Remarks at J-Street Gala
Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations
Thank you very much Jeremy. Ladies and gentlemen, it is a real pleasure to be with you tonight. I have to say, when they told me I was going to be the final speaker of your conference and that I was going on at 9:30 at night on the third day of your event, I wondered if there was going to be anyone left in the audience. I’m deeply gratified that you hung around for the sake of this speech. But I think it is a testament, another testament to the commitment of all of you to the cause that we all share, together. And that is what I want to talk about tonight. I can’t help but think, about 35 years ago, when I first came to the United States, in pursuit of my obsession, which was to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, to help resolve it. And someone said to me, what are you going to do after there is Middle East Peace? That was 35 years ago. And I said “Well, there’s always Cyprus.”
I am delighted also to have the opportunity to share the program with Mort Halperin and Nancy Bagley. Those of who were at an event only a few months ago, a J-Street event, in which I spoke there, with Mort Halperin, I explained what a debt I owed to you. I won’t go into the details tonight because I have a long speech to give. But let me just say I had the pleasure and honor to serve with Mort in the Clinton Administration and he taught me a very profound lesson, which is something I will not forget. And I’m very glad you are honoring him tonight for he certainly deserves it. Nancy Bagley and (inaudible) are old friends of mine, personal friends and I remember the day that Nancy told me that she was a founding supporter of J Street. And that was at a time when J Street was barely able to stand on its own two feet. It was deeply and deeply immersed in controversy. And I remember being very impressed, kind of saying, “Wow, are you really doing that?” But that is the nature of Nancy’s courage, Nancy’s conviction. She too deserves to share in the honor you are giving Mort tonight.
It goes without saying that this has been a big week for speeches on the Middle East.
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 Tzipi Livni, my partner and good friend , 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, President Mahmoud Abbas spoke about 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 would "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 also address the General Assembly, and while much of his speech will likely be devoted to the challenge of Iran's nuclear program, I know that he too will speak about his vision of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
My own boss, Secretary Kerry delivered a report at the United Nations about progress in the negotiations.
All of this was underscored at the UN last week 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 the President’s deep personal commitment to the peacemaking endeavor that he’s directed Secretary of State Kerry and myself to embark upon is critically important. I have heard the same thing from him in private and that 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 wasn’t able to get my boss's permission to reveal to you the details of what is happening inside the negotiating room.
So instead, I thought I might share with you my own analysis of what's different this time – I will try to answer the Pesach question: why is this time different from all the other times?
This question reminds me of an old joke about the peace process that Palestinians tell. An Israeli and a Palestinian go to watch a cowboy movie together. And the Israeli says to his Palestinian friend, I bet you $20 that the cowboy falls off his horse. The Palestinian takes him up on the bet. Sure enough, as they watch the movie, 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,” he said, “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!”
So is there any reason why this movie should end any differently than the bad movies we’ve all seen before? I think so.
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 often overwhelmed by external actors and events: you remember the 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 the objective of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
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 us, 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, since I’ve been involved in these negotiations in the past two months, 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 the 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 of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the 1967 lines "with comparable and mutually agreed minor swaps of land.” That move, that updating of the Arab League Peace Initiative, signaled their willingness to endorse changes in the 1967 lines that could accommodate Israel's interests, provided they were compensated by territorial swaps. Since then, Foreign Ministers from the Arab League Follow-up Committee have met regularly with Secretary Kerry – they met with him just a few weeks ago in Paris - 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 Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas. Both President Abbas and the Prime Minister are in stronger positions today than past leaders when they sought to make peace. Hamas is facing dire straits now in Gaza since they have lost much of their patronage from 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 have given renewed credibility to Abbas's competing model of a Palestine borne of peaceful reconciliation with Israel, has provided President Abbas a considerable boost in standing and in his 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 for doing so. 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, living alongside the Jewish state of Israel. In other words, both leaders have 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 back with Henry Kissinger in the 1970s. But Secretary Kerry’s 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: he 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, prophets -- 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 both 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 can tell you that I am confident that they will confound the skeptics yet again.
Because of the importance of this moment we have moved forward aggressively on multiple tracks. 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, as you all know, 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 over the last two months. We've agreed that those talks should now be intensified and American involvement will be increased to facilitate these discussions.
As I often heard from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when I used to work for her, she used to say, “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 of the core issues are on the negotiating table. And our common objective, that is the objective of the United States, the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, 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 of 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. He met with President Abbas last week in New York and today as you know he is meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House. 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 reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
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 IDF to help address Israel’s security requirements in the context of a two-state solution.
That effort is critical, and, as the President has made clear, the United States will never compromise our commitment to Israel’s security.
