goes all the way back to the founding of the State. This long history and the extremely close cooperation between our governments has been maintained through every administration, regardless of political party.
Under the Obama administration, this relationship has grown stronger and our commitment to Israel’s security has been proven multiple times, from the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, during which President Obama personally intervened to ensure the rescue of Israeli diplomats, to our common commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, to our steadfast support for Israel’s right to self-defense during the recent escalation in Gaza. Although President Obama has been here twice as a Senator, undoubtedly, his first visit here as President of the United States will underscore to Israelis, Americans, and the international community, including key audiences in this region, the importance of our relationship and the close cooperation we have.
The very phrase “U.S.-Israel relationship” instantly brings to mind strong cooperation on security and close cultural ties between our communities, but not often enough does it bring to mind the burgeoning of economic relationship between our two countries. I would like to emphasize tonight that it should. Since the State of Israel’s founding, economic ties with the United States have grown to the point where America is now Israel’s largest trading partner. I would like that to sink in a bit – and give you two data points that help illustrate how strong our economic relationship is:
First: two-way trade in goods and services between the United States and Israel exceeds $40 billion per year.
Second: American direct investment in Israel, and Israeli investment in America, totals upwards of $20 billion dollars.
No matter how you look at it, these numbers are significant— they translate into jobs in both countries. American companies and their representatives directly employ about 60,000 Israelis, a full 2% of Israel’s workforce. At the same time, tens of thousands of jobs have been created in the United States by Israeli companies. This job creation is perhaps one of the clearest and most tangible expressions of how U.S.-Israel relationships can and do enhance the lives of our citizens. There are extensive ties between our high-tech industries, building on Israel’s reputation as the “Start-up Nation,” and significant cooperation in the fields of natural gas, green technologies and medical technologies.
With this in mind, I would like to commend those of you here tonight who have contributed and invested your time, energy, resources and capital in developing relationships, and specifically, business and economic relationships. The success of the U.S.-Israel relationship highlights the tremendous potential there is across the board for further cooperation, especially on important issues such as energy, the environment, in science and technology, and cyber-security. In this upcoming year, I look forward to continuing the dialogue and work with Israeli friends in government and the private sector to find ways to deepen cooperation and achieve new successes that will build on the previous 65 years of accomplishments.
Ties between individuals that later flourish into bright relationships often take root early-on for Americans and Israelis, and often are given the space and inspiration to grow at our universities and colleges. Having spent my sophomore year at Hebrew University, compelled and drawn by the opportunity to study in Israel, to discover Jerusalem, its picturesque neighborhoods and its unique atmosphere –
I speak from personal experience when I note the deep connections that our educational institutions can foster. Every year, hundreds of American and Israeli students come to Israel to study, and numerous Israeli students travel to study at American universities, including those on Fulbright scholarships provided by the Department of State. The Embassy works very closely with Israeli universities and high schools, providing English lessons through our Access program, and having “America Days” at the universities. These are fun, full-day affairs where a contingent from the Embassy will arrive and decorate the campus with red, white, and blue, give lectures to different departments and usually bring American musicians or dancers act to perform while we meet the students.
I also send Embassy officers out to meet the community and give talks on various topics. I’m particularly proud that this month, which is Black History Month in the United States, we will have dozens of diplomats speaking and meeting with high school students around the country about Black History, including the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks. The enthusiastic reaction shows how drawn young Israelis are to connecting with the United States.
This outreach ties into what has been one of my highest priorities since arriving to Israel, which is to have Embassy officers, myself included, get out to visit and see places in Israel where we haven’t spent as much time before, and to speak and meet with communities that have not have the opportunity to get to know us as well, and whom we would like to get to know better. I’ve spent full days in places like Arad, Beit Shean, Kiryat Gat, Nazareth, and Bnei Brak – getting to know Israelis of all backgrounds.
This is something I would also encourage all of you to do when you travel here as well. While the relationships we currently have with each other are important for now and will be for the next several years, planning for the future of the U.S. – Israel relationship involves developing relationships outside of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, outside of government offices.
My goal has been for the Embassy, myself included, to reach out to communities all over Israel – because we would like for every Israeli, whether they speak English, Hebrew, Arabic or Russian, whether they live on a moshav in Arava Valley, in the heart of Tel Aviv, or a village in the Galilee, to understand the commitment of the United States to Israel — and that the U.S. supports Israel’s ongoing advancement and prosperity as a strong, secure, Jewish, democratic state. We want everyone to understand the importance of the U.S. – Israeli relationship and invest in it, so that it can remain dynamic in the decades ahead.
The recent Israeli election, so fascinating for an outsider to observe, was run very much on domestic, social and economic issues. We are respectful of internal Israeli debates, and stay out of them, but we have an interest in the success of our democratic ally. And of course, at the center of that alliance is the United States’ unshakeable commitment to the security of Israel. President Obama has emphasized many times, and our unprecedented level of military cooperation has shown, that we are committed to ensuring that Israel has the right and ability to defend itself against any combination of threats.
