Thank you, Steve, for inviting me to speak today – I’m honored to speak at the inaugural Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, and also happy to wish the Jerusalem Post a happy birthday! It is a pleasure to speak today with a group that includes so many friends, including fellow members of the diplomatic corps prominent journalists, and to share the podium with distinguished Israeli public servants like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Tzipi Livni, KKL-JNF’s Effi Stenzler, and General Ido Nehushtan.
Today we celebrate 80 years of the Jerusalem Post, and the critical role it plays in informing Americans and other English-speaking readers around the world about events in Israel and the Middle East – through both its print edition and its engaging website. I’ve been reading the Jerusalem Post for about the last 25 of those 80 years. I remember, back in the days before the Internet and before other Israeli outlets had English editions, the Jerusalem Post was THE source of news about Israel for English-speakers, and people like me, in Hutz La’Aretz, waited eagerly for our copy of the International Edition to arrive each week and quench our thirst for detailed news from Israel. A lot has changed since then – news travels much faster, the competition is much tougher, and the global newspaper industry faces many challenges. But the Jerusalem Post has adapted and continues to deliver the news as ever.
I’ve had the good fortune to work closely with many of the Jerusalem Post’s reporters and editors over the last several years, particularly with its talented diplomatic correspondent, Herb Keinon, and I look forward to continued cooperation in the future.
I’ve been fortunate to serve as Ambassador to Israel for almost a year-and-a-half now— and I feel confident stating that the media environment in Israel is one of the most active and vibrant in the world. The dynamic reporting and commentary at the Jerusalem Post, and at other Israeli newspapers covering a broad and expansive spectrum of viewpoints, is a great testament to the strength and health of Israel’s thriving democracy, reflecting the tremendous diversity and energy of the Israeli people and of Israeli society, and the values of free speech and an independent press.
In Israel, and truly, anywhere in the world, an open media fosters active debate, provides investigative reporting, and serves as a forum to express different points of view, from the most powerful to those marginalized in society. Journalism is not an easy field to work in. Not only can it seemingly be a life-time of paying dues, it’s also a field undergoing tremendous change.
Even as we celebrate innovations that make information faster and easier to share, it is a challenging time for print media, as this room knows. All the more reason that I would like to commend the journalists here today, for the important role you play, and for your commitment to the free exchange of ideas.
As we’re gathered today by one of the world’s most famous newspapers, with a large number of diplomatic envoys and international colleagues, it seems appropriate here to note the importance of press freedom—and the obligation of all governments to promote freedom of the press and protect journalists. This is a value that the United States and Israel share. Around the world, there are many in the press who courageously do their work at great risk. Journalists are often the first to uncover corruption, to report from the front lines of a conflict, or to share with the public the activities of their government. In some countries, they can face intimidation, harassment, attacks, detention, and worse. While we’ve seen these incidents around the world, we’ve also seen the promise that a free press holds for fostering innovative, prosperous, and stable democracies. Secretary Hillary Clinton has said: “When a free media is in jeopardy, all other human rights are also threatened. So in that spirit, let us continue to champion those who stand for media freedom – and expose those who would deny it. And let us always work toward a world where the free flow of information and ideas remains a powerful force for progress.”
Now, I’m speaking with you today following a quiet month where absolutely nothing of consequence happened. In fact, when I took this post, many people said to me, “You sure picked an interesting time to be the U.S. Ambassador to Israel.” I thought, that’s true, but I cannot remember a boring time, as the archives of the Jerusalem Post, and the Palestine Post before it, can attest. But in all seriousness, I’m sure these past six weeks have been some of the busiest we have all had in a while – it’s been just over a month since the U.S. elections, an Israeli election campaign is in full swing, and it has been only three weeks since Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense to end the firing of rockets from Gaza against the South and the time when the United States played a central role in brokering a cease fire in Gaza. With these recent events in mind, I would like to share with you some thoughts on the U.S.-Israel relationship.
