It is a great pleasure to return to this distinguished forum, which has few peers in the Israeli national security and policy community. I am proud to be the latest in a long series of American ambassadors who have participated in the Herzliya Conference. The Embassy is also proud to support this year’s program and to enable IDC to reach a wider audience.
My thanks to to the conference organizers, to the Institute for Policy and Strategy and to the IDC leadership, including Alex Mintz, Tommy Steiner, former Minister Amnon Rubinstein and the one and only Professor Uriel Reichman. It’s a great honor as well to be with Minister Livni, and my friend and colleague Itamar Rabinovich, and MK Michael Oren and of course you, Jonathan Davis.
And to our most distinguished guest, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, you make us proud, all of us Americans in Israel, extremely proud. I welcome you back to Israel, and through you I thank your family, your extended family, for you and your family’s bedrock commitment to public service, both at home and abroad.
Your family and your father are permanently honored here in Israel at Yad Kennedy, which I’m sure you’ve visited, in the Kennedy Peace Forest near Jerusalem—it’s a beautiful and inspiring JNF monument—and also in the Upper Galilee, in the Naftali mountains. These are not just monuments to your father, not just monuments to a slain and beloved uncle and of course president, and to the Kennedy family, but they are also concrete manifestations of the deep and enduring ties between our two peoples.
Your father, the late Robert F. Kennedy, was, as has been described, no stranger to this land. He traveled here as a young man, as a journalist, and his dispatches from 1948, which we heard some of, are truly gripping. He returned with his brother, then Member of Congress John F. Kennedy, just a few years later that he took the time, so early in his adult life, and so early in Israel’s life, to come and then to return, and to learn and hear and talk to Israelis speaks volumes about his understanding of the inseparable bonds between our two democracies.
And he never lost sight of them either. Years later, speaking at Fordham University’s commencement exercises on June 10, 1967—48 years ago tomorrow, and one year before his tragic death—then Senator Robert F. Kennedy spoke of our revolution—the American Revolution—and the sacred ideals we have long struggled to promote and protect. He spoke of political freedom, social reform, and justice. He spoke about America leading by example.
RFK understood the unique obligations of American global leadership and he represented the best of American ideals.
He was a beacon in the struggle to promote and defend universal human rights, and as such, RFK not only understood that realism and liberalism could coexist, he recognized that values were one of America’s greatest weapons of mass attraction. “There is no basic inconsistency,” he declared in that commencement address, “between ideals and realistic possibilities.”
And then he applied that lesson to America’s commitment to, and our bond with, the State of Israel. You see, RFK was part of a long line of American leaders shaped by the cataclysmic events of the mid-20th century who deeply admired the Jewish state’s courage, the tenacity of its people, and strength of its democracy—especially its devotion to liberal values even amidst its extreme security challenges.
And so his address at Fordham, on the final day of the Six Day War, included this clarion call. And I quote—“This gallant democracy, this nation of survivors from history’s greatest example of man’s capacity for senseless cruelty to his fellow men cannot be allowed to succumb to the threats and assaults of her neighbors. We must maintain our vigilance on her behalf.”
It was an early echo of what has since become a bipartisan, core tenet of American foreign policy. RFK said simply that America’s “commitment to Israel is clear and must be clear.”
And that’s still how we feel about that commitment today. Our commitment is not just a promise to Israel or the Jewish people, although it is very much a promise to support and defend the right of the Jewish people to live free and secure in their homeland. It is also deeply rooted in our bedrock obligation to promote and defend universal human rights—the very struggle that so animated RFK in his lifetime, and continues to shape his legacy today.
Against the backdrop of today’s complex strategic environment, surely one of the most dynamic and challenging America and Israel have ever faced, that extraordinary alliance that he articulated so well remains central to America’s presence in the Middle East.
As the new Israeli government begins its work, President Obama has indicated that he and his entire Administration are working closely with Prime Minister Netanyahu and the new government to address many of the common challenges we face and advance our shared interest in peace and security.
Now there are many questions being raised these days about our relationship, so I would like to briefly mention a few examples from the past year that reflect on the strength and vitality of America’s commitment to Israel.
Each of these examples also point to the fact that we remain ever-vigilant on Israel’s behalf, just as RFK advocated a half-century ago.
- Last summer, in the wake of the kidnappings of Israeli youths, and as thousands of rockets rained down on the citizens of Israel from terrorist organizations in Gaza President Obama and his entire team day after day stood up to defend Israel’s right to defend itself. More than words, the United States provided concrete military support—during the conflict and as you heard yesterday by Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, emergency resupply $225 million dollars to support the life-saving Iron Dome missile defense system—as well as other actions, such as ensuring the United Nations did not take actions to constrain Israel’s right to defend itself, and to work with the Israeli government to achieve a ceasefire that would be in Israel’s interests.
- In the fall, as violence enveloped Jerusalem, particularly focused on the holy sites of that city, Secretary Kerry broke off from other important business to come to the region to conduct a successful diplomatic intervention with the Israeli government, the Jordanian government, and the Palestinian Authority in order to bring down the tensions and bring an end to that violence.
- Also last fall, the U.S. launched an international coalition, which continues to fight the scourge of the newest and perhaps most dangerous, certainly most shocking terrorist organization that has emerged, ISIL, in order to degrade and defeat that organization, a fight that continues today.
- U.S. diplomacy was also called upon in December when an unbalanced and unreasonable UN Security Council resolution was presented that purported to describe a path forward on Middle East Peace negotiations. Because it was unbalanced, the United States opposed that initiative, and defeated it, without a veto I might add, because we had enough votes to defeat it. And we’ve also opposed every Palestinian initiative, and I believe slowed Palestinian initiatives, to take on Israel at the International Criminal Court.