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 to Palestinians as the negotiations succeed 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 for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. These included 5,000 new worker permits for Palestinians to work in Israel, the number of Palestinians now working in Israel I think amounts to 75,000 or so; additional quantities of water are being supplied for the West Bank and Gaza; and new construction materials are allowed now into Gaza for the private sector, the Allenby bridge will be open 24 hours a day, five days a week. All of these steps by the Israeli Government, that are being taken, and there are more to follow, that are being taken in the context of the negotiations, 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. These 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.
And finally, we are focused on creating sustainable long term growth in the Palestinian economy through generating large scale foreign direct investment. The private sector is at the heart of this third dimension of our effort, which we refer to as the Palestinian Economic Initiative. If we can succeed in galvanizing the private sector, we can dramatically grow the Palestinian economy, cut unemployment, and increase median wages dramatically within 3 years.
The parties will also need the help of the international community. Last week at the UN General Assembly, we worked hard to generate that support. I should say hard and successfully. It is important that Israelis understand that the international community will reward and embrace their efforts to take risks for peace, and will work with them to produce a future in which they will be fully integrated into the international community and regional order. And Palestinians will experience transformative economic growth, along with the freedom that will come from having their own independent Palestinian state.
Already we have seen the support that has come from the Arab League’s efforts. As I mentioned, the statement in support of returning to the negotiations by the Arab League in mid-July was critical in helping bringing the parties back to the table. And they will remain a crucial partner of ours as we move forward. Just this past week, Secretary Kerry met with his Quartet partners – UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, High Representative for Lady Cathy Ashton of the European Union, along with Quartet Representative Tony Blair. For the first time in years, they were briefed by the Israeli and Palestinian chief negotiators, Tzipi Livni and Saed Erekat. I must say: they were impressed by the way in which these two negotiators demonstrated such a positive attitude towards each other and to the challenge that they face in common of trying to reach an agreement in short order. These kinds of meetings of the leaders of the international community have been 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.
So the prospects for an agreement are real. The potential for a breakthrough is possible. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas have shown courageous leadership in taking the decisions to return to negotiations. And the United States, with the backing of the international community, is doing all we can to create the right atmosphere for successful negotiations.
But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. This is not going to be easy. If you thought that getting back to the table was somewhat miraculous, it pales in comparison to the challenges that will come over the months ahead as the leaders try to address the final status issues – the core 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 it’s just too hard, it’s just not possible. That after the frustrations that we’ve felt, from Madrid to Oslo to Camp David and then Annapolis, that there is no reason to try again. That it is easier just to sit on the sidelines and avoid risking having our expectations raised only to be disappointed yet again.
But think of the dangerous spiral and potential consequences if we don’t seize this moment. New actions by the Palestinians at the United Nations and Israeli retaliation for doing so could lead to a downward spiral, whose end could be renewed conflict. The continuation of the insidious campaign to delegitimize Israel, what the Secretary of State has said is beyond steroids. . Increased settlement activity that makes a Palestinian state less and less viable is likely to occur. And eventually a fateful choice for Israel will have to be made, between a Jewish State and a democratic state.
To avoid these kinds of outcomes – that are all too real and palpable – we need you. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas cannot walk this very difficult road, climb this very steep and high mountain by themselves. They will need the support of their people, and they will need your support too. 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 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. To tell them that peace is possible, that it is not a mirage, that this does not need to end badly. Tell them the peacemakers 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 family and your Palestinian friends, colleagues, to reach out to them with a message that you support them and ask them why are they sitting on the sidelines, when their future is so much at stake. Tell them that you believe peace is possible and that they need to believe it too and they too need to work to achieve it.
Now is the time to send a message to Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. Tell them that as they contemplate making the tough decisions, you will be supporting them. The American people will have their back. They need to hear this message – most importantly from their own people, but they need to hear it from you.
If we all work together, we can build this better future for Israelis and Palestinians. 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.
If there is one message I want to leave you with tonight, that is: we are looking at a very short time frame. By the time you convene again in Washington next year, the leaders will have had to decide whether they are going to go for a final peace deal or not. So what you do today and tomorrow and in the coming weeks and months is critical, you who want to see, who have dedicated yourselves to the purpose of achieving a lasting peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. The time for acting is now.
I want to conclude by telling you a little story that some of you will have heard me tell before. It was when the last effort I was involved in to make peace, at the end of the Clinton Administration, failed. And Shimon Peres said to me afterwards, “You know, history is like a horse that gallops past your window. And the true act of a statesman is to jump from the window onto that galloping horse.”And when you think about it, it’s not such an easy proposition. Ladies and gentlemen, President Obama and Secretary Kerry are going to make sure that that horse gallops past the window of President Mahmoud and Prime Minister Netanyahu. And they will have to make that kind of decision. And when they look at that galloping horse coming towards them they need to know that they will have the support of their peoples and they will have the support of people like you, who care to see this conflict ended once and for all. So the time is now, the time is for you to act, and I urge you to take up this challenge with all your heart. Thank you very much.