Secretary Antony J. Blinken At the J Street National Conference
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. Please take a seat. Thank you so much. Thank you. Good morning, J Street. Now, it’s Sunday, the World Cup is on, New York Times probably awaits, and yet you’re all here, and I am grateful for that.
It’s wonderful to see all of you, and to my friend, longtime friend, colleague, Jeremy, thank you for inviting me back to J Street.
More important, I want to thank you for your unflagging commitment to strengthening the relationship between the United States and Israel and for your vision – and leadership of – J Street. This is a remarkable organization, as Jeremy said. I’ve been engaged with it in one way or another over many years, and I really appreciate the opportunity to be able to spend some time with you this morning.
Another friend and colleague is here. Ambassador Solomont, thank you for a lifetime of service, from your days as a community organizer in Massachusetts, our nation’s ambassador to Spain under President Obama, to now chairmanship of J Street’s board. Thank you. (Applause.)
And to my fellow speakers this morning, Ambassador and Rabbi Saperstein – I use both honorifics – Rabbi Sah-taht, Ruth Messinger, thank you for embodying the principle of Tikkun olam not only in your work on Israel but across the social justice causes that you champion, causes that our administration shares and is committed to defending and promoting with you at home as well as around the world, including LGBTQ rights and women’s rights, religious freedom – (applause) – the equality of all people before the law.
Finally, to everyone here: Thank you for the work that you’re doing – today but also every day – to advance peace and democracy. Indeed, each of you embodies one of our democracy’s unique strengths: the power of citizens to engage in our public debate and in our policymaking process.
The enduring engagement of J Street, as well as other groups across the spectrum that we consult with regularly, including in recent days, continues to inform our thinking.
Today, what I hope to do is to talk a little bit about how our administration is working to advance the shared interests and values at the heart of the U.S.-Israel relationship in what is a very consequential time. By strengthening Israel’s security, recognizing that no peace is possible or sustainable without a strong, secure Israel; deepening Israel’s integration in the region, and in the world; holding firm to the vision of two states for two peoples – (applause) – opposing acts that diminish the long-term prospects of achieving that goal; and taking immediate steps to improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike. (Applause.)
Now, in the nearly 75 years since Israel’s founding, the partnership between our two countries has broadened and deepened to touch virtually every aspect of our people’s lives: renewable energy and biotech, vaccine research and space exploration, higher education and the arts.
That partnership – and all that it’s produced for the people of our nations and the world – has always been underwritten by the United States ironclad commitment to Israel’s security, a commitment that has never been stronger than it is today.
Under President Biden, the United States is providing $3.3 billion annually in foreign military financing to Israel, as well as another $500 million in funding for missile defense – more than at any time in the history of our relationship. This is in keeping – (applause) – this is in keeping with the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding that the then-Obama-Biden administration agreed with Israel – the largest ever security package in U.S. history. Our investment is crucial to guaranteeing Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East, buttressing Israel’s right to defend itself against the ongoing threat posed by Hamas and other terrorist groups bent on taking the lives of Israeli civilians. Our security assistance to Israel is sacrosanct.
We’ve also reinforced Israel’s security through diplomacy. When hostilities between Israel and militants in Gaza escalated in May 2021, President Biden led intensive behind-the-scenes efforts that helped produce a ceasefire in 11 days. (Applause.) And when that ceasefire took hold, we moved swiftly to provide humanitarian and reconstruction aid for Gaza to meet the urgent needs of the Palestinians there and to help lower tensions. (Applause.)
We also worked with Congress on a bipartisan basis to deliver an additional $1 billion in funding to replenish supplies for Israel’s Iron Dome, the missile defense system that we developed together and that has saved countless lives. (Applause.)
Our countries participate regularly in joint military exercises, research, weapons development. We hold regular strategic dialogues. And this cooperation allows us to collaborate in countering a range of regional threats, none graver than those posed by Iran. The Iranian regime routinely threatens to wipe Israel off the map and continues to provide weapons to terrorists and proxies like Hizballah and Hamas that remain motivated, like Iran, by the rejection of Israel’s right to exist.
