I am delighted to be here to speak before the Jewish People Policy Institute so early in my tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Israel. Avinoam, thank you very much for putting this dinner together and providing me the opportunity to address such a distinguished group tonight. I’m also deeply honored to have my favorite professor from my Brandeis years, Jehuda Reinharz, join in the introduction.
JPPI has done some of the most innovative analysis on issues of critical importance to Israel and the Jewish community in recent years.
I was honored to represent the US Administration at your conference in Glen Cove two years ago, and I am very pleased to be able to speak to you again.
And you’ll hear many of the themes of your research – U.S.-Israel relations, Israel-Diaspora relations, demographic trends, the importance of Zionist education – reflected in my remarks.
Today, I have been asked to speak about the triangular relationship between the United States, Israel, and the Jewish Community. As most you know, I have spent a good portion of my life inhabiting this triangle, personally and professionally.
I’ve spent many years working as a senior U.S. government official, in the executive and legislative branches of our government. I am a proud member of our Jewish community in Washington, DC, active in a Conservative synagogue and the Jewish day school that my children attend and where my wife, Julie, worked for many years. And my profound respect for the State of Israel and its remarkable achievements stems from a lifetime of exposure to the extraordinary people who brought Theodore Herzl’s Zionist dream to life.
Avinoam, you are the first person, to my knowledge, who gave voice to the idea that my background, experience, and personal qualities made me the right choice to serve as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel. Well, I’m sure it’s not the only thing you and President Obama have in common.
But because not everyone knows the history, I thought I would start with a little background about how I got here. I first discovered Israel as a young boy of four, joining my parents, sister, and brother on a sabbatical semester in the fall of 1973. I recently queried my parents on why they came. To my surprise, they recounted how, having both grown up in homes of modest Jewish affiliation, coming to Israel represented more of satisfying a curiosity than fulfilling a long-held dream. I say, “to my surprise,” because the events that transpired in our months here changed everything, forging a deep bond between my family and Israel, and I can scarcely remember a time before.
In brief, we enjoyed all the experiences of living here – learning Hebrew, making Israeli friends, sampling new foods, and exploring a land with which we knew we had an ancient connection.
But the experience changed utterly on Yom Kippur, when emergency phone calls, sirens, and soldiers rushing through the streets shattered the calm.
Over the next three weeks, while Israelis fought and died to save their country, we struggled to understand what was happening and overcome our fears. My parents, refusing the entreaties of their own parents to return home with the grandchildren, decided to stay, helping out where they could – volunteering in the Angel bakery and in the chicken coop of a moshav, whose workers had gone to the front – and comforting us during scary nights in the bomb shelter or in our blacked out Kiryat Moshe apartment..
By the end of the war, and even more so, by the end of our stay, our family’s relationship with Israel had been utterly transformed, from a solid but light connection to the deepest of bonds. Throughout the remainder of my childhood, family dinner conversations turned easily to events in Israel, from the thrill of the peace with Egypt to the anguish of the Lebanon War. The ample bookshelves in my parents’ home grew laden with studies in Zionism, Jewish history, and Israeli literature.
A product of the Reform Movement, I nurtured my own connection to Israel primarily through summer camp experiences at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, an unlikely setting for some of the most innovative Jewish and Zionist education to be found anywhere.
These experiences led me to spend half a year after high school in Israel on a Reform Movement program, living with an Israeli family in Jerusalem, studying at Hebrew Union College, traveling widely throughout the country, and volunteering on Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava.
I returned for my sophomore year of college at Hebrew University, supplementing my studies with work as a waiter at the wedding hall in the Beit Knesset HaGadol and long walks in Rehavia, where my girlfriend – who is now my wife of 19 years – took an apartment.
In the years since, I have made Israel, its history and people, its quest for peace and security in the Middle East, and its relationship with the United States, the centerpiece of my academic studies at Brandeis and Harvard, my work on Capitol Hill, and my service in the Clinton and Obama Administrations.
I recount this personal history, not because my story is necessarily so compelling, but for whatever insights it can give us about the connection of the American Jewish community to the U.S.-Israel relationship.
In many ways my story is not unique. American Jews of many backgrounds have forged and nurtured strong bonds with Israel. We all know that Jewish Americans are by no means a monolithic group. They are diverse in their religious practice and affiliation, and in their political views on issues across the board, both domestic and international.
But it is impossible to deny the special connection that most in the American Jewish community feel for Israel.
And wherever they fall on the political spectrum, and whatever their views on American policy, Israeli policy or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the vast majority of American Jews care deeply about Israel and want the United States to be Israel’s partner in ensuring its future as a secure, democratic, and Jewish State.
