Remarks by the Vice President to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly
5:00 P.M. CST
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I’ve been fortunate to know four generations of Adlers. I know I don’t look that old. (Laughter.) But I’ve known four generations of Adlers, starting with Michael’s dad, Sam, who he referenced, who taught me so very, very much, through his sons, Matt and David, successful young men in their own right. And I think I’ve met mostly all the grandchildren.
And also, let me thank Jerry Silverman for his leadership of this great, great organization. (Applause.) And let me also say, welcome to New Orleans, my good friend, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu -- Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni, Ambassador Michael Oren. Because I know of no mayor that can welcome you better than Mayor Landrieu, who -- (applause) -- is a great -- I’ll tell you, it’s good stuff.
I was telling Mitch as we had our -- we spoke behind the curtain there for a few minutes before I came out. I said, I started with Mitch’s dad, Moon, and I -- Moon is the reason why my daughter went to Tulane. I’ll never forgive him for that. (Laughter.) I was worried I’d never get her back.
But I was saying that my dad used to have an expression, because I was telling Mitch about my son, Beau, who won by the largest margin of anyone -- I’m not supposed to say this to the press. My son doesn’t like me saying it, but I’m going to brag. He won by the largest margin any Democrat has in the history of the state of Delaware this last election. (Applause.)
And I said that Mitch’s dad, Moon, and I have something in common. My dad used to say, you know, you’re a successful man when you turn and look at one of your children, or all of your children, and realize they turned out better than you. (Laughter.) Your dad was a success and so am I, Mitch. It’s great to be here with you, buddy. (Applause.)
Look, folks, it’s a privilege to be here with a group that is dedicated to such a daunting -- a daunting, but worthy goal. You know, the whole notion of you attempting to “repair” the world is a bit beyond anybody’s -- anybody’s brief, but you don’t seem to shy away from it.
I have the honor -- I have had the honor of addressing, as Michael referenced, Jewish Federations more times than I can remember. And I’ve seen the results of your hard work in my home region and, quite frankly, all around the world.
I learned a long time ago that you are the modern incarnation of the ancient Jewish tradition of Tzedakah, a combination of charity and righteousness and justice. And I’ve watched you practice it. A lot of people talk. You guys practice it.
The honorable practice was first described as being something that you should understand, that to anticipate charity by preventing poverty. That was the origin of this notion. Well, you do. You do more than almost any group that I have ever witnessed. And there’s a lesson. There’s a lesson for policy makers in that notion of the best way to prevent poverty is to make sure that you’re out there doing what you’re doing right now.
In light of this proud history, it’s fitting that we gather here today in New Orleans, a city whose population through absolutely no fault of its own has faced a more urgent need of repair in recent years than almost any city that I can think of -- devastating hurricanes of Katrina and Rita, the BP oil leak earlier this week that left deep scars that our nation has an obligation to help heal.
And I’m sure you will see this week the community still faces huge challenges. But New Orleans is back, thanks to the strong local leaders like my friend, Scott Cowan, the President of Tulane University. Where are you, Scott? There you are, buddy. (Applause.) Scott is one of the good guys, one of the real good guys who -- I want to thank all of you -- all of you, and the American people for the generosity they showed to this great city.
And a special thanks to all of you assembled in this room for you $28 million relief effort to help rebuild the Gulf region. That’s serious. It’s sincere and it’s consistent. (Applause.)
For all that you’ve done and all that you’ll continue to do in New Orleans and beyond, let me just say thank you, thank you on behalf of the administration and thank you on behalf of the American people. Thank you for helping to repair the world in more than 70 countries on five different continents. Most people don’t know all that you’re doing. But I know. I know, because I’ve seen it first hand. I know that the state of Israel has always been a special focus of your work. So congratulations on your remarkable efforts, including your ongoing work to help Ethiopian and Israeli children, which quite frankly remind me of all the work we did back in the ‘80s and ‘90s on behalf of thousands, thousands of Ethiopian Jews.
Israel is also a place, as Michael referenced, close to my heart. I was raised by one of those folks you would call a righteous Christian. At my father’s dinner table, it was a place where you had conversation and incidentally ate, rather than ate and incidentally had conversation. And my father was one of those who spoke passionately -- he spoke passionately about the Jewish people and the profound historical connection to Israel.
It is probably the case, as with many of you, my love for Israel was nurtured by my father, but it was cemented when I made my first visit to Israel in the fall of 1973. I was a young 30-year-old United States senator and I had the great honor of sitting down for I guess a little more than an hour with Golda Meir in her office, with her aid, a fellow named Rabin sitting next to me.
