"We Must Preserve Our Total Commitment to Our Unique Defense Relationship with Israel"
Remarks of Senator Barack Obama
As Prepared for Delivery
AIPAC Policy Forum
March 2, 2007
[NOTE: Obama's speech was largely written by Mark Lippert, Obama's Senate foreign policy adviser, and Dan Shapiro, a Middle East specialist, now a lobbyist, who is an Obama campaign foreign policy adviser. Shapiro recently was a deputy chief of staff for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and handled international affairs for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). He also served on the National Security Council under former President Bill Clinton.]
Thank you so much for your kind introduction and the invitation to meet with you this morning.
Last week, this event was described to me as a small gathering of friends. Looking at all of you here today; seeing so many of you who care about peace in this world; who care about a strong and lasting friendship between Israel and the United States, and who care about what’s on the next page of our shared futures, I think "a small gathering of friends" fits this crowd just right.
I want to begin today by telling you a story.
Back in January of 2006, I made my first trip to the Holy Land. It is a place unlike any other on this earth a place filled with so much promise of what we truly can be as people; a place where we’ve learned how in a flash, violence and hatred and intolerance can turn that promise to rubble and send too many lives to their early graves.
Most will travel to the holy sites: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock or the Western Wall. They make a journey to be humbled before God. I too am blessed to have seen Israel this way, up close and on the ground.
But I am also fortunate to have seen Israel from the air.
On my journey that January day, I flew on an IDF helicopter to the border zone. The helicopter took us over the most troubled and dangerous areas and that narrow strip between the West Bank and the Mediterranean Sea. At that height, I could see the hills and the terrain that generations have walked across. I could truly see how close everything is and why peace through security is the only way for Israel.
Our helicopter landed in the town of Kiryat Shmona on the border. What struck me first about the village was how familiar it looked. The houses and streets looked like ones you might find in a suburb in America. I could imagine young children riding their bikes down the streets. I could imagine the sounds of their joyful play just like my own daughters. There were cars in the driveway. The shrubs were trimmed. The families were living their lives.
Then, I saw a house that had been hit with one of Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets.
The family who lived in the house was lucky to be alive. They had been asleep in another part when the rocket hit. They described the explosion. They talked about the fire and the shrapnel. They spoke about what might have been if the rocket had come screaming into their home at another time when they weren’t asleep but sitting peacefully in the now destroyed part of the house.
It is an experience I keep close to my heart. Not because it is unique, but because we know that too many others have seen the same kind of destruction, have lost their loved ones to suicide bombers and live in fear of when the next attack might hit. Just six months after I visited, Hezbollah launched four thousand rocket attacks just like the one that destroyed the home in Kiryat Shmona, and kidnapped Israeli service members. And we pray for all of the service members who have been kidnapped: Gilad Shalit, Eldad Regev, and Ehud Goldwasser, and I met with his family this week. I offered to help in any way I can.
It is important to remember this history-that Israel had unilaterally withdrawn from Lebanon only to have Iran supply Hezbollah with thousands of rockets.
Our job is to never forget that the threat of violence is real. Our job is to renew the United States’ efforts to help Israel achieve peace with its neighbors while remaining vigilant against those who do not share this vision. Our job is to do more than lay out another road map; our job is to rebuild the road to real peace and lasting security throughout the region.
That effort begins with a clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel: our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy. That will always be my starting point. And when we see all of the growing threats in the region: from Iran to Iraq to the resurgence of al-Qaeda to the reinvigoration of Hamas and Hezbollah, that loyalty and that friendship will guide me as we begin to lay the stones that will build the road that takes us from the current instability to lasting peace and security.
It won’t be easy. Some of those stones will be heavy and tough for the United States to carry. Others with be heavy and tough for Israel to carry. And even more will be difficult for the world. But together, we will begin again.
One of the heavy stones that currently rest at the United States’ feet is Iraq. Until we lift this burden from our foreign policy, we cannot rally the world to our values and vision.
As many of you know, I opposed this war from the beginning in part because I believed that giving this President the open-ended authority to invade Iraq would lead to the open-ended occupation we find ourselves in today.
Now our soldiers find themselves in the crossfire of someone else’s civil war. More than 3,100 have given the last full measure of devotion to their country. This war has fueled terrorism and helped galvanize terrorist organizations. And it has made the world less safe.