But it’s not just Jewish Americans who care deeply about Israel, of course. It’s Americans across the board. That is why President Truman is roundly praised for making the United States the first nation to recognize the Jewish State 11 minutes after the proclamation. And it’s also why when Soviet Premier Kosygin asked President Johnson why the United States supports Israel, when there are 80 million Arabs and only three million Israelis, President Johnson replied simply: “Because it is right.”
Americans look at Israel and see a country much like their own, which struggled to survive from its very founding, and not only succeeded against all odds, but thrived. America and Israel are unique in the world, in that our founding fathers and mothers made a conscious decision to leave their place of birth in search of a better future, in the case of Israel, to rebuild the ancient homeland of their ancestors.
They wanted to be free from fear and to be part of something greater than themselves. Both our countries were established on the very premise that all people have a right to live and to thrive and to determine their own futures. These are the unique bonds between Israel and America that form the foundation of our special relationship.
I am deeply honored that President Obama has entrusted to me the task and responsibility of strengthening and deepening these ties.
President Obama’s approach towards Israel is grounded in his firm conviction that it is a profoundly important interest of the United States for Israel to succeed and thrive into the future as a strong, secure, Jewish, democratic state here in the historic homeland of the Jewish people.
Our stake in Israel’s future flows, without a doubt, from the common interests of two allies facing common threats – from terrorists, from Iran, and from instability in a sensitive part of the world – as well as from the tremendous investment we have made in each other through unparalleled security cooperation. But, as President Obama has said, the U.S.-Israel relationship is more than a strategic alliance, it is a moral bond between the peoples of two democracies.
And what democracies they are – noisy, contentious, at times unruly, but ultimately faithful to the values common to all democracies. And Israel may never have seen such a demonstration of the vitality of its democracy as it has during the past weeks of protest.
The United States, of course, takes no position on the difficult internal issues Israelis are debating among themselves, but we have deep admiration and respect for a society, especially in this part of the world, where peaceful protesters can march and be heard, where violence and fear never enters the equation, and where the people and their government rely on democratic institutions to resolve issues of controversy.
There are two implications that flow from the President identifying this core interest that I would like to discuss.
The first is this: the test of every policy the Administration develops in the Middle East is whether it is consistent with the goal of ensuring Israel’s future as a secure, Jewish, democratic state. That is a commitment that runs as a common thread through our entire government, even while approaching the U.S.-Israel relationship and regional challenges from a variety of perspectives.
This test explains our extraordinary security cooperation, our stand against the delegitimization of Israel, our efforts on Iran, our response to the Arab Spring, and our efforts on Israeli-Palestinian peace. I’ll say a few words about each of these.
Our security cooperation responds to the very real threats that Israel faces from Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons, Ahmadinejad’s repeated threats to destroy Israel, Hizballah’s amassing of thousands of missiles, and the smuggling of weapons into Gaza by Hamas for use against Israelis. These threats present a real risk to Israel’s and to America’s security.
Israel’s ability to maintain its qualitative military edge and to deter, counter, and defeat credible military threats from any individual state, coalition of states, or non-state actor, while sustaining minimal damages or casualties, has been a top priority for President Obama since the first days of his Administration. I am proud to say that our security relationship with Israel is broader, deeper, and more intense than ever before, according to the military leadership of both countries.
Israel will receive over $3 billion in U.S. funding for training and equipment in the coming fiscal year. This assistance allows Israel to purchase the sophisticated defense equipment it needs to protect itself, by itself, including the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Our assistance has also helped boost Israel’s domestic defense industry. And thanks to Israeli ingenuity and investment, and some help from the U.S., Israel is among the world’s leaders in innovative military technology that helps saves American lives.
Israeli-origin equipment deployed on Iraqi and Afghan battlefields is protecting American troops every day. This includes armor plating technology for U.S. military vehicles, unique medical solutions, sensors, surveillance equipment, unmanned aerial vehicle technology, and detection devices to seek out IED’s.
The partnership and investments between our two governments have yielded important groundbreaking innovations that ultimately make us all safer.
In addition to annual military assistance, the U.S. and Israel share security dialogues and exchanges in political, military and intelligence channels to discuss regional security matters and counter-terrorism, sharing information that can and does save lives. We also continue to work closely with Israel on missile defense – we have worked together on the Arrow system, are working to develop the David’s Sling system, and as you know, Congress, at the request of President Obama, provided $205 million to accelerate production and deployment of the Iron Dome short-range missile system, a project to which I devoted particular attention during my tenure at the White House.
One of my first visits as Ambassador to Israel was to see an Iron Dome battery deployed near Ashkelon. Within weeks of my visit, it was used to save Israeli lives. And I subsequently had very moving visits with the victims of rocket attacks in Ashdod, to the site of those attacks, and to the headquarters of Rafael in northern Israel. There, I watched Rafael’s technicians, with skill, meticulousness, and care, assemble the next batch of Iron Dome interceptor missiles. In all my years in government service, I have never felt my work made such a tangible impact as the effort to bring this lifesaving technology into use.