Using some of the old maps she had behind her. Those of you who knew her, knew she was a chain smoker, and constantly, Mr. Ambassador, flipping those maps behind her. She had this set of maps that she could pull up and down, and telling me about the Six Day War and telling me about all that Israel faced.
And in the middle of this presentation, it seemed like, she all of a sudden said, senator, would you like a photo opportunity. And I said, well, of course, Madam Prime Minister, I’d be honored. And we opened those double doors in her office and walked out into that hallway. And there was an array of cameras.
And after hearing the dire straights that Israel was in and all that was arrayed against her, I guess I looked like I was a little shell-shocked. And while we were having our photograph taken, we were both looking straight at a battery of cameras about like those up on the riser over there, and I must have looked very worried. And without turning to me, she looked at me and she said, “Don’t look so worried, senator. We Israelis have a special -- we have a secret weapon.” And I thought she was about to tell me something consequential. (Laughter.) And she told me something very consequential. And I thought she said it only to me, but I later learned this was stated to thousands of people. She said, “Our secret weapon, senator, is we have nowhere else to go. We have nowhere else to go.”
All these years later, I find both alarm and solace in those words. And it’s the reason why, like all of you, I feel so absolutely certain that our support for Israel must continue in a way and forever. (Applause.)
Since that day, I have had the extreme pleasure and honor of working with nine Israeli Prime Ministers, some of whom would become close friends over the years, but none closer than Bibi, who I met me earlier today. We spent an hour or so together talking about our relationships and the future of the great state of Israel and I’m -- someone I’m sure you’re all looking forward to hearing from tomorrow.
Bibi and I have known each other for over 35 years. And we’ve witnessed almost every twist and turn in the U.S.-Israeli relations. And I can tell you, and I’m sure he will tell you as well, that the disagreements when they’ve existed have only been tactical in nature. They have never been fundamental. They have never been any fundamental rip in our relations for the last 35 years that I’ve been involved.
When a dispute arose on my last trip to Israel in March, the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government worked closely together to work our way through it. And the way we did was Bibi had me over to his house. We sat at his dining room table and we talked it through. And even as we did so -- and we talked it through and worked it out as friends and brothers -- I told an audience at Tel Aviv University just two days later that this administration represents an unbroken chain of American leaders who have understood this critical strategic relationship, one in which we will not yield one single inch. (Applause.)
And let me restate what probably does not need to be restated. But I’ve known many of you in this audience for a long, long time. President Barack Obama feels exactly the same way I do, I assure you. (Applause.)
Look, folks, the ties between our countries are literally, literally unbreakable. Our common values are interwoven in our cultures, in our mutual interests, none more urgent than the shared struggle against the scourge of violent extremism and terrorists.
That’s why the President has moved so forcefully and with such determination against the repeated attempts to de-legitimize Israel. There’s a worldwide campaign going on in some quarters to de-legitimize Israel. We’ve seen it before and we continue to see it, attempts to single out Israel for criticism or to deny it the right to self-defense like all other nations have.
The President has reinforced this for all the world to hear in his Cairo speech and to the representatives of all countries at the United Nations when he said, “After 60 years in the community of nations, Israel’s existence must not be subject to debate.” The President went on to tell the assembly that Israel is a sovereign state and the historic homeland of the Jewish people. It should be clear to all. “It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by unshakable opposition by the United States of America.” (Applause.)
And these were not just words. This President has put those words into action. That’s why we withdrew from the Durban Review Conference in February of last year, due to anti-Israeli violence. (Applause.) That’s why in the wake of the Goldstone Report, we loudly and repeatedly claimed our support for Israel’s right to defend itself and the ability of its domestic institutions to conduct their own investigations. That’s why we have consistently opposed anti-Israeli resolutions in the U.N. Human Rights Council and the General Assembly in UNESCO. (Applause.)
Indeed, at the President’s instruction, we were the only no vote on two Human Rights Council resolutions in September -- one, the flotilla incident and, one, the follow up to the Goldstone report. That’s why, at the direction of President Obama, as Bibi will tell you and the ambassador will tell you, I spent hour after hour in the aftermath of the flotilla incident, trying to put it in its proper focus and ensure that Israel had its right to conduct its own independent investigation. (Applause.)
And that’s why the President is continuing to fight to ensure that Israel is included in all international bodies to which it should rightfully belong, including regional groupings at the United Nations and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which with our help and strong support, Israel joined for the first time this year. (Applause.)
