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I would like to thank all of you for that warm welcome. It is a pleasure for me to meet with you today and I am sure that you are all aware that this is a momentous time for Israel just after its elections and I think that I can start by assuring you that as Israel completes its election process and gets to know the process of forming a new government, my government – our government, stands ready as ever, to continue and to build on its close relationship with whatever government emerges from Israel’s democratic process.
The Administration of President Obama is only three weeks old – hard to imagine! I think all Americans are proud of the peaceful transfer of government with the election of each new Administration.
The orderly, deliberate transfer of power is one of America’s greatest strengths. In his last radio address before the election, Barack Obama noted, “On Tuesday, the world will be watching as America celebrates a rite that goes to the heart of our greatness as a nation. For the forty-third time, we will execute the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next.” I have to say, this transfer of power, the first to a black president, is especially historic and meaningful. I was privileged to host a reception here in Jerusalem on what was election morning here and whatever the political orientation of the people in the crowd, the reality of what was happening in the United States was truly electrifying and I think it made every American who was there proud.
But even as the United States changes in sometimes dramatic fashion, our democratic political institutions and traditions help to ensure long- term and consistent foreign policy goals, which are informed by our enduring interests. This is true of our Middle East policy and certainly of efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Administrations, of course, differ in approach and nuance, but the consistency of the U.S. commitment to seeking peace in this region and to promoting its growth and development is decades old.
It has been more than 40 years since the Six Day war, and America has engaged in efforts, often intensive, to secure normal, secure and peaceful relations between Israel and her neighbors. There have been various peace plans and negotiations, some of which have been successful, and all of which speak to America’s commitment to this effort. Israel has achieved lasting peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan that provide greater security and stability not only for Israel, but for the entire region. And it has pursued peace with Syria, and with the Palestinians, where success has proven more elusive.
Our goals – America’s goals - in this region cannot be separated from America’s other vital interests such as energy security, non-proliferation, the defense of our allies, promotion of stability and combating extremism and intolerance. These on-going challenges, as well as renewed efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now face the new Administration, which has clearly underscored that a lasting peace in the Middle East is a long-term strategic interest.
Sustained U.S. efforts to end violence and conflict and create progress span Administrations. President Obama has noted that “strong and sustained American engagement can bridge divides and build the capacity that supports progress.”
The continuity of U.S. policy is clear in our continued commitment to a two-state solution whose parameters were outlined in 2000 by President Clinton. In 2002, President Bush for the first time explicitly endorsed the two-state approach. Just two days after taking office, President Obama went to the State Department to demonstrate his commitment to active diplomacy. He named Senator Mitchell as his envoy to pursue the challenge of a secure, just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel and its neighbors. The President also declared that he “will sustain an active commitment to seek two states living side by side in peace and security.” This will be a guiding principle of the Obama administration. The two-state solution provides the best chance for peace because it is the formulation that has broad support among Israelis and Palestinians, and in the region.
Another consistent in the U.S. approach to the Middle East is the unwavering commitment of successive U.S. presidents to the security of the State of Israel.
On Israel’s Independence Day, then Presidential candidate Obama wrote: “While threats to its existence have endured, Israelis have built their nation into a strong, vibrant democracy, with a prosperous economy, a rich cultural life, and a deep friendship with the United States that benefits both our peoples in so many ways. Even in hard times, Israelis have so much to be proud of. As the Jewish State continues to grow and prosper, the United States will always stand with Israel to ensure that it can defend itself against threats of terrorism and violence, from as close as Gaza and as far as Tehran. We must never waver in our unshakeable commitment to help Israel achieve its goal of true security through lasting peace with its neighbors.”
In naming Senator Mitchell to his post as Special Envoy, the President affirmed, “Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel’s security and we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself against legitimate threats. For years Hamas has launched thousands of rockets at innocent Israeli citizens. No democracy can tolerate such danger to its people, nor should the international community. And neither should the Palestinian people, themselves, whose interests are only set back by acts of terror. Hamas has held the people of Gaza hostage ever since their illegal coup against the forces of President Abbas, the legitimate President of the Palestinian people.”
At the end of January, the Fulbright Commission in Israel, together with other partners, held a symposium examining American mediation efforts in the Middle East. Several of my predecessors were here along with four former Israeli Ambassadors to the U.S. for that discussion. Each spoke from his perspective on the critical importance of U.S efforts. These efforts are part of a continuum. Beginning with President Harry Truman’s historic and politically courageous decision to recognize the newly established State of Israel, and throughout the administrations of ten Presidents, and now the 11th, the strength of the U.S. commitment to Israel’s well-being and security is enduring and constant.
