Full text of Sen. Robert Menendez AIPAC 2013 speech

Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee says Palestinians must stop ‘stunts, distractions, and grandstanding’

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) (photo credit: CC BY-Glyn Lowe Photoworks, flickr)
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) (photo credit: CC BY-Glyn Lowe Photoworks, flickr)

Thank you Lonny Kaplan for your always kind introduction, and for your support and friendship over the years. And thank you to AIPAC for the warm welcome you have always given me every year, at every event I’ve attended. Thank you. Let me also recognize the New Jersey delegation – some 500 this year. Some are here this morning – with Steve Klinghoffer and Mike Levin leading the way. Let’s hear it for New Jersey!

Let me just say to all of you at AIPAC, all who are committed to the strongest possible relationship between the US and Israel — as I have been throughout my public service career — I look forward to working with you in my new role as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

It is one of the Senate’s original ten standing committees and has helped shape American foreign policy through the complex geopolitics of our ever-changing world. The Committee has helped every American president – from Harry Truman to Barack Obama – protect and defend our fundamental promise to stand with Israel and the Israeli people in a strong and lasting alliance.

As Chairman, I can say – without hesitation – I will keep that promise as I always have. There will never be daylight between the United States and Israel on my watch – never — not on my watch!

I follow in the footsteps of two great Chairmen – Secretary of State John Kerry, and Vice President Joe Biden who yesterday, in his speech, stressed that Israel and the United States have always agreed on the strategic imperative that Israel be able to defend itself, and I couldn’t agree more. And I look forward to doing even more to strengthen our commitment to Israel, to shared democratic values — no matter what may bloom from the shifting sands of the Arab Spring.

Whatever challenges lay ahead, whatever new threats we face… whether in the form of rockets from Gaza, a nuclear threat from Iran, the spillover of violence from Syria, or the rise of Islamist extremists anywhere in the region – the strength of Israel’s democracy will remain a beacon of hope for good governance, economic progress, and the power of an enlightened society to foster democratic ideals.

In my view, the challenges of the 21st century world will require two things:

First — we continue to project the wisdom of our democratic ideals everywhere and the power of our military strength where necessary.

Second — we be fully prepared to adjust our policies and our preparedness to the shifting nature of the new threats we will face.

Today we see these new threats taking shape from the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan across Afghanistan to Iran, Iraq, the Middle East and now increasingly in North Africa.

We heard Secretary Clinton issue a clear warning to the Committee last month of an evolving threat in Mali and North Africa from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. She told us it is more than a terrorist organization; it’s a criminal enterprise armed with heavy weapons spreading from the conflict in Libya.

The fact is we need to be ahead of the curve and, as Chairman, I intend to keep us ahead of the curve when it comes to present and future threats to our security.

But, even in the face of uncertainty and upheaval around the world – there is room for optimism.

Even amidst revolutionary change in the Middle East, the US-Israeli relationship has reached unprecedented levels… Simply put, our two countries’ military and security cooperation have never been better.

From Egypt to Syria and beyond, the Arab revolutions have been, at best, a mixed bag for Israel.

We cannot help but admire the courage of those willing to risk their lives for universal freedoms and human dignity. But these revolutions will have been for nothing if they replace secular dictatorships with religious ones.

The challenge to the United States is as clear as it is daunting — to forge long-term, durable relationships with a more democratic Middle East instead of relying on authoritarian regimes that may support our interests one day, but could be gone the next.

Some here in Washington look at the challenges in this new Middle East and advocate disengagement. I strongly disagree.

We can’t advocate America’s interests – including the protection of Israel – from the sidelines. We need to roll up our sleeves and engage in support of our ideals, values, and interests.

This means engaging with emerging, populist, immature political actors whose views we will sometimes, undoubtedly, find objectionable. But these new actors must know that America will never compromise our democratic principles, our commitment to human rights, to tolerant political discourse, and – above all — to Israel’s security.

