Hello everyone, and good morning. I’m happy to be here, and thank the organizers of the conference, especially Yossi Bar Moche and Shalom Keitel, who made sure I got here today, to the 9th annual Israel Journalists Association Conferenc
The media is the foundation of democracy in the United States, and in any other democratic country in the world, and of course in Israel.
I know that it’s possible that that there is a faster way to wake up a group of cynical journalists than to talk about the shared values of the United States and Israel. But I’ll take the risk of a cynical response because I truly believe that that our shared commitment to freedom of the press–to the profession you’ve devoted your lives to–is one of the most important values of free, open and democratic societies.
I am not claiming that I agree with all I read, or hear, or see in the Israeli media, or even the American media. Categorically not. And that’s good.
The role of the media is to allow diverse voices to be heard, to ask tough questions, to promote truth and transparency, to discover what is hidden from the public that the public has a right to know, and to challenge those who serve governments to manage their affairs responsibly and fairly. Of course, journalists also have a duty to behave responsibly, and I think that most journalists try.
And the role of governments and courts and citizens themselves is to defend the ability of the media to operate without government interference. I really hope that in the coming years we’ll see a strengthening of freedom of the press in both of our countries.
And now, with your permission, on the topic on which I was invited to speak, relations between Israel and the United States, I will speak in English.
Before I get into the subject of U.S.-Israel relations, let me first address the tragic and ghastly events in Paris over the weekend.
What we have seen, as President Obama said, is nothing short of a terrorist attack “on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”
France is the United States’ oldest ally, and our unique relationship has never wavered. France was at our side on our darkest day, on September 11, 2001, and the United States is at France’s side today. “Our peoples have always stood together in our darkest hours,” Secretary Kerry said Friday night, adding that “these terrorist attacks will only deepen our shared resolve.”
We offer our condolences to the French people and to the families of those murdered. But we also offer more—a sacred commitment to continue in the fight to its conclusion, and to shoulder our share of the burden in combating this scourge.
By all appearances, this was an act of war by ISIL, or Daesh, against France, but also against the entire free world. The United States will do whatever it takes to help France go after ISIL in response. That activity is already underway with increased French, U.S., and allied airstrikes in Syria.
Even before these horrific attacks, France has been an active member of the anti-ISIL coalition, and we welcome their contributions. Already in this war, we and our allies have conducted over 6,000 airstrikes against ISIL targets, and we have stopped their geographic advance, and enabled our allies, like the Kurds, to take back significant amounts of territory from them.
But as President Obama said from the beginning of this campaign, it will take time to win this war. It is clear that ISIL still poses a significant threat, including its conduct of terrorist attacks overseas, and we will need to intensify our efforts to defeat them in the days and weeks to come. And we will do so with our allies.
The attacks in Paris, with their links to this region, like the downing of a Russian plane in Sinai, recent bombings in Ankara and Beirut, and the massive flow of refugees – all of which are being discussed by world leaders at the G-20 summit in Turkey this week – underscore what a period of turmoil the Middle East is going through.
And that turmoil, in turn, underscores the strategic importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship – a bond of two allies with common interests facing an array of dangers that threaten us both, buttressed by the democratic values we share, but which struggle to take hold, and indeed, are under assault, across this region.
This context formed the backdrop of President Obama’s meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu last week, which I returned to Washington to take part in. The backdrop of this meeting also featured a year that was not an easy one for the relationship, given our disagreement on the Iran nuclear deal.
But while neither leader denied those differences, there was no rehashing them either. Both leaders took a forward-looking approach, and used their meeting as an opportunity to resume their serious and focused cooperation on a wide range of shared security interests.
It also provided an opportunity to signal to both publics—not to mention the wider international community—that the relationship remains unshakeable and resolute, even when we have policy disagreements. That is a critical message in this dangerous period.
Much has been written about the relationship between these two leaders. There have been real policy differences between our governments during their terms – not unprecedented in the U.S.-Israel relationship – and differences between our leaders – also not unprecedented.
Those differences were fair game for public reporting, although some accounts, in my view, have sought to accentuate discord and exaggerated personal drama, when in fact it is strategic cooperation and convergence of our interests that have had a greater impact on the relationship.
I believe that, over the long term, history will be kinder to these two leaders—in terms of acknowledging what they achieved together—than what sometimes comes across in the day-to-day media coverage and the political environment in both countries.
Last week’s meeting was serious and constructive and addressed some of the most critical issues in our relationship, which I will touch on: Iran and our cooperation on regional threats; U.S. security assistance; and the recent violence and the Palestinian track.