In accepting his assignment, Special Envoy Mitchell said, “I don’t underestimate the difficulty of this assignment. The situation in the Middle East is volatile, complex and dangerous. But the President and the Secretary of State have made it clear that danger and difficulty cannot cause the United States to turn away. To the contrary, they recognize and have said that peace and stability in the Middle East are in our national interest. The Senator continued: “They are, of course, also in the interest of Israelis and Palestinians, of others in the region, and people throughout the world.” Senator Mitchell has already been here once a couple of weeks ago. He came here to listen to a broad range of views in the government and outside the government and he has begun the process of engaging our new government with Israel and our other friends in the region.
Israel of course is now confronted with the challenge of Hamas in Gaza. Lasting peace requires more than a long ceasefire. The Quartet has made it clear that Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and abide by past agreements. A durable ceasefire depends on an end to attacks on Israel, an end to the rearming of Hamas; and the opening of the Gaza border crossings on a controlled, sustained and continuous basis, consistent with the November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access. Our ultimate goal is the stabilization and normalization of life in Gaza. This will require a principled resolution of the political challenges in Gaza that ultimately reestablishes the Palestinian Authority’s legitimate control and facilitates the normal operation of all crossings.
The struggle with Hamas goes hand in hand with the struggle against extremism. It is significant that President Obama gave his first media interview after taking office – to an Arab news channel. He said that “…if we look at the region as a whole and communicate a message to the Arab world and the Muslim world, that we are ready to initiate a partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest, then I think we can make significant progress.”
Vice President Biden developed that theme further in his first major foreign policy speech in Munich recently. He said: “The United States does not believe, our administration does not believe, in a clash of civilizations. There is nothing inevitable about that. We do see a shared struggle against extremism, and we’ll do everything in our power to help the forces of tolerance prevail.”
Because we seek peace in this region, we object to Iran’s bellicose rhetoric, its pursuit of nuclear weapons and its support for terrorist organizations such as Hizbullah and Hamas. In her Senate confirmation testimony, Secretary Clinton discussed Iran as a source of regional instability and an impediment to peace.
We also have profound differences with Syria on important issues, and Secretary Clinton listed the things that we hope to see. We hope to see cooperation stabilizing Iraq; ending support for terrorist groups; stopping the flow of weapons to Hizbullah; and respect for Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence. When the time is right, the United States will no doubt support peace efforts by Syria and Israel. This too if successful, can contribute to a better regional context for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Let me say a word about the role that religion plays in the region. For some time we have supported - the American government has supported - interfaith initiatives which promote greater understanding among the major faiths in the area and support peace-building and conflict resolution. It is an overarching principle of our interfaith programming that religion, which is so often manipulated to become part of the problem in the Middle East, can instead be a constructive force for creating the solution. For example, over the last three years, we, and our colleagues at the American Consulate here, have worked closely with the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, an influential group of key religious leaders who seek to support and influence the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by reminding Israelis and Palestinians of their common religious origins. As senior representatives of the principal religious institutions in Jerusalem, the Council members hope to provide religious support to the political compromises envisioned by Israeli and Palestinian leaders. We work at the grassroots level as well, working closely with interfaith organizations as well as institutions and individuals dedicated to pluralism within faiths and tolerance. We are scrupulous to work with organizations representing all streams of Judaism in Israel. A current series of Digital Video Conferences is matching interfaith groups here with religious and lay leaders in the United States working to build cooperation and mutual understanding. In March, my Embassy will host Rabbi Bob Kaplan and Mohammad Razvi, a Jewish and a Moslem activist who together are involved in peace-building coalitions in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Their program in Israel’s mixed Jewish-Arab cities will address the critical issues that have at times led to violence in Akko and other locations in Israel, and we hope that this effort will contribute to preventing repetitions of this violence.
The Obama administration is off to a rapid start in its engagement with this important and troubled part of the world. We will see some changes in approach, I am sure, but much consistency as well giving the strong American interests which bind us to Israel and impel us to seek peace and to combat extremism. None of this will be easy. But it is important work, and the commitment of the new administration to working for a lasting peace in the Middle East is clear.
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