In recent months, more and more countries are realizing that – what we have long known about the Iranian regime’s propensity to sow violence and instability.
We see this daily, as the regime is once again viciously cracking down on peaceful protesters at home; killing hundreds of his own people, including scores of women and children; and locking away thousands more in its brutal prisons. At the same time, the regime is arming and training Russian forces with drones, drones that President Putin is using to kill Ukrainian civilians and destroy the infrastructure that provides millions of families with heat, with water, with electricity, just as winter is setting in.
The United States is committed to standing with the Iranian people, especially women, as they demonstrate extraordinary courage in standing up for their rights. (Applause.) We are licensing technology so that Iranian citizens can communicate with one another, as well as remain connected to the outside world, despite the regime’s constant internet blockages and shutdowns. And we’re coordinating with allies and partners to sanction those responsible for the abuses against Iranian civilians, including the killing of Mahsa Amini.
The regime’s actions have only deepened our conviction that Iran must never be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. (Applause.) We continue to believe that the best way to ensure this is through diplomacy. (Applause.) The benefits of this approach are borne out by the facts.
Before the previous administration unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear agreement, Iran’s nuclear program was in a box. Iran was abiding by its commitments under the agreement. Its nuclear program was the most rigorously monitored and verified in history. The breakout time needed for Iran to acquire enough fissile material to produce a nuclear weapon had been extended to more than a year. In short, the JCPOA was working. And that’s not just our view, that’s the judgment of international inspectors – independent international inspectors – as well the State Department at the time.
After the last administration withdrew and embarked on its so-called “maximum pressure” campaign, Iran stopped complying with many of the agreement’s critical constraints and expanded and accelerated its enrichment activities – so much so that, by now, the breakout time has been shortened to just a few weeks.
And the regime significantly ramped up its destabilizing actions in the region, putting our people and our partners at greater risk.
Since President Biden took office, we’ve focused on rebuilding a united approach with our allies and partners, putting us in a much stronger position to exert coordinated, effective pressure on Iran. Together we engaged in a meaningful diplomatic process to see if we could reach agreement for a mutual return to the JCPOA, but Iran has repeatedly demonstrated that it is unwilling or unable to commit to the steps that it needs to take.
We continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But should the Iranian regime reject that path, its leaders should make no mistake that all options are on the table to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.
We will continue to consult closely with European allies, with Israel, with partners in the region, and colleagues in Congress on the way forward.
Now, one of the most effective ways to bolster Israel’s security is to deepen diplomatic relations with more of its neighbors and with countries around the world.
That’s why we’ve worked relentlessly to advance and expand the Abraham Accords and other normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states. Back in March, I joined my counterparts from Morocco, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt for the historic Negev Summit convened by then-Foreign Minister Lapid – something that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Early next year, working groups will meet to expand collaboration on key issues in the areas that we’ve set out for cooperation under Negev, including health, food security, tourism, regional security.
The months that we spent mediating talks between Israel and Lebanon led to a historic agreement in October to establish a permanent maritime boundary between the two countries. (Applause.) This will enable the peaceful development of significant energy reserves – and that will be to the benefit of people in both countries and, indeed, people around the globe. This is another demonstration that diplomacy can deliver results – even on what seem to be intractable challenges even in the Middle East.
In July, I joined President Biden on the first direct flight by a U.S. leader from Israel to Saudi Arabia, as part of the kingdom’s decision to open its airspace to civilian planes to and from Israel.
These efforts to integrate Israel are also creating new opportunities beyond the region. In July, the leaders of India, Israel, the UAE, and the United States convened virtually for the first summit of a group that we call I2U2, focused on marshalling the strengths of our governments, our private sectors, civil societies to solve fundamental challenges facing our people – starting with the twin food security and energy crises that we’re living through.