Last week’s visit was an important opportunity for President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss the implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement.
As is well known, while we share an identical strategic objective – preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon – we differed on the best way to do so. We believe strongly that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is a very good deal that will keep Iran farther away from a nuclear weapon, for a longer period of time, with greater transparency and ability to respond to cheating, then any other alternative. The Prime Minister, of course, disagreed and felt it was not a good deal.
But with the Congressional review now behind us, the agreement is moving forward toward implementation. Iran has a long list of steps it must take to downgrade its nuclear program before it will receive a single dollar of sanctions relief.
These include: removing thousands of centrifuges from Natanz and Fordow, disposing of its stockpile of enriched uranium, disabling its heavy water reactor at Arak, addressing the possible past military dimension of its nuclear program, and setting up a highly intrusive system of inspections and monitoring.
All of these steps must be certified by the IAEA. Together, they will block every path Iran could take to a nuclear weapon during the term of the agreement, and likely well beyond.
Now our focus is on enforcement, monitoring, and verification. The President and the Prime Minister agreed on the importance of holding Iran’s feet to the fire to ensure Iran fully complies with its obligations in the agreement.
Thanks to the intensive dialogue between American and Israeli experts over many years, Israeli input helped shape the conceptual and technical aspects of the nuclear agreement. Now, we look forward to further Israeli input on the monitoring and compliance process.
As part of that dialogue, we will naturally talk about non-compliance scenarios. Should Iran be judged to be in violation of the agreement, as Vice President Biden said last week, our options include partial or full snapback of sanctions, and even the use of military force, thanks to a credible military option, which we maintain and which is available.
“We simply will not permit Iran,” said the vice president, “to acquire nuclear weapons, period.”
The two leaders also discussed ways to intensify our cooperation on the non-nuclear threats posed by Iran, which continue. These threats include Iran’s destabilization of countries across the Middle East, its involvement in the civil war in Syria, its arming of terrorist proxies like Hizballah and Hamas, and its running its own terrorist networks.
We will continue to work with Israel to deploy the full range of our tools – from intelligence sharing, to the interdiction of weapons transfers, to sanctions and designations against terrorist entities – to combat these threats.
We are using many of the same tools to work with Israel to ensure its security is protected from many of the other threats in the region, including terrorist groups like ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, spillover violence from the war in Syria, and instability in Israel’s neighbors. In the diplomatic process in Vienna, which we hope will lead to a ceasefire and a political transition in Syria, we are very mindful of Israel’s interests in outcomes in Syria, and will work to protect them.
In view of this dangerous regional environment, it is appropriate, as the President and Prime Minister agreed, to resume our talks on a new long-term MOU on American military assistance to Israel.
During President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s tenure, it is widely acknowledged that security cooperation between our countries has reached unprecedented heights.
It includes our $3 billion in annual military assistance; an additional $1 billion in support of Iron Dome, with life-saving results; hundreds of millions more for the David’s Sling and Arrow 3 missile defense programs; extensive joint military training; expanded intelligence sharing, and many other areas, some of which are not made public. Now, we are preparing to take the next step in our relationship.
In December, senior delegations from both sides will meet and begin these discussions. It is a complex exercise that involves achieving a common understanding of the threat environment and matching capabilities and systems that are most relevant to those threats.
Along the way, Israel will have significant decisions to make about how to prioritize different systems in its long-term acquisition planning. And we will all have to take account of budget realities in both countries.
At this point, before we have had these discussions, it is premature to talk about numbers. We know that some systems, like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will be part of the package. It is the most sophisticated fighter aircraft in the world, and it will be the backbone of the Israel Air Force for the next generation. Israel will be the only air force in the Middle East to fly it, starting with the first arrivals 13 months from now.
But even on this system, Israel has important decisions to make about quantities, timing, and system characteristics.
These talks will be undergirded by America’s bedrock commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME), which is crucial to Israel’s ability to defend itself, by itself. “QME” may be the most important three letters in English for Israeli defense planners; it is also fully embraced by the American officials charged with managing the bilateral relationship. The commitment is longstanding and nonpartisan. It is de-linked from any particular policy preference.
I also expect this new dialogue will be part of a broader discussion on defense cooperation and ways in which we can further protect and promote each other’s interests in an increasingly unstable strategic environment, including cyber, intelligence, and counter-tunneling technology.
Finally, let me address the two leaders’ discussion on the recent wave of violence and terrorism that began several weeks ago, starting with the tensions at Jerusalem’s holy sites.