That is why I advocate a phased redeployment of U.S. troops out of Iraq to begin no later than May first with the goal of removing all combat forces from Iraq by March 2008. In a civil war where no military solution exists, this redeployment remains our best leverage to pressure the Iraqi government to achieve the political settlement between its warring factions that can slow the bloodshed and promote stability.
My plan also allows for a limited number of U.S. troops to remain and prevent Iraq from becoming a haven for international terrorism and reduce the risk of all-out chaos. In addition, we will redeploy our troops to other locations in the region, reassuring our allies that we will stay engaged in the Middle East. And my plan includes a robust regional diplomatic strategy that includes talking to Syria and Iran something this Administration has finally embraced.
The U.S. military has performed valiantly and brilliantly in Iraq. Our troops have done all that we have asked them to do and more. But a consequence of the Administration’s failed strategy in Iraq has been to strengthen Iran’s strategic position; reduce U.S. credibility and influence in the region; and place Israel and other nations friendly to the United States in greater peril. These are not the signs of a well-paved road. It is time for profound change.
As the U.S. redeploys from Iraq, we can recapture lost influence in the Middle East. We can refocus our efforts to critical, yet neglected priorities, such as combating international terrorism and winning the war in Afghanistan. And we can, then, more effectively deal with one of the greatest threats to the United States, Israel and world peace: Iran. Iran’s President Ahmadinejad’s regime is a threat to all of us. His words contain a chilling echo of some of the world’s most tragic history.
Unfortunately, history has a terrible way of repeating itself. President Ahmadinejad has denied the Holocaust. He held a conference in his country, claiming it was a myth. But we know the Holocaust was as real as the 6 million who died in mass graves at Buchenwald, or the cattle cars to Dachau or whose ashes clouded the sky at Auschwitz. We have seen the pictures. We have walked the halls of the Holocaust museum in Washington and Yad Vashem. We have touched the tattoos on loved-ones arms. After 60 years, it is time to deny the deniers.
In the 21st century, it is unacceptable that a member state of the United Nations would openly call for the elimination of another member state. But that is exactly what he has done. Neither Israel nor the United States has the luxury of dismissing these outrages as mere rhetoric.
The world must work to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment program and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is far too dangerous to have nuclear weapons in the hands of a radical theocracy. And while we should take no option, including military action, off the table, sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions should be our primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.
Iranian nuclear weapons would destabilize the region and could set off a new arms race. Some nations in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, could fall away from restraint and rush into a nuclear contest that could fuel greater instability in the region-that’s not just bad for the Middle East, but bad for the world, making it a vastly more dangerous and unpredictable place. Other nations would feel great pressure to accommodate Iranian demands. Terrorist groups with Iran’s backing would feel emboldened to act even more brazenly under an Iranian nuclear umbrella. And as the A.Q. Kahn network in Pakistan demonstrated, Iran could spread this technology around the world.
To prevent this worst-case scenario, we need the United States to lead tough-minded diplomacy.
This includes direct engagement with Iran similar to the meetings we conducted with the Soviets at the height of the Cold War, laying out in clear terms our principles and interests. Tough-minded diplomacy would include real leverage through stronger sanctions. It would mean more determined U.S diplomacy at the United Nations. It would mean harnessing the collective power of our friends in Europe who are Iran’s major trading partners. It would mean a cooperative strategy with Gulf States who supply Iran with much of the energy resources it needs. It would mean unifying those states to recognize the threat of Iran and increase pressure on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment. It would mean full implementation of U.S. sanctions laws. And over the long term, it would mean a focused approach from us to finally end the tyranny of oil, and develop our own alternative sources of energy to drive the price of oil down.
We must also persuade other nations such as Saudi Arabia to recognize common interests with Israel in dealing with Iran. We should stress to the Egyptians that they help the Iranians and do themselves no favors by failing to adequately prevent the smuggling of weapons and cash by Iran into Gaza.
The United States’ leverage is strengthened when we have many nations with us. It puts us in a place where sanctions could actually have a profound impact on Iran’s economy. Iran is highly dependent on imports and foreign investment, credit and technology. And an environment where our allies see that these types of investments in Iran are not in the world’s best interests, could help bring Iran to the table.