In the long term they can result in the establishment of democracies that increase economic growth everywhere and lead to a peaceful settlement that secures Israel’s future and, ultimately, stabilizes the region.

But, in the short term, they can threaten the security of the United States and Israel and test our resolve.

We have already seen instability on Israel’s borders both in Syria and the Sinai.

This turbulence will likely continue for the foreseeable future, but one thing will remain constant – the strong-unshakeable-unbendable-unbreakable-and-always-rock-solid relationship between the United States and Israel. That relationship is – and will always remain — a given.

Israel – and its adversaries — must always know that it will not stand alone in meeting any challenge or any threat to its security. America will always stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel.

Recently it has been necessary to reaffirm our commitment to Israel in several ways:

First, in condemning comments by the Turkish Prime Minister equating Zionism – the foundation of the Jewish state and the movement for Jewish self-determination — with fascism and anti-Semitism, and labeling it “a crime against humanity.”

Clearly, we are committed to the long-standing alliance between the United States and Turkey, but the Prime Minister’s remarks were uncalled for and offensive, which is why I signed a letter with my colleagues expressing our grave disappointment and calling on Prime Minister Erdogan to retract his remarks.

Second, I reaffirmed – with Senator Lindsay Graham — our commitment to Israel with the introduction of a bipartisan resolution that simply calls on the United States to stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the government of Israel in defense of its territory, people, and existence.

There are new challenges that emerge every day in the region.

One might say that the first challenge is Israel’s relationship with Egypt — which presents a dynamic set of issues for both Israel and the United States.

The Camp David Accords have been the cornerstone of 35 years of peace between the two nations. They are essential to maintaining regional stability and Israel’s security.

The fact is the United States derives significant security benefits from our ongoing bilateral military and intelligence relationship with Egypt. It has meant close counterterrorism cooperation, privileged access through the Suez Canal, and overflight rights.

Those of us who have met with senior Israeli officials since the 2011 revolution have heard concerns about the prospect of suspension of American military assistance to Egypt.

The November 2012 Israeli military operation in Gaza is a reminder of the critical importance of Egypt as a mediator in the Arab World.

We should be focusing more of our efforts on keeping Egypt stable by helping a struggling Egyptian economy, which is the context in which I accept Secretary Kerry’s announcement over the weekend pledging $250 million in non-military assistance.

Still, we must be ever-vigilant in monitoring the situation. American security assistance to Egypt can’t be a blank check.

That’s why Congress made it abundantly clear – in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 – that US assistance to Egypt would be contingent upon upholding its 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel. That is our bottom line, and it will remain our bottom line when it comes to the US-Egyptian relationship.

In short, for the good of the region — for the good of Israel, and for our own security interests – we must work with Egypt and help steer it in the right direction.

They are an essential partner in the region… It will require patience as Egypt works through a difficult but hopeful time for its people.

But we will also make clear, in no uncertain terms, where our interests lie and what type of actions we cannot and will not accept as we try to move forward.

As for the prospects for the peace process, it has always been my position – as it is yours — that we must move toward an acceptable two state solution.

.If we can finally achieve that goal, it will be in Israel’s interest, it will be in the Palestinian’s interest, and it will be in America’s interest.

I’m hopeful that with the President’s upcoming trip to Israel, and with the diplomatic skill Secretary Kerry brings to the table, we will not only re-engage and re-connect, but we will make real progress toward a two state solution.

But let’s be clear: if we are to get there, it is critical that the Palestinians come back to the negotiating table and stop the stunts, distractions, and grandstanding at the United Nations.

Unilateral Palestinian action at the United Nations will not work. In fact, it is counterproductive and fundamentally jeopardizes the Palestinians’ relationship with the United States and undermines their own interest.

Let’s be clear — Palestinian membership in any UN organization – whether it’s the IAEA or the World Health Organization, or any other UN organization – could have a ripple effect that will only serve to set back the peace process, and potentially do grave damage to America’s role in the UN system.

