Remarks at the Israeli Presidential Conference 2009
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, U.S. Mission to the United Nations
Thank you, Dr. Attali, for that kind introduction.
Todah rabah. Erev tov. Thank you very much, and good evening. I’m delighted to be here with you all, and I’m delighted to be back in Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Aznar, President Klaus, President Kuchma, President Mesic, and President Ivanov, it is an honor to join you.
I’m especially honored to be here at the invitation of President Shimon Peres—an inspiration and a hero to us all. On behalf of President Obama, I want to extend America’s deepest thanks for everything you do to move Israel—and the world—toward lasting security and peace.
Meir Dizengoff, the founder of Tel Aviv, was once asked how does one become the Mayor of a city in Israel. He replied, “First, you build the city.” Well, the life of Shimon Peres suggests that one way to become President of the State of Israel is that, first, you build the State of Israel.
Mr. President, you helped bring Israel into being. As Prime Minister, Finance Minister, Foreign Minister, Defense Minister, you helped Israel grow strong, thrive, defend herself, and move toward peace. You helped forge the enduring peace treaty with Jordan and helped make historic breakthroughs with the Palestinians that still point our way ahead. And as President, you are using an amazing life’s wisdom to secure your country’s future and raise our sights toward a day when all this region’s children can live in the peace and security they so deserve.
By my count, President Peres has worked closely with 10 American Presidents, from Kennedy to Obama. So your life tracks the life of the very special relationship between our two countries. The United States and Israel share a deep and abiding friendship and an unbreakable bond, rooted in common interests and common values. We meet today at a moment of great global change, but we again affirm an essential truth that will never change: the United States of America remains fully and firmly committed to the peace and security of the State of Israel. That commitment spans generations and political parties. It is not negotiable. And it will never be negotiable.
Some of you may know that last summer I was privileged to join President Obama, then Senator Obama, on his second visit to Israel. I followed him as he studied each wall at Yad Vashem. I looked on from a distance as he slipped a personal prayer into the stones of the Western Wall, the Kotel. I witnessed the courage and endurance of the citizens of Sderot and touched the remnants of the countless Hamas rockets that are their ever-present terror.
I have made several trips myself to Israel, but my most vivid memories are from my very first visit, when I was just 14 years old, at a very different time in this nation’s history. I came with my younger brother and my father, who was then on the Board of Directors of what was then Trans World Airlines (TWA), as many of you will recall. The board members and their families, I included, had the extraordinary experience of being passengers on one of the first flights from Tel Aviv to Cairo, around the time of the Camp David Accords. On that same trip I will never forget visiting the original Yad Vashem, floating in the Dead Sea, walking the Old City, climbing at Masada, and my first experience of a kibbutz. I learned by heart the sacred prayer, the Sh’ma, which speaks of God’s oneness. And since that first wonderful visit, my admiration for Israel has grown ever stronger.
I have another powerful memory from that same time. I was born and raised in Washington, DC, where my mother’s house is still across the street from the Egyptian Embassy. So I recall seeing Anwar al-Sadat as he got out of his motorcade—triumphant, proud, and sure—having just signed the Camp David Accords. As a kid, I was more impressed by the heavily armed Secret Service agents who were standing on our roof. But, as an adult, I am most impressed by the central lesson that Sadat’s actions taught me: that human conflict and human problems can be ended by human courage.
And that lesson, in a sense, is what has brought me back to Jerusalem today. President Peres has asked us here, in the words of this conference’s theme, to face tomorrow. He has asked me to talk about the ways that the United States, and the State of Israel, and the world can turn crisis into opportunity. That’s a daunting task, Mr. President, but allow me to describe the vision of the world that President Obama believes lies within our grasp—if we have the courage to seize it. And I will then offer some thoughts on what it will require from all of us to get there.
The right place to start is with a common vision—not of some distant future but of the world we seek for our children and our grandchildren. Our view of that world is rooted in a truth that my nation has long held to be self-evident: and that is that all people are created equal—of equal worth, of equal consequence, and with equal rights.