On this issue, I want to reinforce President Obama’s expression of solidarity with the Israeli people as they continue to face Palestinian terrorism and violence against innocent citizens. There is no excuse, no justification, and no explaining away terrorism. We condemn it in the strongest terms, including the incitement by Palestinian leaders that often stands behind it.
As Israel mourns the murder of so many of its citizens – most recently, Rabbi Yaakov Litman z”l and his son Netanel Litman z”l, who were gunned down just before Shabbat – and prays for the recovery of dozens more—a list that includes American citizens—America’s leaders and countless other Americans stand in steadfast solidarity with you. A similar solidarity to that which we feel for France during these dark days.
With Israel, just as with France, America’s condemnation, our total rejection of terror—whether in the form of rocks, knives, motor vehicles, guns, suicide bombers, or rockets—is unequivocal and rooted in the kinship of our open and democratic societies.
As President Obama said last Monday alongside the Prime Minister, the United States supports Israel’s right to maintain basic law and order and protect its citizens. “It is my strong belief,” the President said, “that Israel has not just the right, but the obligation to protect itself.”
All sides are hurting in the current reality, which is why President Obama reiterated America’s commitment to assisting Israelis and Palestinians in finding durable solutions to the current crisis and restoring security.
Secretary Kerry undertook that effort in meetings in Berlin and Amman last month, and he met on Wednesday with the Prime Minister in Washington to follow up on the discussion with the President and explore affirmative steps the parties can take to restore calm.
President Obama also focused part of last week’s meeting on getting back on a path toward a two-states for two-peoples solution. “Legitimate Palestinian aspirations,” he said, must be “met through a political process.”
We recognize that we will not see a two-state solution during President Obama’s administration, and it may be that we are in a period in which it will not even be possible to conduct negotiations.
Nevertheless, even in such a period, we firmly believe that it is imperative to take steps now to preserve the two-state solution as a viable outcome, to keep it alive as a realistic prospect. Otherwise, we risk sliding toward a binational reality.
That outcome, in which Israel loses its Jewish or its democratic character, and Palestinians do not achieve their dream of independence, is an outcome neither Israelis nor Palestinians want.
But it will become increasingly likely if the current political stalemate persists.
So we are urging both sides to consider seriously what steps they can take, even in the absence of negotiations, that are consistent with the transition to two states envisioned by previous agreements, and at least provide some momentum in that direction until the next negotiations can take place. Our Acting Special Envoy, Frank Lowenstein, will be in the region soon to address these issues.
In our on-going dialogue with all sides, we will continue to discourage unilateral actions that damage the prospects of renewing, and successfully completing, negotiations for two states. Such actions include Palestinian appeals to the ICC and U.N. bodies, and Israeli settlement expansion and home demolitions.
We are also in regular contact with the Israeli government about actions it is taking to combat extremism, including the home-grown variety, and the importance of bring to justice those responsible for such horrifying terrorist attacks as the arson in Duma that took the lives of three members of the Dawabshe family during the summer.
We are deeply aware that previous failed attempts to achieve a negotiated two-state solution, make progress much more difficult. The mistrust, between leaders and peoples, runs deep, and many feel the cause is hopeless.
Nevertheless, we also believe that real progress was achieved in previous efforts, including the 2013-2014 negotiations, and there is a foundation on which to build when conditions are ripe.
But in the meantime, the clock is ticking toward the day when Israelis and Palestinians cannot disentangle themselves from their binational reality. Leaders who wish to avoid that future, and who aspire to seize potential regional security and economic benefits of the end of the conflict, must think creatively and proactively about how to prevent that reality and steer back in the direction of a two-states for two-peoples solution that ends the conflict.
The Prime Minister’s visit allowed him and the President to engage in productive work to advance our joint interests, and their teams will carry that work forward in the days and weeks ahead.
Next month, President Obama looks forward to welcoming President Rivlin to the White House, further underscoring the close bonds between our peoples.
President Rivlin has demonstrated extraordinary courage and leadership in combating extremism, promoting tolerance and mutual understanding, and standing up for democratic values at a particularly challenging time here in Israel. I know President Obama looks forward to discussing these issues with him and sharing some latkes with him at the White House’s annual Hanukah reception.
So, there you have it.
The state of our unique alliance is strong and there is a robust agenda to tackle over the next year and beyond.
In the months ahead, there will be debates on all the issues I have discussed, and there will be a need—no less than before—for robust public discourse. And for this, the Israeli public will continue to rely on your reporting, your commitment to truth and transparency, and your commitment to highlight the viewpoints of all stakeholders. And so will my colleagues and I.