Remarks by Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro First International Conference for Regional Cooperation

Thank you for that kind introduction, Tamar. I am pleased to join you this afternoon. I want to thank the Vice Prime Minister and the entire staff at the Ministry of Regional Cooperation for hosting this event and for the consistently excellent support, advice and assistance that they have provided to the U.S. Government in pursuit of the shared objectives that are the focus of our discussions today.

I have been in Israel for just over a month, doing a job I feel like I have been preparing my whole life for. Israel, and its close relationship with the United States, have always been deeply important to me personally and professionally, so it is a true honor to be here representing the United States Government and President Barack Obama.

One of the first things I did here in Israel was to go visit an Iron Dome battery deployed to protect the city of Ashkelon. In doing so, I was continuing a commitment President Obama made when he visited Sderot as a presidential candidate in 2008. Informed by what he saw on that visit, how Israeli citizens lived under the threat of rockets and missiles, President Obama requested and Congress provided 205 million dollars to support accelerated production and deployment of the Iron Dome system. When rockets began coming down on Southern Israel two weeks ago and the Iron Dome was put to lifesaving use, it was an early reminder for me of how critical American investment in Israel’s security has been and will continue to be in the future. And last week, I traveled to the headquarters of Rafael in northern Israel, to see how their skilled technicians are building, with American assistance, more interceptor missiles to protect the citizens of Israel – a timely and tangible example of US-Israeli cooperation to ensure Israel’s security.

The Obama Administration is proud to carry on the legacy of robust U.S. security assistance for Israel.

Since he took office, President Obama has not only honored and re-energized America’s enduring commitment to Israel’s security, but has taken action to expand it to an unprecedented level.

Our work is rooted in knowledge shared across the decades by presidents and policymakers on both sides of the aisle that a strong and secure Israel is critical not only to the interests of Israelis, but also to America’s strategic interests in the Middle East.

Indeed, we are carrying this legacy to new heights at a time when Israel needs our support to address the multifaceted threats it faces. This past year alone we provided $3 billion, not including the Iron Dome funding. In the coming fiscal year, that assistance will increase to nearly $3.1 billion, even during challenging budgetary times. We are deeply engaged in joint training, missile defense development, and counterterrorism cooperation. We are making the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft available to Israel – the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

This commitment directly supports Israel’s ability to defend itself, by itself. It allows Israel to purchase the sophisticated defense equipment it needs to protect itself, deter aggressors, and maintain its qualitative military edge.

A fundamental part of Israel’s long term security interest and its success and survival as a Jewish, democratic State, is not just its military strength, but stability and peace in the region. And the topics you are discussing here today are critical to efforts to achieve those goals.

As we all know, peace requires more than just an agreement on paper; if peace is to be secured for the long term, it must be built on a strong foundation of regional cooperation on issues across the board.

Just prior to my coming to Israel, I served as the senior director for the Middle East and North Africa at National Security Council at the White House. I was responsible for overseeing not only on the US-Israel relationship, but the U.S.-relationship with Israel’s neighbors.

And while we have had productive relations with some of those neighbors, and more difficult relations with others, one consistent theme has struck me: There is a tremendous amount of untapped potential in this region. And in this part of the world where security is of prime concern and where key natural resources are scarce, and often cross national boundaries, regional cooperation is absolutely essential to unlocking that potential, and to minimizing conflict.

Fostering such cooperation is not easy when the environment in which we discuss these issues is changing dramatically right before our eyes. Regimes in the Arab world that had seemed to be durable and stable have been washed away or been rocked to their foundations. As President Obama said a few months ago and has repeated since, “societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder.”

As regimes in the region fall, there is the unsettling question of what comes next? Will the new powers emerging be better or worse, more friendly or less, than their predecessors? Will they want peace or war? Will they be prepared to cooperate with their regional neighbors on the basis of mutual respect?

The honest answer is that, while we know it is in America’s and Israel’s long term interest to support the emergence of more transparent and more responsive governments who will ultimately make stronger and more stable partners, the short term is likely to be complicated and unsettling.

There are justifiable reasons to be anxious. Just as there are those brave and determined masses who came to the streets intent upon securing respect for their universal rights, better governance, and more economic opportunities and intent upon erasing the disconnect between the rulers and the ruled, there are those who will try to hijack this moment and capitalize on it for more sinister motives.

We must be on guard against those with extremist agendas or driven by hostile ideologies. Some are coming out of jails and out of the shadows and pose a direct threat to peace and security. Some are hostile to democracy. There are also remnants of old regimes that are trying to prevent progress and keep people denied their political rights and economic opportunities.

But, there are also encouraging signs. The way information technology has exploded and continues to penetrate the region has changed everything. This rapid dissemination of information via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, and the ability it provides to rally public support quickly means that leaders are going to be held to higher standards than their predecessors.

Old regimes all too easily re-directed the grievances of their people onto others, and usually that meant Israel and America. The events of this year show us that strategic diversion will not be easily accepted. In recent months, rarely have we seen an anti-Israel or anti-American tone to the protests in the Arab world.

It seems clear then that the majority of people are, for the time being, entirely consumed with improving their own lives and their own societies. While there were some tense scenes outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo last week it is noteworthy that even in a time of high emotions, the predicted million-man anti-Israel march did not materialize.

And as new leaders begin to emerge, upcoming events and trends are likely to shape the tone of political discourse in the region for some time to come.