Integrating Israel also means continuing to fight for Israel to be treated the same way as every other nation – no more, no less.
While we fully respect the right of all to freedom of expression – and actively defend and promote this around the world – we continue to reject the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement for unfairly singling out Israel. (Laughter.)
At the United Nations, we have consistently and vigorously pushed back against unjust anti-Israel bias – reflected in enduring efforts to delegitimize and exclude Israel and the disproportionate attention Israel continues to receive in places like the Security Council and the Human Rights Council. This unfair treatment not only distracts the UN from focusing on other challenges, but deprives Israel the chance to participate in bodies where it could make valuable contributions to improving the lives of people around the world.
We’re also fighting against anti-Semitism, which is once again on the rise around the world, including here in the United States. History teaches us how seemingly small acts of intolerance and dehumanization can quickly spread in scale and in scope – especially if no one calls them out. We’re not only denouncing anti-Semitism whenever we see it, but we’re standing with Jewish communities wherever they’re victims of such hatred and working to build broad coalitions – across government as well as across civil society – to join together in beating back this scourge.
Now, for all of its benefits, normalization between Israel and its neighbors is not a substitute for building peace between Israelis and Palestinians. (Applause.) But Israel’s growing integration – Israel’s growing integration and broad-based opportunities it creates – this is something that we can leverage to improve the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza.
And not only by the United States, but also by the Arab states that open relations with Israel. As these states work to build and deepen their relationships with Israel, they can also offer support for Palestinians and Israelis to enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, opportunity, justice, and dignity, and for progress toward realizing the enduring goal of two states, which President Biden remains committed to. (Applause.)
Now, let me take a minute to share why we continue to strive for this goal.
Simply put, it aligns with our deepest values: democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law, equality; the idea that all people, regardless of who they are, should have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
We believe Palestinians and Israelis, like people everywhere, are entitled to the same rights and the same opportunities. (Applause.)
We also support this vision because it’s pragmatic. We continue to believe, as the President said on his trip to the Holy Land this summer, that two states – based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps – remains the best way to achieve our goal of Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace and security. And, of course, it’s vital to preserving Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. (Applause.)
The United States continues to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. As the President also said in his visit, Jerusalem is central to the national visions of both Palestinians and Israelis, and must be a city for all of its people. (Applause.)
Anything that takes us away from two states is detrimental to Israel’s long-term security and its long-term identity.
We know that, at this moment, the prospects of a two-state solution feel remote, and that may be an understatement to some. But we are committed to preserving a horizon of hope. That means holding firm to the values that have anchored the friendship between the United States and Israel across countless transitions in government in both of our countries.
Israel recently held free and fair elections with robust participation and a new government is expected to take office in the coming days. We fully respect the democratic choice of the Israeli people; we again congratulate Bibi Netanyahu. We welcome his commitment to make this a government that, in his words, “will work for the benefit of all residents of the State of Israel, without exception.”
As President Biden told Mr. Netanyahu when he called to congratulate him, we expect the new Israeli Government to continue to work with us to advance our shared values, just as we have previous governments. We’ll continue to express our support for core democratic principles, including respect for the rights of the LGBT community and the equal administration of justice for all citizens of Israel. (Applause.) We will gauge the government by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities. We will hold it to the mutual standards we have established in our relationship over the past seven decades. And we will speak honestly and respectfully with our Israeli friends, as partners always should.
Preserving a horizon of hope also requires that we work relentlessly to prevent any parties from taking actions that could raise tensions or further raise tensions and push the two-state solution even further out of reach. (Applause.)
We will always condemn acts of terrorism or violence targeting civilians. There can be no justification for it ever, and anyone who engages in it must be held accountable. As President Biden has often said, we’ll also condemn those who fail to condemn such attacks – or, even worse, who praise or reward terrorists or their families.
We’re deeply concerned that this year has seen dramatically higher levels of violence in the West Bank, perpetrated by both Palestinians and Israeli settlers. This violence must stop. Its perpetrators must face equal justice under the law. (Applause.)