We must be careful not to allow US engagement on strategic international security and economic issue like nuclear non-proliferation or intellectual property rights to be jeopardized by mercurial Palestinian actions at the UN.

Frankly, in my view, President Abbas’ misguided actions at the UN will not help bring peace to the Palestinian people… it will not help restart peace negotiations with Israel, and it will not bring any political advantage to the Palestinian Authority.

To create a sovereign Palestinian state with clear boundaries, there has to be a negotiated settlement. There must be partners for peace. There are no shortcuts. The only way to achieve a true, lasting peace for the Palestinian people is through comprehensive negotiations and dialogue with Israel.

And we cannot stand idly by and allow the Palestinians to evade the peace process by pressing their political cause in a different way – a backdoor approach.

Real state building – the kind that America can energetically support, doesn’t happen at the UN… it happens with the Palestinians themselves.

To keep the peace process moving forward – it is also critical that Egypt and Israel continue to work closely to implement the cease fire that was agreed to after the November conflict in Gaza.

This means – first and foremost – making certain no more weapon-smuggling into Gaza. It must end – Period! It threatens Israel and it could lead to a repeated cycle of violence that none of us wants to see.

I’m optimistic that – if we can continue progress on this front –economic activity between Gaza and Israel can increase; it will stabilize the situation, directly benefit Israelis and Palestinians — and it will give us reason to be hopeful that progress is possible.

What has also proven to be most effective, and what I consider to be absolutely vital, is our continued security assistance to Israel.

That’s why I cosponsored the bill authorizing Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense system to intercept short-range missiles launched against Israel.

And why I cosponsored the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act that will ensure Israel has the defensive and offensive capabilities it needs — when it needs them.

And one more thing: I fully support funding the Arrow-3 missile defense interceptor. It is an essential part of Israel’s security in the changing dynamic in the region.

While Iron Dome has demonstrated the importance of defending Israel from rockets that can be launched from across its border, Arrow-3 allows Israel to defend itself against longer range missile threats – specifically from Iran.

As Chairman, I can assure you I will vigorously support Israeli development of a multi-tiered missile defense system that protects the Israeli people from any missile launched from anywhere, anytime.

Of course, the greatest threat to Israel’s security, is Iran.

It is clear to everyone in this room that there can never be any daylight between the United States and Israel – not ever, but certainly not when it comes to Iran’s drive to achieve nuclear weapons capability.

We cannot – we must not — and we will not stand for a nuclear Iran. Period!

Let’s put the Iranian threat to Israel and the region in perspective:

An Iran with a nuclear weapons capability would be emboldened to take more aggressive actions against both Israel and the United States.

Yes, a Shahab-3 missile can hit Israel, but it can also hit a NATO ally… and, under our NATO treaty agreement, we are obligated to respond on behalf of any NATO ally.

It’s already unacceptable and deplorable support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas would only increase…

Its provocative behavior around one of the world’s most important strategic waterways – the Strait of Hormuz – could escalate. And a nuclear Iran could unleash an arms race in the world’s most dangerous tinderbox.

Clearly, the threat to Israel’s existence would increase and the situation would become far more dangerous.

Once we put the extent of the nuclear threat in this context, it is easy to see why we need to be prepared to act.

We need to be absolutely clear that it is the unequivocal policy of the United States to do everything in its power to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapon capability and absolutely clear that we reject policy options designed simply to contain a nuclear-armed Iran. Containment is not an option.

Any policy built around the containment of a nuclear Iran is unacceptable… Our clear intention must be to prevent Iran from ever reaching nuclear capacity.

One way to prevent that from happening is through the tough sanctions I sponsored and Congress passed.

In fact, over the past year and a half I have authored three pieces of legislation that have imposed the toughest sanctions that Iran has ever faced – sanctions that are now strangling the Iranian economy – and have had a real impact on the behavior of those companies and countries that were in bed with the regime.