That is why, as we take measures to ensure Israel’s security, we also need to be competing in the arena of ideas and information and to support, politically, those who share a belief in the promise of democracy throughout the region. And as the region’s oldest and most established democracy, I know that Israel holds these values to be equally important.

The prospect of Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, and Syrians choosing their own leaders and focusing on building their own societies, through democratic means, holds the potential of a more stable, more open, more peaceful Middle East, to Israel’s benefit. And the generation driving that change, through the social media platforms I mentioned, has its match in the young generation in Israel, as wired and open to the world as any people anywhere.

Surely the possibility of Arabs and Israelis meeting and initiating cooperative activities via Facebook can be a reality – it almost certainly already is.

Israel has also helped expand the definition of the region. Israel has a long history of reaching beyond its immediate neighbors. On of the most fruitful examples was the strong relationship between Israel and Turkey, two partners of the United States, which provided security and economic benefits to both countries. We believe it still can, and we are encouraging Turkey and Israel to find a way to move past their differences and restore the cooperation from which both benefitted and which also benefits the United States. Israel has also reached out to Greece, Cyprus, and the Balkans to find new partners, who, together with Arab nations, could evolve into a robust Eastern Mediterranean community, with trade and mutual security benefits flowing to all.

With so much change happening all around us, this is a moment when we have an opportunity to consider new ways to promote regional cooperation and economic development that could promote peace and stability.

An upcoming panel will discuss localized cooperation between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

My colleague, USAID Director Michael Harvey, will address this subject in more detail, so I won’t get into much detail, but the kind of development and cooperation we see on issues ranging from water to academic exchanges to environmental protection, forms the foundation for peace between people, not just governments.

And the United States continues to look for opportunities to support and expand those kinds of interactions. We also have been searching for ways to replicate them more broadly in Israel’s immediate neighborhood.

Over the years, there have been some notable successes. Today, Israel is a member of the new International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), headquartered in the United Arab Emirates.

IRENA provides an opportunity for innovation-sharing in the realm of sustainable energy across the region; a field to which Israel has much to contribute. Additionally, through the Middle East Desalination Research Center, or “Medric,” based in Oman, the United States and Israel, along with other regional states, work together to broaden knowledge of critical water technology and improve regional expertise in water system management.

The U.S. Embassy’s Middle East Research Cooperation program has funded research partnerships between Israel and neighboring countries for over thirty years with a focus on the environment, agriculture and biology. We are also investing in an American-Israeli-Jordanian program, known as Trilateral Industrial Development, or TRIDE, that joins private sector technology innovators in research and development efforts to create new products and services.

These are all important programs and we constantly look for ways to expand them and promote others like them. And of course, U.S.-sponsored programs are not an end in themselves. Their very purpose is to help encourage and create self-sustaining regional partnerships and cooperation.

And it is clear that we are far from tapping even a fraction of the potential that exists in this region. And we cannot ignore the reality that the ongoing conflict between Arabs and Israel impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.

We have seen how the ties that emerged from Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan played an important stabilizing role in the region.

The Qualified Industrial Zones we helped develop between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Jordan, have created jobs, strengthened trade ties and financial integration, and formed the basis of regular channels of communication.

Military to military ties and broad security cooperation have helped all three countries overcome difficult and tense moments that, in the absence of peace, could have escalated out of control. The same can be said of the close cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, especially on security.

The ongoing tragedy of continued conflict and the inability to overcome the obstacles and hurdles for moving forward damages Israel, its Arab neighbors, and America’s strategic and security interests in the Middle East.

We must consider what it means when, on the one hand, new leaders and political actors are emerging all around us, and on the other hand, fewer and fewer people remain hopeful that anything can be resolved between Israel and the Palestinians or between Israel and its neighbors. That’s a precarious mix.

And that is why the United States believes that direct and credible negotiations toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of a two-state solution must resume as soon as possible. President Obama offered some principles to lay a foundation for these talks in his May 19 speech, and we have been working closely with Israel, the PA, and our Quartet partners to find a formulation to resume direct talks.

We are clear that this conflict can only be resolved through direct negotiations, not through unilateral measures, and not through appeals to the United Nations, which the United States will oppose. Successful negotiations will require both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take difficult decisions.

Negotiations should be conducted, and actions must be taken on the ground to facilitate the goals we all share, not make reaching peace harder. And, while reaching peace will not guarantee stability by any means, the absence of peace will certainly strengthen leaders who are more hostile and less cooperative and to a region that is far less stable and secure for Israel and the United States.

Today, Israel is not broadly welcomed to participate in regional cooperation and integration, or to begin normalizing relations with her neighbors. Now, some too readily accept this political reality as a fate that cannot be changed.

They believe that Arabs and Jews will never get along, and that Arab states will never accept Israel in the region. But the United States refuses to be tied down by that kind of fatalistic thinking.

So does President Obama who, in his earliest days as President called for Arabs to reach out to the Israeli people and take steps towards normalization. While the challenges are enormous, I believe that peace can help usher in an era of regional stability, increased prosperity, and unprecedented cooperation.

We know this change will not happen overnight, it will likely be one or two generations at least. But it has to start.

So, although we are in uncertain times, I appreciate that this gathering is also focused on the opportunities ahead and look forward to working with many of you to achieve our common goals of peace, security and prosperity for Israel and the region. Thank you for the opportunity to join you and congratulations on a successful conference.