First of all, the cornerstones of the special relationship between Israel and the United States are our common strategic interests, our shared values of two democracies, and our broad and deep people-to-people ties. And, as recently demonstrated in our national elections – this partnership is historic, bi-partisan, and multifaceted. It is based not on any one political party or Administration, but on the commitment of the American people to support a flourishing, secure, Jewish, democratic State of Israel here in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. Throughout our U.S. presidential campaign, we saw evidence of this widespread support as both candidates articulated in their platforms their positions in strong support of Israel, our closest ally in the region. As President Obama prepared to begin his second term, he has recommitted himself to continuing the policies of an unshakeable support Israel’s security and a deep commitment to its future as a Jewish, democratic state.
The recent escalation in Gaza showed the world what Israelis have known and lived with for years: the terrible reality of rockets fired by Hamas and other terrorist organizations, deliberately targeting innocent civilians. As Israel acted to bring an end to the rocket fire, the strong U.S. response also made clear our commitment to ensure Israel’s right of self-defense.
Reflecting on those eight days, I am tremendously proud, as an American, and as U.S. Ambassador, of the U.S. efforts made to support Israel when it was under attack and to de-escalate the crisis in a way that has brought a measure of quiet in the south.
First, from the beginning, the U.S. response could not have been clearer. President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and our Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, made strong and direct public statements on our unequivocal support for Israel’s right of self-defense – statements that were critical in shaping international perceptions of the conflict, in securing the support of other countries, and in keeping the focus where it needed to be: on stopping the rocket fire from Gaza.
Second, despite President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton being in the midst of a historic trip to Asia, they never took their eyes of the Middle East and engaged in close coordination with Israel on international diplomatic efforts and the details of proposals for a ceasefire. President Obama spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu several times to receive updates and offer advice and counsel and support. Secretary of State Clinton took every spare moment to call her counterparts around the world to urge them to support Israel’s right to defend itself and pressure Hamas to stop firing rockets.
Third, America and Israel both conducted direct engagement with Egypt throughout the Gaza crisis, including multiple conversations between President Obama and President Morsi and Israeli delegations traveling to Cairo, to ensured that Egypt could play its unique stabilizing role in influencing Hamas to settle on an agreement. The ceasefire is not a perfect or a permanent solution. Now, Egypt and Israel must continue, and are already continuing, to work together to preserve Israel’s security, crack down on weapons smuggling, and advance the legitimate needs of the people of Gaza. President Morsi’s government has consistently reiterated its adherence to the Peace Treaty with Israel, and we remain encouraged by that commitment. At this point, continued direct American and Israeli engagement with Egypt is essential to achieve a durable stability not only in Gaza, but in the troubled Sinai region, where Israel and Egypt also have a common interest in preventing terrorist attacks, and to encourage Egypt’s responsible regional leadership.
As someone close to the events that took place, in fact, the best seat in the house, I want to tell you that the close U.S.—Israeli coordination to de-escalate was impressive, and demonstrated that our partnership is not only evidence of a strong and deep bond between our countries— but also a productive and constructive one, which furthers national interests on both sides.
In addition to our diplomatic support during the Gaza crisis, U.S. security assistance was also evident. “Iron Dome” has become a household phrase no longer just among defense experts, but in Israel and the United States, and around the world. The story of American support for the Iron Dome system goes back a few years.
Back in 2008, I was privileged to accompany President Obama, at the time a Senator and presidential candidate, on a visit to Sderot. He met with families whose homes had been destroyed, as well as children who had been injured by rocket and mortar attacks. He saw – in person – how the ongoing threat deeply affected people. He understood that the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security included an obligation to help Israel protect itself from this threat. That is why, as President, he ensured U.S. funding above and beyond our regular military assistance for Iron Dome. Last month, we saw just how important that support was. Israelis are rightfully proud of this magnificent, Israeli-developed technology. And Americans are proud that the $275 million in American funding to accelerate the development and deployment of this missile defense system. With over four hundred intercepts during the recent conflict, in both the south and in the Gush Dan region, Iron Dome helped save lives and prevented untold injuries and damage to homes, to schools, to communities. If there is a more meaningful example of America’s commitment to Israel’s security, I don’t know what it is.
