Remarks of Former Ambassador Shapiro Opening Session of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Inbal Hotel, Jerusalem

Chairman Robert Sugarman; Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein; good evening everyone, and bruchim haba’im.  I’ve met with many of you in the United States over the past year – so even though I’m not the one with jetlag this time, I appreciate the distances you’ve come to be here at this very important gathering – and the effort you are making to stay awake tonight.  Thank you, Malcolm, for inviting me once again to address this distinguished group.  

The Conference of Presidents and its member organizations represented tonight have a deep commitment to advancing the interests of the world Jewish community in all of its national, ethnic, and denominational diversity.  You also are tirelessly engaged in sustaining international support for a secure, prosperous Jewish, democratic Israel.  I don’t have to tell you that these goals go hand in hand with promoting prospects for a true and lasting peace in the Middle East – which is part of the Conference’s mission statement.   And in this, you have a strong and steadfast partner in the government of the United States.

Regional Challenges and Opportunities

There has been no more compelling or critical time for this group to come together.  The tectonic plates of this region are moving beneath our feet as we sit here in Jerusalem.  Consider Egypt to our south, a strategic partner of the United States negotiating a difficult political transition in the midst of serious security threats.  Or Syria to our north, where the U.S. and other partners are leading the international effort to find a political solution that will end the conflict, save civilian lives, and establish a representative government to replace the brutal Assad regime in the midst of tragic conflict. To the east Iraq’s leaders are challenged to maintain a functional government that respects diversity and unity in the face of violent extremists who seek to sow sectarian division.  And Iran, where President Obama is leading the international effort to prevent that country from obtaining a nuclear weapon while countering its use of proxies to promote regional instability. You who invest so much of yourselves in supporting Israel’s quest for security, stability, and peace, know better than anyone how critical a time this is for the future of the region. 

By the same token, never has there been a more critical time for maintaining and strengthening the unbreakable alliance between the United States and Israel, an alliance that is based on close security cooperation. U.S. military assistance ensures Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, and our collaboration in missile defense, joint training, and intelligence sharing help the United States and Israel to deal with common threats as well as opportunities. You saw tangible evidence of that commitment, which all Americans can be proud of, when you visited an Iron Dome battery earlier this week, and American investment that has saved countless lives. 

The United States will be active and involved as the region progress, and not singlehandedly. We will be engaged in some of the most sustained and consistent partnering in our history with those countries who share our interests and our values, with our ally Israel at the top of the list. The stakes are high.  The changes that will happen in the near future have the potential, in the words of Secretary Kerry, “to reshape the Middle East and could even help create the foundations of a new world order.”   

Let me discuss two compelling challenges we face, which President Obama declared at the United Nations General Assembly, would be among his foreign policy goals for his remaining time in office.  They are the attempt to reach a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and the need to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. I’ll do this briefly and then take a few questions.  

Towards a Framework for Peace

Secretary Kerry has said that there are no good alternatives to successfully concluding the Israel-Palestinian conflict with a two states for two peoples solution. I don’t have to convince those sitting here tonight of this – as leaders of the Jewish community, you have heard Prime Minister Netanyahu and many other Israeli leaders declare their support for a two-states for two peoples solution to end the conflict. They tell us – and we agree – that such an outcome is the only way to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character and avoid becoming a binational state. We want to help Israel achieve those goals – indeed, as Israel’s greatest ally, it is our obligation to do so. You already know the clear advantage of an Israel no longer controlling the lives of Palestinians, an Israel with secure and defined borders recognized not only by the international community, but by all its neighbors.  That Israel could find many new doors opening for trade, investment, and economic cooperation that gives an adrenaline shot to the already impressive Start-Up Nation. That Israel would find its international support growing as it partners with the United States to tackle the region’s most difficult security challenges.

From the start of this current round of negotiations, we have heard the persistent question – “why now?”  Some ask, in particular, whether regional transitions and instabilities make this a less opportune time to seek a lasting solution to the conflict here. In fact these regional factors could offer more opportunity than risk, as many Arab states now have an incentive to work with Israel in trying to resolve a longstanding regional conflict. With so many other fires burning, they certainly are not interested in flaming the fire as they may have in the past.  They also perceive genuine opportunities to partner with Israel in dealing with a range of regional threats – Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, Hizballah and Hamas’ use of terrorism, the brutality of the Assad regime in Syria, and the spread of global jihadists.

In addition to general regional support there are other factors that make this the right time for peace.   Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas are in stronger positions today than past leaders were when they sought to conclude an agreement.  The Prime Minister, with his unrivaled and well-deserved reputation as a defender of Israel’s security, will have strong support from his fellow Israelis should he succeed in presenting them with a proposal that secures their future in a two states for two peoples, end of claims, end of conflict agreement. With Hamas challenged by the loss of its regional patronage, President Abbas has the opportunity to present, via negotiations and non-violence, a winning solution to Palestinians whose momentum could secure a cessation of hostilities and a pathway towards an end of Hamas’ monopoly on politics in Gaza.  Make no mistake – this is a heavy lift for both leaders. President Abbas has resisted popular support for efforts to pursue UN recognition and action in the International Criminal Court, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken the difficult and courageous decision to release Palestinian prisoners, and reaffirmed his commitment to a Palestinian state living alongside the Jewish state of Israel.  Instead of weakening their political positions, these leaders have weathered criticism and emerged stronger.  

