Remarks to J-Street Gala
Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations
September 30, 2013
As Prepared for Delivery
Thank you very much Jeremy for having me here this evening and congratulations on all of the incredible work that J-Street has done over the past few years to advance the important cause of peace. I’d also like to offer Secretary Kerry’s heartiest congratulations to tonight’s Tzedek v’Shalom honorees — Mort Halperin and Nancy Bagley. It is a real pleasure to be up here with you today and to share this stage.
Context of the Past Week
It goes without saying that this has been a big week not just for speeches on Middle East peace and the conflicts that threaten the security of the State of Israel, but also for progress that just might provide greater security for Israel.
I know you heard earlier today from Vice President Biden about America’s overall strategy for the Middle East and how Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are a critical component of that approach. And you also heard during this conference from my partner and good friend Tzipi Livni, who has been leading the Israeli negotiating team, about the vision that she and Prime Minister Netanyahu share for a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Last week at the UN General Assembly, we heard from President Abbas, who discussed his vision of a future where “the children of Palestine and of Israel enjoy peace and security, and where they can dream and realize their dreams, a future that allows Muslims, Christians and Jews to freely reach places of worship.” He spoke of a peace agreement that will "end the conflict and end all claims." And he concluded by declaring that, "The hour of peace for the Palestinian and Israeli peoples has rung." Tomorrow Prime Minister Netanyahu will address the General Assembly, and while much of his speech will likely be devoted to the challenge of Iran's nuclear program, I'm confident that he too will speak about his vision of peace with the Palestinians.
At the UN, Secretary Kerry also provided his first report on progress in the negotiations since the Israelis and Palestinians first sat down in Washington two months ago.
All of this was underscored last week at the UN when we heard President Obama declare that “in the near term, America’s diplomatic efforts [in the Middle East] will focus on two particular issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.” This manifestation of President Obama's deep personal commitment to the peacemaking endeavor he’s directed Secretary of State Kerry to embark upon is critically important. I have heard the same thing in private directly from the President which he has repeatedly underscored in public: he believes that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a critical national interest of the United States, and as he told the world from the UN podium last week, he intends to make it one of his top two diplomatic priorities in the year ahead.
At this point so many more important people than me have addressed my topic tonight that I'm not sure I can live up to the task of enlightening you further, especially since I, like the other negotiators, are operating under Secretary Kerry’s gag order. I regret to inform you that as important as J Street is, I was not able to get my boss's permission to reveal to you the details of what is happening inside the negotiating room.
Why Peace is Possible
So instead, I thought I might share with you my own analysis of what's different this time — try to answer the Pesach question: why is this time different from all other times?
This question reminds me of an old joke about the peace process. An Israeli and a Palestinian go to watch a cowboy movie together. The Israeli says to his Palestinian friend, I bet you $20 the cowboy falls off his horse. The Palestinian takes him up on the bet. Sure enough the cowboy falls off his horse. The Palestinian tries to give the Israeli the $20 but the Israeli refuses: “I can’t take your money. I’ve seen this movie before,” The Palestinian says, “Take the money! I’ve seen this movie before too but I thought the cowboy would learn from his mistakes!”
Is there any reason why this movie should end any differently than the bad movies we’ve all seen before?
The first reason is the dramatic change taking place in the regional environment. Historically, even the most well-intentioned and well-crafted efforts at peacemaking were undermined and eventually overwhelmed by external actors and events: tragedies like Prime Minister Rabin's assassination at the hands of a right-wing Israeli extremist; Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah terrorism and rocket attacks — all encouraged by Iran. Time and time again these kinds of events made it impossible to achieve our objective.
Today, the enemies of peace are either significantly weakened or otherwise preoccupied. Their disinterest is partly a function of their conviction that after so many past failures, there is no chance that we will now succeed. They too have seen this movie before. But those low expectations also give the negotiators some space within which to operate.
Some argue that the turmoil in the surrounding Arab world makes it difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to take risks for peace. But to my surprise, that is not the way the leaders or their negotiators see it. On the contrary, they all seem to feel that the turmoil gives them an added incentive and most significantly, an opportunity. The incentive comes from their common fear that if they don't succeed in transforming their relations now – and indeed, in making peace now — that they too risk being engulfed by this violence. The opportunity comes from the way in which the regional turmoil is generating a common sense of purpose between the Arab states and Israel to contain the instability by trying to resolve one of the longstanding sources of regional conflict. That was manifested in the decision by the Arab League earlier this year to declare their support for a resolution based on the 1967 lines "with comparable and mutually agreed minor swaps of land.” That move signaled their willingness to endorse changes in the 1967 lines that could accommodate Israel's interests, provided they were compensated for by territorial swaps. Since then, Foreign Ministers from the Arab League Follow-up Committee have met regularly with Secretary Kerry to demonstrate their support for his efforts and to make clear that when the deal is done they will be there to publicly endorse it. That's very different from past experience.