Last fall, when rockets from Gaza reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time, it demonstrated to the world what Israelis in the South have lived with for years: the terrible reality of missiles fired by terrorist organizations and targeted deliberately at innocent civilians. And that is why, from the first moment, President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and UN Ambassador Rice were crystal clear that the United States fully supported Israel’s right to defend itself. That had a huge benefit in shaping international perceptions of the conflict, which gave Israeli leaders time to conduct their operation, and kept the focus where it needed to be: the need for the rocket fire from Gaza to stop.
The conflict also demonstrated how American security assistance is saving lives here in Israel. The Iron Dome missile defense system, used for the first time in a major conflict, had a success rate of 85% in defending against rockets from Gaza. The nearly $300 million in American funding to accelerate the development and deployment of the system was your tax dollars, helping to save lives and prevent untold injuries and property damage. It also allowed Israel’s leaders the diplomatic and military flexibility to negotiate an outcome that ensured the security of its population. We should all be proud of this American contribution to Israel’s security.
At the same time, together with Israel, we used all possible diplomatic efforts possible to stop the rocket fire. Despite being in the midst of a historic trip to Asia, Secretary Clinton used every spare moment in a special effort to engage her counterparts around the world to support our efforts to de-escalate. President Obama, also traveling in Asia, spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu several times to receive updates and offer support and counsel. The United States and Israel conducted a carefully coordinated diplomatic effort with Egypt, which included Israeli delegations traveling to Cairo and six phone calls between President Obama and President Morsi to arrange elements of a ceasefire agreement.
Working together, and with Egypt’s help, the U.S. and Israel coordinated closely to develop the elements of an agreement to end rocket fire by Hamas and other factions in Gaza, while ensuring U.S. and Israeli security and diplomatic interests. This coordination culminated in Secretary Clinton’s visit to Israel to prepare for her trip to Cairo – and the eventual ceasefire agreement.
Along with the Iron Dome system, the United States provides multiple other forms of military assistance to Israel totaling roughly $3 billion dollars annually. This assistance enables Israel to purchase the most advanced U.S. military technology, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft, which will arrive in 2016. We recently conducted the largest ever joint ballistic missile defense exercise between our two countries, Operation Austere Challenge, with nearly 1,400 U.S. troops on the ground. This level and type of assistance reflects our central commitment to Israel’s security: to preserve Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, so that Israel can defend itself, by itself, against any threat it may face.
One of those threats that Israel faces, and which we are watching very closely, is the deteriorating situation in Syria, both with regard to spillover of the conflict beyond Syria’s borders, and the possible spread of advanced weaponry and chemical weapons. Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights have been struck by errant mortar and rifle fire from the fight between Syrian forces and the opposition, and Israel has on occasion, responded with fire of its own. The United States has always been clear that it respects Israel’s right to defend itself, while working to keep this fragile situation from escalating further.
Israel is rightly concerned about the post-Asad future of Syria, as is the United States. The humanitarian crisis and the toll that the conflict has had on the Syrian people has created a flow of refugees that is of concern within Syria, but also in the region. To that end, we are providing humanitarian aid to the Syrian people and to civilian groups within Syria. We are delivering 25 million dollars to build a network of civilian activists across Syria’s diverse religious and ethnic communities. One of the most important tools that the opposition has is free lines of communication and information flow. To aid the opposition in communicating its message, we have provided unfiltered internet access for some 50,000 Syrians.
While we are continuing to impose sanctions and provide non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition in order to hasten Assad’s departure, we are also trying to encourage a transition to a stable democracy, one that is representative of the people and not extremist groups. As part of that process, we recognized the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It members are working to develop the institutions necessary to govern a post-Asad Syria Although the Asad regime seeks to portray this crisis as a fight against extremists, the majority of the opposition is comprised of ordinary Syrians who are tired of this dictatorship and who yearn for freedom. We have been very clear in calling on all members of the opposition to publicly reject the efforts of extremists to hijack the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. We will continue to work with the opposition and our partners so these extremists do not exploit the situation for their own agendas.
We also continue to closely monitor Syria’s proliferation-sensitive materials and facilities. As the opposition makes strategic advances and grows in strength, the Asad regime has been unable to halt the opposition’s progress through conventional means. We are concerned that an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation of violence through conventional means inadequate, might be considering the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people. President Obama has been very clear that indications of the use of chemical weapons would be a red line for the United States, which seems to have helped deter Asad from using them.
We are coordinating with Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and other partners to take the measures necessary to ensure that these chemical weapons do not fall into the wrong hands, and will remain secure so that the next Syrian government can undertake to dispose of them.
Meanwhile, we have never taken our eye off the critical task of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Through extraordinarily close, high-level coordination, the United States and Israel have developed a common understanding of the threat a nuclear-armed Iran would pose, a common intelligence basis on which to judge the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and a common strategy – together with many other nations – to use unprecedented sanctions and economic pressure to induce Iran to change course. And of course, we have a common goal to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, not to contain a nuclear Iran. We have a shared preference to try to resolve this issue diplomatically, but also a shared principle that no options are off the table. A nuclear-armed Iran is not just an existential threat to Israel – it would pose a grave threat to the security of the United States, our allies, and the world. It would heighten the possibility that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist organizations. It would spark a nuclear arms race in this volatile region. It could collapse the global nuclear non-proliferation system. And a nuclear umbrella would embolden Iran in its support for terror by Hezbollah, Hamas, and other groups, and threaten freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf.