As I mentioned, funding for Iron Dome is actually in addition to an even larger amount—the $3.1 billion dollars in annual military assistance from the United States, which upholds Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge – that is, Israel’s ability to counter and defeat credible military threats from an individual state, coalition of states, or non-state actor, while sustaining minimal damages or casualties.
Preserving Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge is a much broader and multi-faceted endeavor. It involves building operational capabilities through exercises, training, and personnel exchanges. It involves ensuring Israeli access to the most advanced U.S. military systems, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft. It involves supporting further missile defense systems to counter long-range ballistic threats. It involves close bilateral ties, maintained through constant consultations at the highest levels of our militaries and intelligence services. This close coordination is ongoing and growing—just last month, we conducted the joint ballistic missile defense exercise, Austere Challenge. With over 1,400 U.S. troops on Israeli soil, and thousands of participants overall, this was the largest joint exercise in the history of the longstanding military relationship between the U.S. and Israel. Austere Challenge allowed us to make great strides in improving our tactics jointly, but more importantly, it reinforced our already strong military-to-military relationships, from our most senior commanders to our junior enlisted troops. All of this assistance reflects the United States’ commitment to preserve Israel’s right and ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat it may face.
As part of our commitment to Israel’s future as a secure, Jewish, democratic state, we firmly believe that Israel’s security depends on a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian conflict. The ultimate goal, which we share with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, is two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and homeland of the Jewish people; an independent Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people; each side enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, security and peace.
There is no substitute for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to achieve this vision. It 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 unfortunate and counterproductive vote at the UN on November 29 to grant non-member observer state status to the Palestinians won’t bring Palestinians any closer to that goal. 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 works against that very goal.
The United States opposes all unilateral actions, including West Bank settlement activity and housing construction in East Jerusalem, as they complicate efforts to resume direct, bilateral talks, and risk prejudging the outcome of those negotiations. This includes building in 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.
Given recent events, we recognize the difficulty of returning to negotiations—and we also recognize that today, Israel is facing some of the toughest challenges in its history. 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 also grow. Direct negotiations remain our goal; and, if and when the parties are ready to enter into direct negotiations, the United States will be a full partner.
I would like to take just a few more moments to discuss another area where the U.S. and Israel are strong partners—which is our shared commitment to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. President Obama has stated unequivocally that we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon and that the U.S. will use all elements in its power to achieve this objective.
Over many months, 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 basison 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. 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.
As Secretary Clinton recently said, Iranian-made missiles and rockets launched from Gaza at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem only drove home what we already know: America, Israel, and the entire international community must prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. This is a regime that already exports terrorism to Israel’s doorstep, brutalizes its own people, threatens chokepoints in the global economy and risks opening the floodgates on nuclear proliferation around the world. So when it comes to Iran’s nuclear threat, the United States does not have a policy of containment. We have a policy of prevention, built on the dual tracks of pressure and engagement, while keeping all options, including the military option, on the table.
We have mobilized the international community around this issue, and 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. As Secretary Clinton has said, we worked to convince all 27 nations of the European Union to stop importing Iranian oil and all 20 major global importers of Iranian oil – including Japan, India, South Korea and China– to make significant reductions. Iran today exports at least one million fewer barrels of crude each day than it did just last year. And 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. Our message to Iran is clear: the window remains open to resolve diplomatically the international community’s concerns about your nuclear program, and to relive 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.
In closing, I want to emphasize that the Obama Administration’s commitment to Israel is more than just a continuation of existing policies- it has cultivated new ways to ensure Israel’s security, and to advance our overall bilateral relationship through cultural, economic, and commercial ties. The partnership between the U.S. and Israel is mutually beneficial, and has thrived for many years, and many administrations, and will continue to thrive over many more. Indeed, the U.S. – Israel relationship is too important to be anything less than a top priority. At every level of our government, these words are supported by concrete actions, and our relationship will always receive the time, attention, and focus that it deserves. Allies look out for each other’s interests. That has defined, and will continue to define, the United States’ approach to this relationship.