The second difference is in the political situation of the two leaders. Both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu are in stronger positions than in the past. Hamas is facing dire straits in Gaza now that they have lost much of their patronage around the region. The failure of their model of an Islamist Palestine borne in violence and terror, at the very moment that Secretary Kerry's efforts gave renewed credibility to Abbas's competing model of a Palestine borne of peaceful reconciliation with Israel, has provided Abbas a considerable boost in standing and confidence.
On the Israeli side, public opinion among Israelis underscores that Prime Minister Netanyahu will have strong support from his fellow Israelis should he succeed in presenting them with an agreement that secures their future in an end of claims/end of conflict agreement between the state of Palestine and the Jewish state of Israel.
Both leaders have already taken tough political decisions to return to negotiations, and each has paid a price. They should both be applauded for their courage in the face of such deeply-rooted cynicism. President Abbas has put aside efforts to short-cut the pursuit of peace by foregoing the pursuit of UN recognition and action in the International Criminal Court and return instead to the negotiating table. Prime Minister Netanyahu has released Palestinian prisoners and reaffirmed his commitment to a Palestinian state. In other words, they've already put skin in the game and instead of weakening them — as happened to the peacemakers in earlier times — they appear to have emerged stronger.
The third difference is the Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama. Secretary Kerry is the latest in a long line of Secretaries of State who have sought to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, beginning with Henry Kissinger in the 1970s. But his commitment to achieving a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is driven not just by the pursuit of America's national interests that rightfully animated all his predecessors. It's also driven by a passionate commitment to the cause that is unique to this time which has made the sense of urgency ripen: Secretary Kerry knows, and has repeated again and again, that the window is closing on the two state solution and that if we don't try now, the chance will be lost forever, with dire consequences for Israelis and Palestinians alike. In this sense, President Obama and Secretary Kerry are visionaries — at a time when many on both sides have come to see the status quo as preferable to the alternative of supporting the wrenching compromises necessary to achieve an historic reconciliation, they are sounding the tocsin. They share such a sense of conviction that they will not let up for a moment. Few believed that they could succeed in relaunching the negotiations. They proved all the skeptics wrong. And having had the honor now to work closely with both of them these last two months, I am confident that they will confound the skeptics yet again.
The Negotiations Track
Because of the importance of this moment we have moved forward aggressively on multiple fronts. First, in terms of the negotiations themselves. Both leaders have committed to the goal of achieving a final status agreement on all the core issues in a nine month time frame. People will say that's too short a time to resolve such complex and difficult issues. But the two sides have been negotiating these issues for many years. There's no secret about what it takes to achieve a two state solution. The outlines are clear. What's needed is great courage and reasonable compromise — a will to take the really tough decisions that will lead their peoples to the promised land of peace.
We've structured these negotiations to lay the groundwork for the decisions the leaders will have to make. At the negotiators level, the parties have engaged in direct, bilateral negotiations. We've agreed that those talks should now be intensified and American involvement should be increased to facilitate these discussions.
As I’ve heard former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright say on multiple occasions, “Negotiations are like mushrooms. They grow best in the dark.” Secretary Kerry has made this more than just a motto – he’s made it a rule. So, while I don't think it would be wise to go into any details, let me just assure you of two things: All the issues are on the negotiating table. And our common objective is a final status agreement, NOT an interim agreement.
At the same time as the negotiators are working to establish and then narrow the gaps on all the core issues, Secretary Kerry has intensified his own engagement with the two leaders so that when the time is right he can begin to work with them to bridge the gaps.
President Obama has stepped up his own involvement, meeting with the negotiating teams at the beginning of the process to encourage them to engage seriously, and now meeting with the leaders on the margins of the UN General Assembly. Indeed he met with Prime Minister Netanyahu today. He has made it clear to both of them that he is personally committed to supporting them as they make the tough decisions necessary to forge a lasting peace agreement.
The Security Track
In addition to the negotiations themselves there are also a number of other tracks that we are pursuing that are vital to creating a positive environment for peace. General Allen has been leading a security dialogue with the Israel Defense Forces to help address Israel’s security requirements in the context of a two-state solution.
This effort is critical, and, as the President has made clear, the United States will never compromise our commitment to Israel’s security. Indeed, across the board Israeli and American officials will attest that the United States’ security relationship with Israel is the deepest and broadest that it has ever been. If we can also succeed in removing Syria's chemical weapons and negotiating meaningful curbs on Iran's nuclear program that too will significantly enhance Israel's security margins as it contemplates a new future with the Palestinians.
The Economic Track
We have also begun working with the parties to take steps to improve the economic situation on the ground, particularly in the Palestinian territories to demonstrate that there are genuine and tangible benefits to peace.
Last week, the Israeli government announced a number of new steps to improve the economic situation in Gaza and the West Bank. These included 5,000 new worker permits for Palestinians to work in Israel; additional quantities of water for the West Bank; and new construction materials allowed to enter Gaza. We welcome these steps by the Israeli government, but they are only the beginning of what we can achieve if we are able to forge a two-state solution where Israeli and Palestinian commerce can expand exponentially.