We have mobilized the international community around this issue. Together, we have put in place the strongest sanctions that the Iranian government has ever faced, to include sanctions on Iran’s banking, shipping, and petroleum sectors. We convinced all 27 nations of the European Union to stop importing Iranian oil and all 20 major global importers of Iranian oil – including Japan, India, China, and Turkey – to make significant cuts. Iran’s currency is worth less than half of what it was last November. The pressure is real, and it is growing.
We remain committed to working with the P5+1 on a dual track approach to persuade Iran to come into compliance with its international obligations regarding its nuclear program. These negotiations will resume in Kazakhstan in about two weeks’ time. Our message to Iran is clear: the window remains open to resolve diplomatically the international community’s concerns about your nuclear program, and to relieve your isolation, but that window cannot remain open indefinitely. It is up to Iran to follow through and to demonstrate it is serious. Until Iran complies with all its international nuclear obligations, we will further increase the pressure. We will not let up until we achieve our goal, which is to prevent a nuclear Iran.
Along with any discussion of Iran, we must also mention the issue of terrorism, both here and abroad. Just this week, the Bulgarian government announced their findings in last year’s bus bombings that killed 5 Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian citizen, and injured 32 more. They determined that Hezbollah was responsible for this act of terrorism. We commend the Bulgarian government for their thorough and professional investigation to determine who was responsible, and for their courage n stating it clearly. Terrorism is a threat that does not respect borders or international law; it affects all countries and all free societies. The current terrorist campaign conducted by Iran and Hezbollah has been carried out in multiple countries on nearly every continent. By standing firmly with our allies and partners, and cooperating on intelligence gathering and law enforcement, can we prevent cowardly attacks like this in the future.
One of United States’ partnerships that has been on many people’s mind in the last two years is the one with Egypt. We believe it is in our interest to remain in close contact with the Egyptian government as it goes through its transition. President Morsi’s government has consistently reiterated its adherence to the Peace Treaty with Israel, as we have urged them to do, and we remain encouraged by that commitment. The United States has a strategic partnership with Egypt, which proved critical during the recent Gaza crisis, which involved direct American and Israeli engagement, including multiple conversations between President Obama and President Morsi. This engagement ensured that Egypt could play its unique role in influencing Hamas to agree to the terms of the ceasefire.
While the ceasefire was important, it is by no means a perfect or permanent solution, or a solution that can be ensured by military means alone. Moving forward, Egypt and Israel must continue to work together to preserve Israel’s security, crack down on weapons smuggling, and advance the needs of the people of Gaza. Continued direct American and Israeli engagement with Egypt will also be necessary in the troubled Sinai region, where Israel and Egypt also have a common interest in preventing terrorist attacks.
Regarding the revolution in Egypt, we support the democratic transition there, but we continue to be concerned about the violence, especially since the adoption of the Constitution. Egyptians participated in their revolution to bring about democracy, rule of law, and freedom for all. There are clearly many Egyptians who are frustrated with the direction of political reform and the pace of economic reform, in Egypt. We believe that transparent, representative, peaceful, and inclusive democratic processes are the best way to address public concerns and grievances about Egypt’s future — and that’s what our government is encouraging there.
In addition to remaining engaged with Egypt, we firmly believe that Israel’s security and its future as a Jewish and democratic state also depends on a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian conflict. Our goal, which we share with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, is and has been two states for two peoples, and this is what we are working towards: Israel as a Jewish state and homeland of the Jewish people and an independent Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people. Each side enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, security and peace. Our new Secretary of State, John Kerry, reiterated this commitment in his first calls with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas last week.
In order to achieve this vision there can be no substitute for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. We have been very clear, that the conflict cannot be resolved by unilateral measures by either side, which serve only to undermine trust and confidence, and which will not lead to a lasting peace. The United States opposes all unilateral actions, including the unfortunate and counterproductive vote at the UN on November 29 to grant non-member observer state status to the Palestinians.
We opposed the resolution not because we oppose the desires of the Palestinian people for a state of their own, but because we believed this action will directly work against that goal. We also oppose unilateral action on the Israeli side, including West Bank settlement activity and housing construction in East Jerusalem, as they complicate efforts to resume direct, bilateral negotiations, and risk prejudging the outcome of those negotiations. This includes announcements regarding the E-1 area, as this area is particularly sensitive and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution.
We recognize that some will say that now is not the time to return negotiations. But now more than ever, without a concerted effort to show progress toward peace, extremists will grow stronger, and the threat to Israel’s security will grow. Direct negotiations remain our goal; and if the parties are ready to enter into direct negotiations, President Obama will be a full partner.
On that upbeat note of partnership, which is the theme of our entire relationship, I think I will end my formal remarks. I want to thank Richard and Malcolm for the invitation and for the hospitality. And now, I am ready to take a few questions.