It’s also why the Jewish Federation’s recent initiative to counter de-legitimization attempts through Israel Action Network is so important and so appreciated by the President and me. And it is why, as I will say more about in a moment, we think it’s critical to keep the international spotlight on the genuine threats in the region like Iran’s nuclear program, not Israel. (Applause.)
While the United States will continue to do whatever we can to defend Israel’s legitimacy whenever and wherever it is questioned, we all know that the only true way for Israel to gain the long-term security it seeks and deserves is through genuine secure peace with its neighbors. There is no substitute. (Applause.) As Bibi and I spoke this morning, there is no substitute -- I shouldn’t call him “Bibi” -- that’s the Prime Minister and I said today. (Laughter.) Although he calls me “Joe,” so it’s okay. (Laughter.)
There is no substitute for direct, face-to-face negotiations leading eventually to states for two peoples secure, the Jewish state of Israel and a viable independent state of Palestine. (Applause.)
Ladies and gentlemen, that is the only path to the Israeli people’s decades-long quest for security and the only path to the fulfillment to the Palestinian people’s legitimate aspirations for nationhood.
Look, as we have long said, we oppose unilateral steps by either party that could prejudice the outcome of these negotiations. And we’ll continue -- we’ll continue working to resume those direct negotiations as quickly as possible to give both sides -- both sides the chance to reach the agreement their peoples deserve.
Folks, no administration has done more than ours to bolster Israel’s ability to defend itself. And no President has done more than ours. As you have heard said many times over this year, when it comes to Israel’s security -- and you’ve heard me say this for the last 37 years. When it comes to Israel’s security, there can be virtually no daylight, no daylight between the United States and Israel, under any circumstances. (Applause.)
But I want to deal with a little bit of a myth that’s just been bouncing around the last 20 months since we’ve been in office about what we have done relative to Israel’s security. When I was in Israel with Bibi last March, Bibi publicly said with me standing there that the world should know that no administration has done more for Israel’s security than we have.
President Obama increased our annual $3 billion in military assistance to Israel with an extra $205 million to deploy Israel’s Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system. This is in addition to the multi-year commitments to jointly develop Israel’s missile defense systems as we work on this very day. Our military conducted Juniper Cobra, a ballistic missile defense exercise in Israel that involved 1,300 U.S. servicemen and women, the largest joint exercise our two countries have ever conducted, all in the last 20 months.
And the Security Cooperation Act of 2010, we made two changes to that Act. The first, we gave the Israelis the ability to purchase U.S. weapons for the first time on the same exact terms our NATO allies can purchase those weapons. (Applause.) And we increased by $400 million the authority to stockpile American military equipment in Israel as a tripwire, among other things.
Ladies and gentlemen, these actions demonstrate not only to the Israelis, but to the whole world that we are absolutely, unequivocally committed to Israel’s security, period -- period. (Applause.)
One country that challenges Israelis’ security, America’s security, and the security of the countries in the region and around the world is Iran. President Obama and I came to office prepared to attempt to resolve the long-standing differences with Iran through constructive engagement based on mutual respect, because we knew it was not only the right thing to do, were we not to do it, the rest of the world would look to us as a consequence of the action’s of the last administration, assume we were going it alone and we would have much more difficulty getting international cooperation on what was needed in order to put pressure on Iran.
We knew that during the years in which our Iran policy was predicated on avoiding all contact, the Iranian government had expanded their nuclear program and found sympathy for its litany of excuses that blamed America’s diplomatic failures. So we instead sought to provide a path for Iran’s re-integration into the wider world, if Iranian leaders restored international confidence in the peaceful nature of their nuclear program.
The Iranian leaders responded to our overtures with continued defiance and the whole world saw it. No longer could the world say we were not attempting to deal with the problem diplomatically. Last year, the world learned that the Iranian government was building a secret enrichment facility at Qom. In February, Iranian leaders began enriching Uranium at higher levels in direct violation of the U.N. Security Council resolutions. Iranian leaders have continued their stubborn refusal to provide complete information to the IAEA, which reported in September, and I quote, that “it remains concerned about possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organizations.”
That defiance -- that defiance is why President Obama instituted an effort and under his leadership this administration has helped build the most comprehensive and far-reaching sanctions regime that Iran has ever faced through the U.N. Security Council resolution 1929, and a host of other restrictions imposed by our allies and partners around the world, and by international organizations. These include the comprehensive Iran sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act, which President Obama signed in July through broad, bipartisan legislation, it is the most far reaching Congress has ever passed on Iran. These sanctions have a bite. They are making it harder for Iran to acquire technology and funding for its nuclear and missile programs, and making it much more difficult for Iran to access hard currency to conduct business around the world.