The commitment of these leaders and the seriousness and stamina of their chief negotiators is uniquely matched on the U.S. side.  Secretary Kerry’s commitment to supporting Israelis and Palestinians in resolving the conflict is driven not only by pursuit of the national interests of the United States, but by his conviction that this is indeed a unique opportunity and history would judge us harshly if we did not take it.  President Obama is of course fully supportive of Secretary Kerry in the pursuit of lasting peace and security for the State of Israel.  In the President’s words, “a Jewish state that knows America will always be at its side.”  This effort is in keeping with our longstanding and ongoing commitment to stand with Israel against all efforts to delegitimize it, or impose boycotts or sanctions of any kind. Our policy is clear: we have opposed, we do oppose, and we will oppose all such efforts, irrespective of the outcome of negotiations, and recent distortions of our position notwithstanding. 

Here at the Embassy in Tel Aviv, with our colleagues at the Consulate General in Jerusalem, we are engaged every day, and often very late into the night, alongside the team of Special Envoy Martin Indyk, seeking creative solutions to the thorniest aspects of the conflict. Even in the face of some criticism, and even, in recent weeks, some personal attacks, Secretary Kerry has made clear we will not be deterred from helping Israelis and Palestinians achieve their goals. 

So where exactly, are we in the negotiations?  The end state is fairly well established by now. As Secretary Kerry said in Davos,  an independent state for Palestinians wherever they may be; security arrangements for Israel that leave it more secure, not less; a just and agreed solution to the Palestinian refugee problem; an end to the conflict and all claims; and mutual recognition of the nation-state of the Palestinian people and the nation-state of the Jewish people. 

We continue to work closely with the parties to achieve a framework for the negotiations on all these core issues and provide guidelines to the negotiators as they work towards a final peace agreement.  Most of this work as you can imagine, is being done in strictest confidence so that the parties can honestly and openly discuss and frame the issues.  And they are doing that, both directly and through Ambassador Indyk and his teams.  

This framework, while an American paper, will be informed by ideas both parties have put on the table in these past months, and will address the core issues:  security, territory, borders, refugees, status of Jerusalem, and the end of conflict and claims.

In parallel to the diplomatic effort and negotiations, we’ve been working hard to address the security challenges of an eventual peace agreement.  Former ISAF Commander in Afghanistan General John Allen and his team are working tirelessly with the IDF to consider solutions to all the security challenges of a two-state solution. We know how critical security is for an agreement to be reached and to last. Israelis – from the Prime Minister to the Chief of Staff to the mother whose kids serve to protect Israel in the IDF – must know that the security arrangements are in place to make Israel more secure, not less, in a permanent agreement. 

We still have a long way to go, but we are pleased at the progress made to date.   And I think it is not naïve or overly optimistic to look at the potential benefits of peace.  

Post agreement, Israel stands to see new doors opened with diplomatic relations and trading partners in this region and beyond, and a strong tool to push back against international delegitimization. The Palestinians, for their part, will gain an independent, viable state, and a place among the community of nations. The Initiative for the Palestinian Economy, to be triggered by an agreement would give a huge international boost to the fledgling state. Both sides have been promised expanded trade and exchange opportunities by the European Union.

Beyond these individual benefits, Israel and the future Palestine will be more than the sum of their parts.  Secretary Kerry has suggested that “together, the Jewish state of Israel and the Arab state of Palestine can develop into an international hub for technology, trade and tourism that can invigorate the region.”  Countries from every continent of the world are ready to approach the joint Israeli-Palestinian trade commission with proposals for trade agreements, to sign contracts for new technology from joint Palestinian and Israeli tech startups, and to flood the future Israeli-Palestinian tourism commission with requests for tours of both Israel and the Palestinian territories. So for Israel’s future, for Palestinians’ future, and for the interests of the United States, this remains a prize worth pursuing, and I assure you, we will continue to pursue it in partnership with our Israeli allies.      

Containing Iran

Let me now turn to Iran. Unfortunately the greatest threats Israel faces no longer come from its contiguous neighbors.  This is among the reasons why the United States remains focused with a laser-like intensity on Iran’s nuclear program and its intentions. The United States will not tolerate the possibility of an existential threat to Israel, an international arms race, or Iran’s support for terrorism, and therefore, President Obama remains determined to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. On January 20, we and our P5+1 partners, and the European Union, began to implement the Joint Plan of Action with Iran. Under this agreement, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium, dismantle some infrastructure that makes enrichment possible, ceased installing advanced centrifuges, and ceased substantive work at the heavy water reactor at Arak, with greater transparency than we have ever had before. Tomorrow discussions will begin in Vienna towards a comprehensive solution.  In her testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Assistant Secretary Anne Patterson explained that our initial steps in this process will be “to obtain verifiable assurances that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon.”  

Over the next six months the United States and our P5+1 partners will implement modest and targeted sanctions relief – so long as Iran fulfils its obligations – while we continue to vigorously enforce the existing oil and banking sanctions put in place by the United States and our partners in the international community.  Let me repeat: if Iran does not keep its commitments during this period, we will halt the relief.  And if we are unable to reach a long-term, comprehensive resolution with Iran, we are ready to apply additional economic pressure.  If ultimately economic pressure and diplomatic efforts are still not enough, as the President has said, all options are on the table – and he has ensured that a military option is available.

Throughout these negotiations, our commitment to Israel’s security is paramount.  We firmly believe that the P5+1 first-step agreement not only makes Israel more secure, but will take us closer to a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear program.  

I share the conviction of the President, and of Secretary Kerry, that it is urgent we make progress on both of these fronts.  Israel’s future, and U.S. and regional security, depend on it. I extend my thanks and appreciation to the Conference and the organizations represented here for your support of Israel and its security, your work in strengthening the pluralistic, multi-denominational world Jewish community, your support for peace, and above all, your bolstering the United States-Israel relationship.