Barack Obama will emphatically not be a lame-duck president when it comes to foreign affairs in the final two years of his presidency, and the United States will continue to work to “nurture and sustain” opportunities for peacemaking between Israel, the Palestinians and the wider Arab world, the US ambassador to Israel made clear.
In an address at Bar Ilan University’s BESA Center on Tuesday night, Dan Shapiro said the US was “realistic” that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations “will not likely resume during an Israeli election campaign,” but was continuing “to explore the most effective way to re-establish a political horizon, without which we believe the current atmosphere could quickly deteriorate.”
In a speech entitled “America’s enduring leadership,” Shapiro spoke at length of the US campaign against Islamic State (also known as ISIS and Daesh), at the head of “a coalition the likes of which has not been seen since the first Gulf War. It is made up of nations who share our objective to degrade and ultimately destroy Daesh.”
In this context, he highlighted “a critical threat that has not materialized during this campaign; a dog that didn’t bark. The current fight against Daesh is taking place in a context on which the vast majority of Syria’s chemical weapons – and the infrastructure used to create one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles – was peacefully dismantled and destroyed over the past year. This achievement was the result of the credible threat of American military force, which created a diplomatic opening to strike a deal with Russia, and the building of a strong international coalition to carry out the extraction and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Had we not secured this outcome, the fight against Daesh could have been even more dangerous and deadly, including for Israel.”
Turning to Iran, he reiterated that “the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, period. And we will use all elements of our power to achieve this objective.” A negotiated outcome was “the preferred route to achieve this objective,” he said. “At the same time, we have ensured that we have a credible military option as well.”
Shapiro said that contrary to the predictions of skeptics, last year’s interim accord did not lead to the weakening of economic pressure on Iran. That accord “provided very modest sanctions relief, but otherwise maintained the economic stranglehold on Iran. We have engaged other world powers and conducted vigorous enforcement actions, designating dozens of companies, which helps to explain how we have been able to hold the line on international sanctions over the past year. Did international companies and investors rush in last year, as skeptics suggested they might? No, there’s been no gold rush. With our economic choke-hold still in place, most smart investors continue to keep Iran at arm’s length. And as oil prices drop, the pressure on Iran only intensifies.”
The ambassador acknowledged tactical “disagreements with Israel” but emphasized: “These disagreements come within the broader context of our total alignment on the broader strategic imperative, and our close and intimate dialogue that runs in parallel to the P5+1 process.”
He was adamant that the US and Israel “are both in agreement that no deal is better than a bad deal. The evidence for this is the decision to extend negotiations last month. Iran simply was not prepared to make the necessary concessions to provide certainty that it would never acquire a nuclear weapon. We believe a deal is still possible, and our international partners remain united, so an extension was the right decision. But there will only be a deal, and Iran can only achieve the relief from sanctions it seeks, if it shows more flexibility in the negotiations ahead.”
Turning to US ties with Israel, Shapiro said, “Generations of Israelis know of our enduring investment in Israel’s security and in the pursuit of peace between Israel and its neighbors. These remain sacred commitments, affirmed by multiple presidents, supported by the US Congress, and cherished by the American people. American leadership in support of Israel can be measured through the deep ties and joint training between our militaries; our unprecedented intelligence cooperation, which makes both of us safer; our fight to defend Israel from delegitimization in international organizations; and our investment in life-saving, cutting edge defense systems like Iron Dome and Arrow.
“It can also be measured,” he added, “through our leveraging of global relationships to generate broader support for a two-state solution; through the building of coalitions to confront terrorism on Israel’s borders; and through America’s ongoing economic and security assistance to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority—which we have sustained for decades at unprecedented levels, and which contributes greatly to regional stability.”
He said Obama and the administration “are constantly striving to identify new opportunities to nurture and sustain opportunities for peace and security. Israelis experienced it during President Obama’s historic visit to Israel last year. In his speech in Jerusalem, he made the simple but profound argument—that peace is necessary; peace is just; and, most importantly to those who might give in to despair, peace is possible.”
America’s leadership role was on full display last month, Shapiro said, “when Secretary Kerry made an urgent visit to Amman to meet with Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including a trilateral meeting with King Abdullah and Prime Minister Netanyahu, to work toward restoring calm and de-escalating tensions in Jerusalem…”
“In thinking about the value of continuing to pursue an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Shapiro urged, “consider for a moment how much more difficult it would be to unwind what has transpired in recent weeks without the safety net of longstanding Arab-Israeli peace agreements, however incomplete and imperfect. It is in our interests to expand this circle. That resolution, of course, will only come about through direct negotiations. Unilateral actions, whether Palestinian initiatives at the United Nations or Israeli settlement construction and announcements, are counterproductive and only delay a resolution. And while we are realistic that negotiations will not likely resume during an Israeli election campaign, we also continue to explore the most effective way to re-establish a political horizon, without which we believe the current atmosphere could quickly deteriorate.”
However, the main reason the US remains committed to achieving a two-state solution, he said, “is that we see no alternative that would achieve Israelis’ and Palestinians’ legitimate goals, and that would protect our own interests. Simply put, as Secretary Kerry said on Sunday, ‘there is no one-state alternative.’ There is no other solution ‘that is viable or that would preserve Israel’s status as a Jewish state and a democracy.’ For all the understandable doubts harbored by Israelis and Palestinians, there is no alternative, and we believe it can be done. So we are committed to keeping that hope alive.”
He noted that Israelis follow American politics closely, and declared, “lest anyone jump to conclusions: divided government, in which one party controls Congress and the other the executive branch, does not necessarily mean foreign policy gridlock. What is unmistakable about our foreign policy system is that the Constitution provides the president with the largest share of power. Congress plays a critical role, but history shows that, whether faced with domestic political gridlock or not, presidents often surge and engage even more intensively in national security affairs in their final years in office.”
Where the current US leadership was concerned, he said, “There also no doubt in my mind that President Obama will remain deeply and personally engaged in national security affairs through these remaining two years, advancing our interests in every region, and using the full range of tools at our disposal, including consultations with Congress and acting on his own authority.”