- In January, when tensions following terrorist activity by Hezbollah and Iran in the Golan Heights led to a rise in tensions and the deaths of two Israeli soldiers on the Israel-Lebanon border, the U.S. sprung into action as we always do when Israel faces these challenges, exchanging intelligence, conveying messages in Lebanon and elsewhere, supporting Israel’s right of self-defense at the United Nations, and avoiding responses by other actors that would restrain Israel’s ability to manage and defuse those tensions.
- The United States has also made a special cause this year to advance our leadership combatting a surge of anti-Semitism, which has taken the lives of Jews in Paris, Stockholm, and many other cities around the world, and which President Obama talked about in his State of the Union address this year. The US co-sponsored the first-ever U.N. General Assembly debate on this modern scourge. And we have made clear to numerous countries, especially governments in Europe, that they have a responsibility to join us in establishing first, zero tolerance of anti-Semitism, second, focused efforts to stamp it out, third, greater protection for its intended targets;
- America, throughout this period and long before and long into the future, maintains its unmitigated condemnation and opposition to all efforts to delegitimize, defame or hold Israel to a double standard. This happens too often, we fight it every day all around the world, and this includes boycotts and sanctions, which we oppose vehemently.
- We continue on-going assistance to help Israel develop technologies to address the newest threat of terror tunnels, which became so prevalent during the Gaza conflict, although that assistance started even before that conflict unearthed so many tunnels last summer.
- Just last month, the U.S. lead an effort in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, and we decided to, with other allies, forego, which is to say, veto, a final agreement which had other elements that we supported, because of what we deemed was unfair treatment of Israel, proving, as we have said in other contexts, that no deal is preferable to a bad deal, and that we will not accept a bad deal.
- Last, but not least, this week’s visit of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who I’ve had the pleasure to spend part of today with, on his twelfth meeting with his Israeli counterpart—the latest in a long string of high-level visits of senior American defense and intelligence officials that further the unprecedented security cooperation between our countries.
That’s just in the last year. Now, our two countries do encounter policy disagreements, even as we also advance so many shared interests and shared values. From time to time we have disagreements, and we are wrestling with one right now, namely, the question of the best way to achieve our shared goal, our shared strategic objective about which we do not disagree, of ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. But even our disagreements, as real and difficult as they can be, must be properly understood within the context of an unshakeable alliance.
Now as we continue to negotiate with Iran, together with our P5+1 partners, our eyes remain firmly fixed on a good deal, because – as you have heard repeatedly in recent days from President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary Kerry and others – America will not settle for a bad deal.
Deputy Secretary Blinken provided more detail, so I won’t repeat everything that he went through yesterday, but just briefly: A good deal is one that blocks every pathway Iran could use to achieve a nuclear weapon, whether through the uranium enrichment sites at Natanz or Fordow, through its plutonium reactor, or through covert means. A good deal will keep Iran at least one year from a breakout capability for well over a decade, rather than the two or three months it sits from a breakout capability today. A good deal ensures the most intrusive monitoring and verification measures, so we will know if Iran is cheating and be able to respond with renewed sanctions or even a military option, if necessary. And a good deal will ensure that nuclear-related sanctions are only eased when Iran complies with its commitments in a verifiable way and that these sanctions can be re-imposed quickly or snapped back automatically in response to Iranian violations. And don’t be confused about the terms of an agreement that might occur based on other descriptions of that agreement; the agreement I just described is the only kind of agreement we will accept, and without these terms, there will be no agreement.
Even as the negotiations continue, we are prepared and ready to engage our Israeli partners—as the president has pledged—to explore ways to strengthen our security cooperation and increase our joint efforts to counter Iranian threats around the region, which certainly still exist and will undoubtedly continue. We have been conducting a similar dialogue with our Gulf state partners, including at last month’s summit at Camp David. And we hope now that the Israeli government is in place, these discussions can proceed.
As we continue to evaluate options for the way forward on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States looks to work with the new Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority and partners in and beyond the region on ways to achieve progress toward a two-state solution, an objective that remains a core national security interest for the United States. We do so as we enter a period in which negotiations appear difficult to launch and a two-state solution may well not be achievable in the near term, as President Obama said last week. Nevertheless, it is critical that we find other ways to keep the two-state solution alive and viable in that period and not relate to it as some kind of ever-receding horizon. As most Israelis know, two states for two peoples remains the only way Israel can remain secure, Jewish and democratic, the only way Palestinians can achieve their legitimate aspirations for independence in a peaceful, independent state of their own, and the only way to fulfill US interests.
President Obama still believes, as he said in Jerusalem, that peace is necessary, just, and possible. Even in a period when mutual distrust and political developments and regional instability make negotiations unlikely, we need to find ways to remind Israelis and Palestinians of that truth.
So we will be looking to the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority for policies and actions, not just words, but practical policies and actions that demonstrate a commitment to that goal.
Senator Kennedy said “few will have the greatness to bend history itself.” He said this in his Fordham commencement address. “It is from the numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.”
As former minister Livni described, a half-century later, his words and his deeds continue to inspire us, as do his words regarding our commitment to Israel, which remains crystal clear.
During President Obama’s visit here two years ago, he pledged that America will always stand by Israel. He’s repeated that pledge time and time again, and he declared that Israelis will never be alone—atem lo levad—you are not alone.
As the United States Ambassador to Israel, I am also here to tell you that we take a measure of comfort in the knowledge that neither is America alone. When we look for partners in this region who share our democratic values and our core ideals which were championed by great American heroes like RFK, we know we can always turn to Israel.