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White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough Addresses the American Jewish Committee

On Tuesday, May 13, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough spoke at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum. The AJC Global Forum is an annual event that brings a diverse group of Jews together from around the world to advocate for shared values.

His remarks highlighted the President’s priorities on the domestic front, focusing on immigration and the economy, and on foreign policy, reiterating the Administration’s unshakeable commitment to the State of Israel and to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

His full remarks – as prepared for delivery – are below:

Minister Kasoulides, Minister Steinitz, distinguished guests, it’s an honor to represent the Obama Administration at the AJC Global Forum. I especially want to thank your President, Stan Bergman, and your longtime executive director, David Harris, for their leadership, and for inviting me here tonight.   

Of course, I’m an obvious choice to join you this evening.  After all, May is Jewish Heritage month, and who better to reflect on Jewish heritage than a guy named Denis McDonough? 

But the truth is, so much of the heritage we celebrate this month is shared.  My grandparents came to this country in search of a better life.    But this country, more than anyplace else, held out a promise of opportunity: that here, universal human rights would be protected, and that no matter who you were or where you came from, you could make it if you tried. 

For more than a century, the American Jewish Committee has helped our country keep alive that promise of opportunity for all.  You’ve stood up for our shared values around the world.  You’ve honored the American tradition of perfecting our union with hard work and sacrifice, and the Jewish tradition that teaches that while we are not obligated to finish that work, neither are we free to desist from it.

These ideas of shared responsibility, of obligations that are bigger than ourselves, are what motivate President Obama every day.  Under his leadership, and thanks to the determination of the American people, an economy that lost about nine million jobs has now created 9.2 million private sector jobs.  More families know the economic security of health care.  Troops who were fighting two wars are coming home.

But we also recognize that our work is far from finished.  That’s why President Obama has laid out an opportunity agenda to keep America’s founding promise alive for future generations.  He’s fighting to create more good jobs with good wages, and a world-class education for the next generation.  He’s fighting for equal pay for women, and a fair minimum wage for our workers.

And as the American Jewish Committee knows well, President Obama is fighting to fix a broken immigration system.  I want to spend some time on this, beginning by thanking you – because for years, you have been a key partner in this effort.  You have argued, loudly and forcefully, that our current immigration system is unfair to businesses, workers, and families alike.  You’ve helped bring a moral dimension to this debate, one rooted in the biblical edict, “You shall not oppress a stranger, having been a stranger in the land of Egypt.”  And last year, thanks in no small part to your hard work, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate came together and passed a bipartisan, common-sense immigration bill. 

The question now is whether House Republicans will live up to that example.  It’s clear what the right choice is, not just morally, but economically.  A report by the Congressional Budget Office found that passing the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill will grow our economy by more than 3 percent in one decade, and more than 5 percent in two decades.  That means we could be looking at an extra $700 billion in our economy by 2023, and $1.4 trillion in 2033.  And it will shrink our deficits by more than $150 billion over the next 10 years, and about $700 billion in the decade after that.

But as we’ve seen before, in today’s Washington, just because something makes sense doesn’t mean it will get done.  So in addition to thanking you for helping us get to this point, I want to urge you keep making your voices heard.  Make sure our lawmakers know what’s at stake.  Ask them to put aside politics and do what is right. 

President Obama believes there is still time to make reform a reality.  Just today, he invited law enforcement officials from across our country who know how important this is to come to the White House.  So I promise you that as you continue your efforts to fix our broken immigration system, your president will be with you every step of the way.   Because he believes that ultimately, this issue is about much more than politics – it’s about our responsibility to keep alive the basic values we share. 

Of course, even as he works to make real our country’s promise of opportunity for all, President Obama recognizes that our responsibilities don’t end at home – and those other responsibilities are what I would like to close with today.  Part of what makes America great is that we stand by the countries that share our values around the world.  That’s why throughout its history, the State of Israel has had no greater friend than the United States of America. 

The United States is proud to be the first country to recognize the existence of a Jewish State – just 11 minutes after Israel’s independence was declared.   Today, we celebrate a diverse, democratic ally, a “start-up nation” where entrepreneurship thrives.   The unbreakable bonds between our two countries are as strong as ever.

