Remarks at J Street's National Gala Dinner

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center
Washington, DC
April 18, 2016

Well thank you very, very much. Winston Churchill reminded all of us that the only reason people give a standing ovation is they desperately need an excuse to shift their underwear. (Laughter.) So I know that all of you had a far more noble concept – and utilitarian, I hope.

My profound thanks to Jeremy Ben-Ami, my thanks to the board of directors, my thanks to all of you for being who you are and having the courage to come together and speak out about peace. And I thank you for welcoming me resoundingly into the American home of pro-Israel progressives. (Applause.)

I am very – I am really pleased to be the warm-up act for the Vice President of the United States. Joe and I, the Vice President, spent – wow – 20-some years together on the Foreign Relations Committee, and he sat to my right as the chair, and I never thought I would be chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. And both Joe and I both thought we’d be President of the United States, so I mean, figure that one out. (Laughter and applause.)

But I am really honored – and I mean that – I’m honored and I’m also really happy to be able to be here to celebrate three extraordinary individuals, the recipients of this year’s Justice and Peace Award: Lou Susman, Sam Kaplan, and Alan Solomont. (Applause.)

First of all, I don’t know if you know this. These leaders have a few things in common. First of all, as you know, they’re all former ambassadors. They were all backers of my 2004 presidential campaign. (Applause.) And one state – 59,000 votes, but who’s counting, I don’t get hung up on it. (Laughter.) But more disturbing, they all left their diplomatic posts around the time I became Secretary. (Laughter.) I didn’t take offense.

These are three very special people, and I think you’ve recognized that by bringing them here to honor them. Lou Susman is a very close friend who I have known for quite a while, and I know all of you here admire him enormously. He has long been sought after in presidential election years, long sought after in the years in between, and a Chicago columnist once wrote, “If you want to be President, Lou is the one you want to call before you even talk it over with your mother.” So here’s the thing: I did call Lou. (Laughter.) And for 11-plus years I have wondered, Lou, what the hell happened? (Laughter.) I talked to him before my mother.

No, in all seriousness, he served me extraordinarily well as the finance chair and went through some really tough times and some really glorious moments. And I had occasion to be in London a number of times when I was still in the Senate or as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and I can’t tell you how much our British partners – all of us – appreciated his professionalism, his dedication to the job, his deep commitment to the friendship between the United Kingdom and the United States. And again and again, I was personally struck by the extra effort that Lou made in order to build a relationship, in order to know his portfolio and to be able to represent the United States, both our interests and our values, as fully as he did. Lou, I’m deeply grateful for that.

We are also honored for the job done by Sam Kaplan in Morocco, a fascinating country whose history intersects at key points not only early on with the history of the United States but also with the history of the Jewish people. And I’m told that Sam only had one complaint at all of his time in Morocco, and it was that because of security considerations he and Sylvia couldn’t just walk out to grab a cup of coffee like they do at home in Minneapolis. Believe me, Sam, I think a lot of us can relate to that. I feel like sometimes I can’t go to my kitchen without a bodyguard or somebody in attendance.

But that is the price of service, and we accept it willingly and happily. And I think in the case of you, Sam, your service could not have come at a more challenging and important moment, because your time in Rabat coincided with the tumultuous days of the Arab Spring and with neighboring countries going through just enormous turmoil. Even in the face of that unprecedented turmoil, you helped to keep our relationship with Morocco among the strongest in the region, sustaining and strengthening ties that literally date back to the earliest days of the founding of our nation. So Sam, thank you for your extraordinary work. (Applause.)

And Alan – and as Bostonians, Alan Solomont and I go back a long way. I’ll tell you a story. In the year 2009 when I was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it fell to me to try to help Alan get confirmed as our ambassador to Spain. Now, some of my colleagues had put a hold on his confirmation, and Alan did what anyone with nerves of steel would do in that situation: He called my office every hour looking for an update. (Laughter.) He tried starting a grassroots “Free Solomont” movement. He even had t-shirts printed up with a picture of himself looking like Che Guevara, with the words “Liberer Solomont” written on top of it. It’s true.

And when it came to a head-on moment – December 24th, Christmas Eve 2009, the same night that the Senate was voting on a matter of similar significance, health care reform – and I see my pal Vicki Kennedy here, and Teddy, so proud of that moment, obviously – we were voting on this extraordinary matter. So while my Democratic colleagues were focused on passing this historic health care bill, Alan had me traipsing around the Senate floor grabbing senators. And I grabbed about five of them, took them into the cloakroom, and I said, “Look, if you guys have any hope of getting home on Christmas Eve, you have to vote for Alan Solomont. We’re not leaving here until Alan Solomont is confirmed.” And believe me, folks, no one left and eventually the vote went through. Everybody went home for the holidays, ObamaCare passed, and Alan Solomont presented me with an autographed copy of a “Free Solomont” t-shirt. That’s a hell of a payoff. What can I say? (Applause.)