To be sure, my own country has struggled for centuries to make this promise real—a struggle that is never truly done. But that has only made the promise matter still more. Even as a 14-year-old girl, watching from my window as Sadat marched into his place in history, I felt I had permission to dream to be whatever I wanted to be. That’s not something to take for granted. Like President Obama, I am among the first generation of African Americans whose dreams were not immediately circumscribed by institutionalized racism and legalized segregation. And thus, as we did, children everywhere should have the freedom to dream without limits and to be limited only by their abilities. Children everywhere should be able to get a good education and forge a dignified future, unbound by the accidental circumstances of their birth.
This is a belief that’s deeply rooted in the American experience, but it’s also one with universal power. We cannot afford to write off vast swathes of the world as somehow marginal or irrelevant or doomed. We wouldn’t tolerate it for our own children, and we shouldn’t accept it for someone else’s. The belief that we all matter equally—that every person is created b’tzelem elokim, in the image of God—that belief carries powerful implications. It means that no child should be left to drown in conflict and despair. It means that, in a moral sense, all of our fates are bound together.
But this bedrock belief in human equality and human dignity also has powerful geopolitical implications in our interconnected age. It drives us toward a foreign policy that is principled and pragmatic—one that recognizes not only the moral claim placed upon us by our common humanity, but also the strategic realities that we face in our interlinked world. Today, transnational security threats such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, pandemics, and climate change can cross borders as freely as a storm. So the days when we could view our own interests in isolation are over. The days when we could focus on our own security and prosperity without regard for that of others are past. More and more, our fates are bound closer together. More and more, we live in a world where we rise and fall together, where zero-sum politics no longer fit today’s hard realities, where what’s good for others is often good for us.
A realistic view of the world thus requires an ambitious approach to the world. We must tackle the great problems that we face together. We must find cooperative solutions to challenges that pay no heed to borders. We must think strategically rather than just acting tactically. And we must recognize that there is a growing sphere where our interests and our values converge.
The United States has a clear vision of the future we hope to build together with partners around the globe—a future that rests on the values that underpin the American creed, and a future that we can only create if we stand together.
We seek a world in which government is a means to advance human rights, not a tool to suppress them. A world where violent extremism is rejected, whether from al-Qaeda, Hizballah, or others. A world where nuclear danger, climate change, hunger, poverty, disease, and illiteracy are beaten back—and where access to education and opportunity rises. A world where we have finally learned the lessons of the Holocaust, of Rwanda, of Darfur—where we put effective action behind the words “never again” by finally ending genocide. A world where governments rid their schools and their textbooks of lies about those who are different, including slurs about Zionism, the Jewish people, or any religious, racial, and ethnic group. A world where women and girls fulfill their own potential and are indispensable to national growth and development. A world of liberty and prosperity—of greater decency, dignity, and democracy. A world where a child can grow up in Gaza, in Tel Aviv, in Baghdad, in Bamako, or in Kabul, free of fear, free of want, and with the opportunity to live their dreams.
All of this would, of course, be in America’s interests and in Israel’s interests. But it also reflects the common aspirations of people around the globe.
Now, we have no illusions that building this world will be quick or easy—but the difficulty of the task must not serve as an excuse for inaction.
We know what is holding us back: short-term, short-sighted definitions of self-interest; governments that view power, resources, and markets simply as zero-sum competitions; countries that suffer from weak governance and corrupt institutions that fail their citizens; and leaders who value their own grip on power above the interests of their own people.
By indulging old habits, we run new risks. We know which way the trend lines point: toward a world of unchecked nuclear proliferation; a world in which violent extremists continue to menace us all; a Middle East roiled by conflict and radicalized by despair; a world where strife and genocide claim the lives of more innocents; a world of bitter division between the haves and have-nots; and a planet driven ever closer to the brink of environmental disaster. So, the status quo, ladies and gentlemen, is not static at all. Treading water above powerful undertows will only leave us driven farther and farther from shore.
And that is why President Obama often speaks of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now”—of the pressing need to grasp opportunities that will soon pass us by. Inertia in the face of great challenges carries even greater dangers. If we fail to take bold action to solve common problems, we will all be left at greater peril.