Already, they are having measurable impact. Investors have withdrawn from energy projects, and several large, multi-national companies across a range of sectors not just in oil have ceased operating in Iran altogether, knowing that the harm to their reputation for doing business with Iran far outweighs the benefit that may accrue to their bottom line with dealing with Iran.
International banks are literally closing their doors to Iran, because of the persistent Iranian abuse of international financial systems to support its missile and nuclear programs. The sanctions, they are also highlighting the government’s inability to manage its own economy, even as it sits on the world’s largest reserves of natural gas.
Ladies and gentlemen, sanctions are not an end in themselves. They are a means to clarify the choices for Iran and to convince the Iranian government to bring its nuclear activities into line with its international obligations. The door to diplomacy remains open. But there is a price to walk through that door, acting rationally.
We continue to seek a peaceful resolution and to hope Iranian leaders will reconsider their current, destructive, and debilitating course. But let me be very clear about this. We are also absolutely committed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. (Applause.)
Meanwhile, the Iranian government continues to repress and intimidate its own citizens when they attempt to usurp basic rights and to support dangerous proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah. We recognize the danger posed by these proxies in Gaza and in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is doing everything in its power to subvert of the international mandated special tribunal for Lebanon, which is investigating the murder of former Prime Minister Hariri.
Look, we strongly support the tribunal. We strongly condemn Hezbollah’s policies of intimidation and threats. The tribunal reflects a profound Lebanese interest, the need to end an era of political assassinations. Let me be -- also just say a brief word about Iran’s neighbor, Iraq.
President Obama and I have made a commitment to end that war. And we’re keeping that promise by having already brought home 100,000 combat troops since we took office -- (applause) -- ending our combat mission and staying on track to have all our forces out by 2011.
The President turned to me early in this administration and asked me to manage the political situation from our perspective in Iraq. So even as we draw down our military engagement, we are ramping up our civilian efforts to build a lasting partnership with Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and reliant -- ladies and gentlemen, an Iraq that can play a constructive role in the region and be a proxy for no one.
The next critical step in this process is for Iran [sic] to form an inclusive government that represents all the communities as reflected in their election. You may not see in headlines, but we are working very hard on this and I am on the phone literally every day with the various Iraqi leaders. And I am confident -- I am confident that in fact they are very close to forming an inclusive government that will be totally independent of the influence of any other country in the region.
Ladies and gentlemen, that is the only way we’ll be able to redeem the extraordinary -- the extraordinary sacrifice so many -- so many Americans have made. Over 2 million have gone through that process. We have lost thousands and tens of thousands have been wounded. And many more have come home with memories of Iraq etched in their minds, some not able to be handled very easily.
Ladies and gentlemen, for Israel and for the United States, these are difficult and complex times. Here in America, our prosperity is being challenged as has not been challenged in generations. And we remain -- we remain under constant threat from determined enemies that target our homeland as never before in so many diverse ways.
Our administration will continue to work tirelessly to fulfill our greatest responsibility to the American people, and that is to protect them from threats that they face and to give them life, give more life to this whole notion that has begun to evaporate in the minds of many American middle class, and that is the American Dream; the dream that promises you will be able to provide a world, a nation better than you were born into for your children.
In this day and age, no government can accomplish such tasks alone. That is why -- that is why your work on behalf of those in need is even more important than it ever has been and why your cooperation with Israel, which also enjoys your strong support, enhances both Israel’s security as well as ours.
In just over three weeks, you all and Jews all around the world, will begin to light the candles of Hanukkah. Yes, it comes early this year, three weeks. I can see heads going, oh my god, three weeks. (Laughter.) The Festival of Lights, as you know better than anyone, both celebrates a divine miracle and reminds us all that even formidable obstacles can be overcome when a determined people stand together.
I am proud, and I’ve always been proud, to stand with you. Our nation has been proud to stand with Israel from its founding 60 years ago. And I absolutely guarantee you as long as there’s a breath in me, this government, this nation, will stand with Israel. It’s in our own naked self-interest beyond it being an absolute moral necessity. (Applause.)
So, ladies and gentlemen, thank you all. May God protect Israel. May God bless America and keep our troops safe. Thank you very much for the work you do. You guys are the best. Thank you. Thank you very much.
END 5:40 P.M. CST