Last week, Secretary Kerry also unveiled a new $100 million vehicle to invest immediately in the West Bank’s infrastructure. The United States put $20 million into the effort and is seeking additional international support to create practical improvements in locations across the West Bank. The projects will demonstrate that negotiations have their dividend in terms of a change in the lives of ordinary people even before the peace agreement is struck.
Meanwhile, we are working with our Gulf Arab friends to relieve the crushing burden of debt faced by the Palestinian Authority. Without significant debt relief, so much of what the PA has achieved to professionalize their government and security forces will be put at risk. Which is why the United States has also provided $348 million in debt relief this year.
Finally, we are focused on creating sustainable long term growth in the Palestinian economy through foreign direct investment. The private sector is at the heart of this third dimension of our effort: The Palestinian Economic Initiative.
Working closely with Tony Blair and the Office of the Quartet Representative, a team of private sector experts has shown that under the right conditions, extraordinary growth is possible in the Palestinian economy. The details of this initiative are still being developed, in close coordination with our Palestinian partners. But the bottom line is clear: If we can galvanize the private sector investment, these experts say we can dramatically grow Palestinian GDP, cut unemployment, and increase median wages within 3 years.
The International Track
The parties will also need the help of the international community, which should reach out and show them what a better and a more peaceful future could look like. A future in which Israel is fully integrated into the international community and regional order. A future in which Palestinians experience transformative economic growth, unlocked by the possibilities of peace.
Already we have seen the outpouring of support from the international community. The Arab League’s efforts in supporting the negotiations have been particularly vital. The Arab League’s statement in support of a return to the negotiations in mid-July was critical in helping bring the parties back to the table. The Arab League will remain a crucial partner as we move forward. And ultimately, President Abbas will need the Arab States’ support for any final status agreement.
Just this past week, Secretary Kerry met with his Quartet partners – UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the European Union Lady Ashton, along with Quartet Representative Tony Blair. For the first time in years, they were briefed by the Israeli and Palestinian chief negotiators. This meeting of the leaders of the international community was key to sending a signal of support to the parties, while also ensuring that the international community is speaking with one coordinated voice in support of the negotiations.
Need for More Support / Conclusion
So the prospects for an agreement are real. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas have shown courageous leadership in taking tough political risks to return to negotiations. And the United States, with the backing of the international community, is doing all it can to create the right atmosphere for successful negotiations.
But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. This isn’t going to be easy. If you thought that getting back to the table was tough, it pales in comparison to the challenges that will come over the months ahead as the leaders try to address the final status issues that have bedeviled negotiators for years.
It would be easy in the face of this challenge to fall back on the common refrain that this is just too hard. That after the frustrations that we’ve felt, from Madrid to Oslo to Wye River and Camp David and Annapolis, there is no reason to try again. That it is easier to just sit on the sidelines than once again risk having our expectations raised only to be disappointed.
But think of the dangerous spiral and potential consequences if we don’t seize this moment. New actions by the Palestinians at the UN. The continuation of the insidious campaign to delegitimize Israel. Increased settlement activity that makes a Palestinian state less and less viable. And eventually a fateful choice for Israel between a Jewish State and a democratic state.
To avoid this outcome we need you. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas cannot walk the road to peace by themselves. They will need your help. As President Obama said during this last visit to Israel “Peace will have to be made among peoples, not just governments.”
America’s Jewish community and organizations such as J-Street will have a vital role to play. Now is the time to stand up and tell your elected leaders that peacemaking has your support. That peace is vital both for America’s interest and for Israel’s security.
Now is the time to go back to your communities and engage the skeptics and those who have been disheartened by so many of the failures of the past. Tell them we need their help. Israel needs their help. That if you just sit on the sidelines and lament the world that is, rather than work for the world that can be, we will never achieve peace.
Now is the time to send a message to your Israeli and Palestinian friends, colleagues and family. A message that you support peace. That you believe peace is possible and that they need to believe it too and work to achieve it.
And now is the time to send a message to brave leaders like Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas: As you contemplate making the tough decisions, know that we will support you. The American people will have your back. They need to hear this message – most importantly from their own people, but also from you.
If we all work together we can build this better future. A future in which Palestinian children can travel freely to school without passing through check points and Israeli children can sleep at night without fear of rocket attacks.
Fifteen years ago my son, Jacob, who was 13 at the time, designed a screensaver for my computer. It consisted of a simple question that flashed across the screen constantly: Dad is there peace in the Middle East yet? I guess you could say that he was one of the original skeptics. But behind that skepticism was also a yearning. And for 15 years, I’ve only been able to answer him, “Not yet.” Perhaps, through our efforts together, we may yet be able to tell Jake, and more importantly, all those young Israelis and Palestinians who yearn for a different, better tomorrow, that this time, we actually made it.