So we must choose: to continue business as usual in a vain attempt to withstand the whirlwind, or to work together to seize this rare chance for deep and lasting change—change driven by transformational leadership, reinforced by partners with the will to seek lasting progress, embedded in effective institutions, and supported by visionary citizens and publics who understand our mission and our moment.
We all have a great deal of work to do to make this change real. The United States has truly changed course, but this task cannot be America’s alone. To pursue this future, we need to act on the belief that our interests are mutual and forge global responses to pressing global challenges. And all of us must recognize not just the rights of all nations, but the responsibilities of all nations.
We must all take responsibility for the preservation of our planet. America once dragged its feet, questioning the science of climate change and denying our role in its creation. No more. We will press ahead with deep cuts in emissions to reach the goals that we set for 2010 and 2050. We will join with both developed and developing nations to find better, greener ways to grow and develop. These include affordable renewable technologies, irrigation, solar power, and electric cars such as those pioneered in Israel and promoted by President Peres and those being developed in the United States and built there as well. We must fundamentally transform the way we consume and produce energy.
We must all take responsibility for stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and pursuing the goal of a world without them. The United States has reaffirmed the basic bargain behind the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: that all nations have the right to peaceful nuclear energy; that nations with nuclear weapons have a responsibility to move toward disarmament; and that those without them have the responsibility to forsake them.
We must all take responsibility for ensuring that nations that refuse to live up to their nuclear obligations pay a price. America understands the stakes. As I have said repeatedly in the United Nations Security Council, the United States will not waver in its determination to ensure that Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons capabilities. If the governments of Iran and North Korea choose to ignore international standards and requirements; if they threaten their neighbors and place nuclear weapons ambitions over the security and opportunity of their own people—then they will be held accountable. The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise and that treaties will be enforced.
We must all take responsibility for fighting the scourge of poverty and seeding sustainable development. As the world struggles to shake off the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we must learn the lessons of the recent past—and work toward a stable global economy that promotes broadly shared prosperity. We must build up state capacity and grow the ranks of democratic states that can deliver on their responsibilities to the world and to their own people. And we must all invest in the closest thing we have to a guarantee of sustained economic growth: education systems that work for all our children.
We must all take responsibility for confronting violent extremism in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and beyond. America will permit al-Qaeda and its extremist allies no safe haven from which to plot mass murder. We will forge lasting partnerships to target terrorists, share intelligence, coordinate law enforcement, and protect our people. We will stand by our friends on the front lines and we will uphold the inalienable right to self-defense. We must all start from a simple truth: the murder of innocent men, women, and children should never be tolerated. It can never be justified. And it must never be condoned. And in the battle against those who preach only malice and promise only ruin, our most powerful weapons are the force of our democratic ideas and the power of our humane example and that is why we must always hold ourselves to a higher standard than our adversaries.
We must all take responsibility for bringing stability and greater opportunity to the Middle East. The United States will keep faith with the Iraqi people, renewing our efforts to ease the suffering of Iraqi citizens displaced by years of war and helping them reintegrate into Iraqi society. We will work with others to support a sovereign and democratic Iraq to take full responsibility for its own future as it deepens and strengthens its institutions and looks forward to its elections. And we will pursue broader partnerships with the people of the region to advance education, employment, and entrepreneurship.
We must all take responsibility for the pursuit of peace and security. The United States is working with vigor and resolve to bring about a just and lasting peace between Israelis, Palestinians, and the Arab world. The time has come to re-launch negotiations without preconditions that address the permanent status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. Our goal is clear: a comprehensive peace, including two states living side by side in peace and security—a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967 and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people. This is in the interests of the United States, of Israel, and of the Palestinians.
But we all must decide whether we are serious about peace or whether we will lend it only lip service. As President Peres always reminds us, being serious about peace means taking risks for peace. Being serious about peace means understanding that tomorrow need not look like yesterday—that Israel can find peace, security, and prosperity with not just its immediate neighbors but in the region as a whole and that Israel can truly and fully take its rightful place among the nations, and that Palestinians can at last enjoy the dignity and blessings of freedom in an independent state of their own.