The fact is – and I think all of you know this – I gather I’ve got – there are a group of senators here and members of the House, and every one of them will join me in confirming to you how humbled we all are – and I mean that – by the fact that none of us get elected on our own. Nobody does. No one in public life gets anything done without the extraordinary support of the people of this country. And to some degree, what we’re witnessing today in the frustration and anger that you see on both sides of the aisle is a reflection of goods sold but not delivered over the course of these last years.

So it is you people who are really committed to democracy, the people who work to make it actually happen, who in the end best stand up for our interests and our values. And frankly, that is what these three honorees do here tonight and that’s what you do through them, and I thank you and them for what you mean to all of us who aspire to service. Thank you. (Applause.)

These former ambassadors – and I heard a little bit of Alan’s comments as I came in – also, I think, each appreciates what I believe in my heart and what I think J Street has long embraced: the absolute necessity of pursuing justice, the urgency of pursuing peace, and the vital importance of diplomacy in doing both.

That is why J Street was, in the end, despite all the difficulties – and we all know how difficult it was – why you were such a strong and vocal advocate for the nuclear – the Iran nuclear agreement. (Applause.) The politics may have been complicated, but all of the noise of last summer could never obscure the critical fact, the undeniable fact: JCPOA, as it’s known, remains by far the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. (Applause.)

And already, by any measurable standard – a restriction on enrichment of only 3.67 percent for 15 years, the tracing of every single track of uranium produced for 25 years, legal access to any suspect facility for the lifetime of the agreement, a stockpile of enriched material that has gone from 12,000 kilograms, enough for 10 to 12 bombs, down to 300 kilograms, not enough for even one – those are the facts which make it clear – (applause). A country that was two months away from the potential of breaking out is now at least a year away and we have the capacity to know what they are doing.

And despite the skeptics’ most dire predictions, we are in a place that some people thought was unimaginable and others unacceptable. Do you remember the debate over how much money Iran was going to get? You heard – sometimes you hear some of the presidential candidates putting a mistaken figure out of 155 billion. I’ve never heard – we never thought it would be that. Others thought it would be about a 100 billion because there was supposedly 100 billion that was owed and so forth. We calculated it to be about $55 billion when you really take a hard look at the economy and what is happening. Guess what, folks; you know how much they have received to date as I stand here tonight? About $3 billion. So what we said to people was true.

And this audience understands this as well as any anywhere. You recognize that diplomacy should always be exhausted before we ever choose to ask our treasure to go to war. (Applause.) We should always – especially when a solution which is thought out and verifiable can actually be enforced.

The same commitment to the hard work of diplomacy also explains why J Street has never wavered in its support of a lasting peace between a Jewish, democratic Israel and an independent, viable Palestinian state. (Applause.) And despite the fact that we have spent time and effort to try to get there in these last few years, I can tell you for these next nine months we will not stop working to find a way. (Applause.)

And we were starkly reminded of this imperative earlier today when we saw reports of a bomb explosion on a bus in Jerusalem, and our thoughts tonight are with the 21 innocent men and women wounded, and their families. And this certainly bears all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms. Such outrages – (applause). These outrages are intended solely to instill fear, but I think everybody here knows – history has proven and we know it in our hearts and in our guts – they will never succeed in intimidating the Israeli people. (Applause.)

But what this this tragedy also does is underscores the importance of ending this conflict, so that Israelis and Palestinians can once and for all live side by side in peace and security. And you can rest assured that we understand that dynamic that’s needed to make it happen. You can’t just keep condemning the other side and then not try to change lives and build up the capacity to be able to change choices. You have to work at this. And so we will continue to advance a two-state solution as the only solution, because anything else will not be Jewish and it will not be democratic – and we understand that. (Applause.)

So I close by just saying to you as we honor these three warriors for peace, I just want to say that we know that finding peace will require strength and it’s going to demand courage. Last November marked 20 years since an assassin took the life of a leader had courage and had strength – Yitzhak Rabin.

On that fateful night in November of 1995, Rabin was a picture of optimism and resolve. And he told a crowd in the square that now bears his name, “Peace is what the Jewish people aspire to… Peace entails difficulties, even pain. Israel knows no path devoid of pain. But the path of peace is preferable to the path of war.”

If Rabin were here tonight, I have to tell you I know he would be heartened by this gathering. But most importantly, he would be heartened by the knowledge that, no matter how many times we hear people tell us the goal is unattainable, they can’t do it, they’re not ready, I remember the words of Mandela: “Nothing is impossible until it is done.” The fact is that this community, your community, you the people here who are part of J Street, refuse to betray the hope – the ha-tikvah – of a free nation living at peace with its neighbors, secure in the Jewish homeland, committed to the basic dignity of all of its citizens.

Rabin would celebrate the fact that, no matter how dark the landscape at any given moment, this great constituency for peace still burns bright in the United States of America, in Israel, and around the world.

And I thank you, J Street, for everything that you do, and congratulations again tonight to our honorees. Thank you so much. (Applause.)