But we must still do more to fully implement these sanctions and make absolutely clear to the Iranian government that unless they change course their situation will only get worse, and economic struggles and international isolation will only grow.

An indication of how well the sanctions are working is that more 20 countries — like the EU, Korea, and Singapore — have either stopped purchasing oil from Iran or decreased purchases… and others, like Japan, who despite difficult domestic circumstances, have gone farther than we even expected.

And, according to the International Energy Agency, Iran’s crude oil exports have already dropped 1 million barrels day – from 2.5 million barrels per day in 2011 to 1.5 million barrels per day – a cost to Iran of nearly $8 billion in lost revenues every quarter.

Not only that, but the Iranian rial suffered a dramatic devaluation that is now causing major concerns among the powerful merchant class in Iran.

Iran’s leaders must understand that we will deprive Iran of crude oil revenue that represents 50 to 75 percent of its budget…sanctions so overwhelming that Former Secretary Clinton fittingly called these sanctions that I and Senator Mark Kirk authored — “the most crippling in world history.”

We should not close the door to further discussions. I’m hopeful that last week’s negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran will bring real progress.

But let’s be clear — we will not, and cannot, talk for talking’s sake… We cannot allow the negotiations to become just a stalling tactic for Iran to buy time.

The P5+1 and the broader international community must unite around a simple message — two simple points: We will never accept a nuclear Iran… and you cannot outwait us.

In my view, these steps – taken together – will hopefully convince the Iranians that the only option is to give up their nuclear ambitions.

Barring verifiable compliance with all Security Council Resolutions and full cooperation with the IAEA, I see no reason to relieve the pressure of sanctions.

Of course, sanctions are only a means to a clear end – in this case Iran engaging in serious, meaningful, fruitful negotiations that result in an end to its nuclear ambitions.

Sanctions are our last peaceful diplomacy tool, but we must also make clear – as President Obama has said – that all options are on the table… and I’d add that those options must be credible – which is why the Graham-Menendez resolution is so important at this time.

We cannot know what the future will hold. We do not know what will bloom from the shifting sands of the Arab Spring.

But what we do know – what we must understand – is that the United States must be the one to step-up to help protect the Israeli people – to “have their back” as the President said.

Finally, having Israel’s back means fighting back on the efforts to delegitimize the Israeli state.

The Holocaust was the most sinister possible reminder that the Jewish population in exile was in constant jeopardy. It was a definitive argument that anti-Semitism could appear anywhere, and its horrors galvanized international support for the State of Israel.

But let’s be very clear: while the Shoah has a central role in Israel’s identity, it is not the reason behind its founding and it is not the main justification for its existence.

The extreme characterization of this mistaken view is that Western powers established Israel in 1948 based on their own guilt, at the expense of the Arab peoples who lived there. Therefore, the current state is illegitimate and should all be wiped off the face of the map.

This flawed argument is not only in defiance of basic human dignity but in plain defiance of history. It is in defiance of ancient history, as told in Biblical texts and through archaeological evidence. And it ignores the history of the last several centuries.

Several thousand years of history lead to an undeniable conclusion: the reestablishment of the state of Israel in modern times is a political reality with roots going back to the time of Abraham and Sarah.

The argument for Israel’s legitimacy does not depend on what we say in speeches. It has been made by history. It has been made by the men and women who have made the desert green, by Nobel Prizes earned, by groundbreaking innovations and enviable institutions, by lives saved, democracy defended, peace made, battles won.

There can be no denying the Jewish people’s legitimate right to live in peace and security on a homeland to which they have had a connection for thousands of years.

We can and must move forward in the peace process, and look for ways to reach agreement between all sides. But we cannot erase the moral distinctions between tyranny and freedom and we must not edit history.

Different peoples of vastly different backgrounds have peacefully thrived in the Middle East for generations upon generations, and this coexistence can happen once more.

Let us pray that it be so. Shalom.

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