The test of our policy – that it advances Israel’s status as a secure, Jewish, democratic state – also explains our commitment to vigorously battle against those who would attempt to isolate or delegitimize Israel in the international community.
When the Durban Review Conference advanced anti-Israel sentiment, we withdrew, and we will not attend the next Durban event. In the wake of the Goldstone Report, we stood up strongly for Israel’s right to defend itself. When an effort was made to insert the United Nations into matters that should be resolved through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in February of this year, we vetoed it. And we are doing everything we can to prevent a crisis at the UN later this month. The President has been very clear in his opposition to these kinds of initiatives at the UN, and we are taking our opposition to capitals around the world.
The test of our policy – to advance Israel’s status as a secure, Jewish democratic state – explains our persistent efforts and the President’s determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Since 2009, the United States has led the world in imposing the toughest sanctions ever against Iran, through U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, through the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions and Divestment Act, and through additional sanctions imposed by European and other partners beyond those mandated by the U.N. Security Council. The result has been significant pressure on Iran’s economy, as its banking sector, energy industry, and shipping lines grow increasingly isolated from world commerce. We are working to increase pressure on Iran through additional means, and have taken no option off the table.
The test of our policy explains President Obama’s original outreach to the Muslim world, and his response to the Arab Spring.
Israel’s interests were not served by the deep anger felt toward the United States in many Muslim communities, and the President made clear that those who would accept his outstretched hand must do so knowing that the United States will remain a fierce defender of Israel’s legitimacy and call on others to build their own connections with Israel.
As the unprecedented events of the Arab Spring have unfolded, we have recognized the opportunity presented by the possible emergence of more open, transparent, peaceful, and democratic governments, who will make better neighbors, while remaining vigilant about the risks these changes could present. We know the stakes for Israel are high, and in a situation where neither of us can control outcomes, we are working closely together to chart a common strategy.
Finally, successive Israeli governments, including Prime Minister Netanyahu in his speech at Bar-Ilan University, have identified two states for two peoples, in an agreement that ends the conflict, meets Israel’s security needs, and provides for Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations for self-determination in a viable state as essential for Israel’s future as a secure, Jewish, democratic state.
We agree, and remain convinced that a two-state solution is the only way to guarantee Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. The status quo is simply not sustainable whichever way you look at it. Israel cannot remain secure, Jewish, and democratic in perpetuity without the emergence of a Palestinian state. And a Palestinian state will not emerge without painful and politically unpopular decisions by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
And so, our commitment to and vigorous pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace, since day one of the Administration, meets our test, too.
Have we been less successful that we would like? Absolutely. Have we made mistakes? Undoubtedly. And while no one has a monopoly on wisdom, similarly no one has a monopoly on mistakes. Regardless, our goal remains the same and as urgent as ever. At present, we need to deal with the current challenge of a possible Palestinian appeal to the United Nations, which the United States will oppose. We have been crystal clear that the core issues of the conflict can only be resolved through direct negotiations. Even as we try to dissuade the Palestinians from going to the United Nations, we are working with our Quartet partners and the parties to try to preserve a path back to negotiations.
We also seek to sustain the impressive progress on the ground in the West Bank, including economic gains, institution building, and the dramatically improved security environment for Israelis and Palestinians, which the Palestinian Security Forces and the IDF have cooperated to produce, and of which they are justifiably proud.
In pursuit of a path back to negotiations, the President articulated principles on territory and security in his May 19 speech that we believe can serve as a foundation for productive negotiations. But it is not enough simply to call for negotiations, which we are doing, or to offer a basis, which the President has done. The parties must provide what has been lacking throughout our efforts – the mutual confidence that they each have a partner with whom they can achieve their goals in negotiations.
They are the only ones who can provide that.
I’d like to now address the second implication of the core interest the President has identified in ensuring that Israel survive and thrive as a secure, Jewish, democratic state. And that is: this orientation places U.S. policy squarely within the American Jewish consensus.
I would identify that consensus as follows: the American Jewish community feels deep loyalty to the United States and deep bonds with the State of Israel; they are extraordinarily proud of Israel’s accomplishments; they are protective of the partnership between Israel and the United States; they are worried about Israel’s security; they are supportive of all reasonable efforts to achieve peace between Israel and its neighbors, including a two-state solution with the Palestinians; they are anxious about Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state; and, they believe a strong United States is key to preserving Israel’s security.
In every case, these views are fully consistent with the policies we have pursued.