We must all take responsibility for supporting human rights around the world. We believe that all people should have the freedom to speak their mind and worship as they please. But America also recognizes that our values are to be lived, not just asserted. So President Obama has banned the use of torture by the United States of America. He is closing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. And he has forged a framework within the rule of law to defeat and dismantle al-Qaeda and its extremist allies. The confident ability to correct course is one of an open society’s greatest strengths—and a standing challenge to those regimes that still rely on the jailer’s key and the knock on the door in the dead of the night.
And finally, we must all take responsibility for advancing democracy’s cause. America believes that all citizens should have a say in how they are governed and that ordinary men and women should have confidence in the impartial administration of justice. We don’t believe that democracy can be imposed on others by force. As Senator Robert Kennedy argued with prophetic power in 1966, “Nations, like men, often march to the beat of different drummers, and the precise solutions of the United States can neither be dictated nor transplanted to others. What is important is that all nations must march toward increasing freedom; toward justice for all; toward a society strong and flexible enough to meet the demands of all its own people and a world of immense and dizzying change.” But there is nothing—nothing—relative about America’s convictions. We will always stand for the student who hungers to be taught, for the voter who demands to be heard, for the innocent who longs to be free.
These, ladies and gentlemen, are the responsibilities we share. So together, we must harness the means to move forward. To begin, we need institutions that work—including the indispensable, if evidently imperfect, body at which I represent my country. The United Nations often does extraordinary good around the world—consolidating peace in broken places, carrying food and medicine to the vulnerable, and bringing development to persistent pockets of need. There is no substitute for the legitimacy the UN can impart or the forum it can provide to mobilize the widest possible coalitions to tackle global challenges, from nonproliferation to global health. All of that makes the UN essential to our efforts to galvanize concerted action toward a safer world. But the United Nations is an institution comprised of nations. It rises or falls according to the will of its members. And the UN must do more, much more, to live up to the brave ideals of its founding—and its member states must once and for all replace anti-Israel vitriol with a recognition of Israel’s legitimacy and right to exist in peace and security.
We need cooperation among great powers and constructive contributions from all powers. We need alliances that work and partners that shoulder their share of the common burden. We need to work together to isolate spoilers. We need to join together to counter states that defy their international responsibilities even as we ensure that they have off-ramps should they choose a more responsible course. We need stronger mechanisms for conflict prevention and conflict resolution. And finally, we need more durable vehicles to promote economic development, democracy, and good governance. We need strong institutions, not strong men, to help lay a lasting foundation for global stability and sustainable growth.
To say the least, this is an ambitious agenda. But surely the State of Israel is one country that believes that human beings can and must do great things together—a country that has seen its extraordinary democratic institutions rise with miraculous speed—a country that knows that the trampled fields of war can shelter seeds of peace—a country that believes t in Herzl’s words, if you will it, it is no dream.
These responsibilities do not rest with leaders alone. Ordinary citizens must do their vital part—and heed the call to service and sacrifice. No climate pact will make the difference if consumers do not change the cars they drive or the way they insulate their homes. No peace will truly last if leaders are not held accountable for faithful implementation of their obligations and if citizens lose heart in the promise of a brighter future. Shared security rests on public resolve, common understanding, and united will.
Some will always scoff. Some will choose not to choose. Some will prefer drift to action. But history is made by those on the playing field, not those sitting in the cheap seats.
Decades from now, students sitting in classrooms from Jerusalem to Jakarta will learn about the life of Shimon Peres—and everyone will have forgotten those who grumble today from the sidelines or who are too caught up in short-term political interests to stand up for the interests of generations to come.
Decades from now, people in Egypt, Jordan, and Israel will still praise Anwar al-Sadat, Menachem Begin, King Hussein, Yitzhak Rabin, and other Arab and Israeli leaders who knew that peace is always possible.
And decades from now, people will remember the leaders from this historic moment who took responsibility for our shared destiny and they will remember the citizens who refused to allow differences to define them.
We can be remembered as a generation that evaded the hard choices, that looked away, and that left its children less safe and less secure. Or we can come together to advance our interests, to stand up for our values, and to strengthen our common security by investing in our common humanity.
The stakes are high. The choice is urgent. But America believes that, together, we can and we must rise to history’s call.
Thank you very much.