We have no quarrel with the Iranian people. They know that President Ahamadinejad is reckless, irresponsible, and inattentive to their day-to-day needs which is why they sent him a rebuke at the ballot box this fall. And we hope more of them will speak out. There is great hope in their ability to see his hatred for what it is: hatred and a threat to peace in the region.
At the same time, we must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance and continuing work on the Arrow and related missile defense programs. This would help Israel maintain its military edge and deter and repel attacks from as far as Tehran and as close as Gaza. And when Israel is attacked, we must stand up for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself. Last summer, Hezbollah attacked Israel. By using Lebanon as an outpost for terrorism, and innocent people as shields, Hezbollah has also engulfed that entire nation in violence and conflict, and threatened the fledgling movement for democracy there. That’s why we have to press for enforcement of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which demands the cessation of arms shipments to Hezbollah, a resolution which Syria and Iran continue to disregard. Their support and shipment of weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, which threatens the peace and security in the region, must end.
These are great challenges that we face. And in moments like these, true allies do not walk away. For six years, the administration has missed opportunities to increase the United States’ influence in the region and help Israel achieve the peace she wants and the security she needs. The time has come for us to seize those opportunities.
The Israeli people, and Prime Minister Olmert, have made clear that they are more than willing to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will result in two states living side by side in peace and security. But the Israelis must trust that they have a true Palestinian partner for peace. That is why we must strengthen the hands of Palestinian moderates who seek peace and that is why we must maintain the isolation of Hamas and other extremists who are committed to Israel’s destruction.
The U.S. and our partners have put before Hamas three very simple conditions to end this isolation: recognize Israel’s right to exist; renounce the use of violence; and abide by past agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
We should all be concerned about the agreement negotiated among Palestinians in Mecca last month. The reports of this agreement suggest that Hamas, Fatah, and independent ministers would sit in a government together, under a Hamas Prime Minister, without any recognition of Israel, without a renunciation of violence, and with only an ambiguous promise to "respect" previous agreements.
This should concern us all because it suggests that Mahmoud Abbas, who is a Palestinian leader I believe is committed to peace, felt forced to compromise with Hamas. However, if we are serious about the Quartet’s conditions, we must tell the Palestinians this is not good enough.
But as I said at the outset, Israel will have some heavy stones to carry as well. Its history has been full of tough choices in search of peace and security.
Yitzhak Rabin had the vision to reach out to longtime enemies. Ariel Sharon had the determination to lead Israel out of Gaza. These were difficult, painful decisions that went to the heart of Israel’s identity as a nation.
Many Israelis I talked to during my visit last year told me that they were prepared to make sacrifices to give their children a chance to know peace. These were people of courage who wanted a better life. And I know these are difficult times and it can be easy to lose hope. But we owe it to our sons and daughters, our mothers and fathers, and to all those who have fallen, to keep searching for peace and security — even though it can seem distant. This search is in the best interests of Israel. It is in the best interests of the United States. It is in the best interests of all of us.
We can and we should help Israelis and Palestinians both fulfill their national goals: two states living side by side in peace and security. Both the Israeli and Palestinian people have suffered from the failure to achieve this goal. The United States should leave no stone unturned in working to make that goal a reality.
But in the end, we also know that we should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests. No Israeli Prime Minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States.
We must be partners we must be active partners. Diplomacy in the Middle East cannot be done on the cheap. Diplomacy is measured by patience and effort. We cannot continue to have trips consisting of little more than photo-ops with little movement in between. Neither Israel nor the U.S. is served by this approach.
Peace with security. That is the Israeli people’s overriding wish.
It is what I saw in the town of Fassouta on the border with Lebanon. There are 3,000 residents of different faiths and histories.
There is a community center supported by Chicago’s own Roman Catholic Archdiocese and the Jewish Federation of Metro Chicago. It is where the education of the next generation has begun: in a small village, all faiths and nationalities, living together with mutual respect.
I met with the people from the village and they gave me a tour of this wonderful place. There was a moment when the young girls came in and they played music and began to dance.
After a few moments, I thought about my own daughters, Sasha and Malia and how they too could dream and dance in a place like this: a place of renewal and restoration. Proof, that in the heart of so much peril, there were signs of life and hope and promise-that the universal song for peace plays on.