So it is not surprising that, despite questions that have been raised, when our policies are explained and understood, they receive strong support. No one likes public disagreements, but I believe there is no serious questioning of the intent of our policies, nor of the fundamental commitments they represent, as outlined by the policy test I described.
But, it must be said, while I believe the consensus in the Jewish community is as I described it, there are differences. Just as such a consensus can exist across a broad swath of Israel’s body politic, while serious disagreements persist on tactics, sequencing, and emphasis, so too in the American Jewish community.
It is with regret that I say that in some communities in the United States, the divide between left and right has become so bitter that they avoid discussion of Israel altogether. In such communities, we have seen some on the right equate any disagreement with Israeli policy as hostility to Israel itself, while some on the left focus exclusively on their disagreements, to the exclusion of all of Israel’s magnificent qualities that draw Jews to it in the first place. This does not serve Israel’s or the United States’ interest in strengthening our ties.
These are troubling trends, and they mirror another trend which is best reversed – the use of Israel as a partisan wedge issue. The strength of the U.S. commitment to Israel is that it has historically been a bipartisan one. As JPPI and others have noted, it is to Israel’s benefit that it remain so.
And here I want to return to my own experience as an involved, committed American Jew, who has chosen to devote myself professionally to serving my country and strengthening its connection with the State of Israel. I’m not unique. Julie and I now affiliate with a Conservative synagogue and send our children to a community Jewish Day School, where Julie taught for years.
The percentage of our friends who, like us, have chosen to address issues of concern to the Jewish community, including Israel, prominently in their professional lives never ceases to amaze me. But it may be deceptive. Much research has shown that growing numbers of younger American Jews feel disconnected, or at best ambivalent, toward Israel. Valuable programs like Birthright have exposed many to this connection, but many more have not been reached.
As JPPI and others have observed, a stronger commitment to Zionist education for American Jewish youth could do much to strengthen bonds that we want to be even stronger in the next generation, but may not be if left untended.
There may be a parallel trend on the Israeli side of the equation. There are populations in Israel who are growing in numbers and influence who the United States does not know well, and who don’t know us so well. While there are tremendous economic, social, and cultural ties between our countries, there are many in both who don’t experience them.
One of the most fruitful opportunities for deepening ties between our peoples may indeed be in the economic sphere, where the relationship is growing rapidly but where huge potential growth still remains.
It’s also a sphere in which Israelis and Americans, whether Jewish or not, can engage without every interaction being laden with political implications.
There are approximately one dozen American-Israel Chambers of Commerce throughout the United States, based in New York, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. These organizations are run and organized by Americans who care deeply about the U.S.- Israel relationship and strive to facilitate U.S.-Israel business connections.
I also recently had the pleasure of meeting with the leadership of the Israeli-American Chamber of Commerce here in Israel.
In 2010 alone the U.S. imported $21 billion of Israeli goods and services; that’s 10 percent of Israel’s GDP. American companies and their representatives here directly employ about 60,000 Israelis; that’s fully 2 percent of Israel’s entire workforce. This figure does not include the many thousands more that are supported by American companies here as subcontractors or in downstream businesses.
American companies have opened two-thirds of all foreign R&D facilities in Israel and brought in nearly 60 percent of all foreign direct investment. In 2011, American companies have acquired ten Israeli startups to the tune of $1.5 billion dollars, not just for their products, but to establish leading international R&D centers tapping into the greatest asset of Israel’s people, their brainpower. American-sourced venture capitalism provides more than half of all money for nascent technology companies to get off the ground.
Just as other Diaspora communities are often in the lead in promoting economic ties with their countries of origin, many of these projects began because of Jewish-American “champions” of corporate interaction with Israel.
One of my goals as Ambassador will be to create as many opportunities as possible for interchange – in the fields of security, business, culture, education, and others – between Israelis and Americans of all walks of life. I will reach out to Israelis who have not been closely connected to the United States. I will be traveling throughout the country, including to places that are not used to receiving a U.S. Ambassador, to listen to Israelis’ views and to share the U.S. perspective. I am communicating with Israelis via Facebook and Twitter. And I’ll be a regular in several local falafel stands.
I am the third Jewish American to hold this position. The previous two were excellent ambassadors, and we have had outstanding non-Jewish ambassadors as well. I will, of course, carry on their tradition of deep involvement in the diplomatic issues of the day, of facilitating close communication between our governments, of being a partner to the prime minister of Israel on behalf of the President of the United States. But at this particular moment in history, it may be that the public diplomacy responsibilities, the engagement with the Israeli people, and forging of connections between Americans and Israelis, is even more important.
And it may be that as a committed Jewish American, with deep roots in the American Jewish community and warm bonds of affection with Israel, I will have an opportunity to draw on those associations to help make the U.S.-Israel relationship, strong as it is, even stronger in the years ahead.