And as President Obama put it last year at the United Nations General Assembly, “the United States will never compromise our commitment to Israel’s security, nor our support for its existence as a Jewish state.”  Time and time again, he has stated his firm conviction that Israel has a right to defend itself, and to maintain its qualitative military edge.

Over the last five and a half years, President Obama has backed up those words with action.  Today, the cooperation between our militaries and intelligence services has never been stronger.   At this very moment, there are Israeli children sleeping more soundly because of the Iron Dome defense system that America invested in. 

And with so much tumult across the region—including Egypt and Syria—we are consulting closely with our Israeli partners every step of the way, as we saw again in Susan Rice’s visit to Israel last week.  Susan led the U.S. delegation of the U.S.-Israel Consultative Group, a dialogue launched several years ago.  The ICG, as we call it, is a first of its kind, a spot where we consult on our shared threats, including from Iran, with Israel.  It has been led by the President’s National Security Advisors, Tom Donilon and now Susan.  This intensive and candid discussion reflects the unprecedented level of cooperation between our two countries, and President Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security. 

And along with many other important pieces of business she conducted in Israel last week, Susan reaffirmed the President’s clear policy: the United States is committed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.  Over the last few years, we have rallied the world behind unprecedented sanctions that have helped to bring Iran to the negotiating table.  Today—for the first time in a decade— progress on Iran’s nuclear program has been halted and key parts have been rolled back.   The IAEA has confirmed that Iran is meeting its commitments under the joint plan of action.  

Today we started another round of tough negotiations among the Iranians on one side and basically the rest of the world on the other.  We are engaged in serious, substantive negotiations aimed at reaching a comprehensive solution that addresses the world's concerns with Iran’s nuclear program.  There’s no doubt that significant gaps remain and it is far from certain that we can reach a final agreement that sufficiently addresses our concerns.  But this is a chance to resolve this issue diplomatically, peacefully.  And throughout these focused negotiations, our bottom line has not changed and will not change.  A nuclear-armed Iran would be a grave danger to the United States, to Israel, and to the world, and we are committed to doing what we must to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.     

Even as we pursue a resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue, we remain focused – every single day – on countering Iran’s support for terrorism, and its destabilizing efforts in the region.  That includes our unprecedented support for Israel’s security, as well as the security of our Gulf Partners.  That includes our efforts to strengthen the Syrian opposition, and to apply pressure on the Assad regime. And that includes steady and coordinated efforts to expose Iranian support for terrorism; to stop the flow of weapons to terrorist groups like Hizbollah and Hamas; and to maintain our robust sanctions on Hizbollah and Iranian sponsorship of terrorist activity.

Moreover, as President Obama said in Jerusalem last year: “Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist … might as well reject the earth beneath them or the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere.”  And with the question of Israel’s existence off the table, there is another question we must ask ourselves: What will Israel’s future hold?

It was America’s commitment to Israel’s future—our abiding belief that Israelis and Palestinians deserve a future of peace and security—that guided our efforts over the past year.  Early in those talks, Secretary of State Kerry came here, to the AJC Global Forum, because your organization understands that peace and security are inextricably linked.  In the end, the interests of a Jewish State of Israel require two nations that can live in peace.  In the face of an unsustainable status quo, a two-state solution is not just desirable – it is necessary, for both sides.

Today, we are profoundly grateful to Secretary Kerry, and to organizations like AJC, for the extraordinary efforts made over the past year.  No nation has done more to stand with the parties—Israelis and Palestinians—in their search for peace than the United States of America.  No nation.  And though talks may be suspended, President Obama has been very clear—the United States will never waver in our commitment to a just and lasting peace.  Both Israelis and Palestinians face hard choices.  Both must make difficult decisions.  And only Israelis and Palestinians can make the compromises that are necessary for two states to live side-by-side in peace and security.

But just because peace is difficult doesn’t mean we can stop trying.  As President Obama reminds me often, “Hard things are hard.”  Fixing a broken immigration system is hard.  Bringing an end to a decades-old conflict in the Middle East is hard.  But our history, our heritage, teaches us that hard things are possible.  And with your help, I believe that we can leave behind for our children a country that keeps alive its founding promise of opportunity for all, and a world filled with prosperity and peace. 

Thank you very much.

Matt Nosanchuk is Director of Outreach on the National Security Council.