We will also continue to unequivocally oppose any acts that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution, including, but not limited to, settlement expansion; moves toward annexation of the West Bank; disruption to the historic status quo at holy sites; demolitions and evictions; and incitement to violence. (Applause.)
Now, I know – I know that many people are disillusioned. Many people are frustrated. We’ve been trying to get to a two-state solution for decades, and yet it seems that we’ve only gotten further away from that goal. But we cannot afford to give up hope. We cannot succumb to cynicism. We cannot give in to apathy. It’s precisely when times are difficult – when peace seems even further from reach – that we’ve simply got to work harder, that we must continue to pursue whatever openings we can to show that progress is still possible.
That’s why simply discouraging sides from taking steps that undermine the prospects of two states is insufficient.
Because the reality is that, today, Palestinians and Israelis do not enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, or opportunity. (Applause.)
So we must work not only to preserve the horizon of hope, but to broaden it. We have to go beyond talking about how an eventual peace will improve people’s lives and actually show how bringing the two sides closer together can deliver for Palestinians and Israelis in tangible ways.
So here’s how we’re working on that.
When President Biden came into office, we re-engaged with the Palestinian people, including resuming aid, and we worked to rebuild trust.
Since that time, we’ve provided more than $890 million in assistance for Palestinians, focusing on the issues that have the greatest impact on their daily lives: food, vaccines, support to strengthen Palestinian security.
We’re working with Congress to provide $100 million to bolster healthcare for Palestinians through the East Jerusalem Hospital Network. I had an opportunity to visit one of those hospitals on a recent trip.
We’re finding innovative ways to spur greater, more inclusive economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza, like supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs; expanding access to 4G, increasing the supply of renewable and reliable energy, improving freedom of movement for Palestinian people and Palestinian goods. (Applause.) Making progress on these issues, making progress can materially improve the lives of people right away and can allow Palestinian youth to at least imagine a brighter future.
We’re engaging more with civil society, which is a critical pillar of any democracy. Whenever I visit the region, I make a point of meeting with Palestinian and Israeli civil society leaders to be able to hear firsthand from them about the remarkable work that they’re doing to address the problems that people face, their challenges and frustrations, and how the United States can do more to support their efforts.
We’ve encouraged the Israeli Government to make policy reforms that improve the lives of Palestinians in material ways. A number of them have actually been implemented, including legalizing the status of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank, issuing thousands of work permits for Palestinians in Gaza, increasing Gaza’s water supply by 40 percent.
We’re also investing more resources in trying to build trust, confidence, understanding between the two sides at the grassroots level. Thanks to bipartisan support from Congress, the Nita Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act will allocate up to $250 million over the next five years. (Applause.)
These funds will be used to support local projects that bring together Israeli and Palestinian teachers, nurses, entrepreneurs, climate scientists, and leaders from countless other fields to tackle the shared challenges affecting their communities.
Building from the bottom up, as well as the middle out, can also be a powerful way to advance progress. Now, the scale may be local, but the lasting bonds that these individuals form will help defuse tensions before they erupt, and build further progress toward peace, again, from the bottom up.
If we’re going to make lasting progress, the Palestinian Authority must carry out meaningful reforms, as the frustrations of the Palestinian people are also driven by a lack of governance and corruption. Strengthening Palestinian institutions; strengthening the rule of law, transparency, accountability – that too is crucial to improving the lives of Palestinians today, also indispensable for laying the foundation for a stable, democratic Palestinian state tomorrow.
And just as we believe Israel has a responsibility to take steps to advance the prospects for enduring peace, the Palestinian authority must demonstrate that it has the will and it has the capacity to be a true partner in a process that can lead to two states. We’ve made clear our view that unilateral actions at the United Nations will do nothing to address the urgent needs of the Palestinian people or bring the two sides any closer to peace.
Just last week, I established the new post of special representative for Palestinian affairs to strengthen our engagement with the Palestinian people, and I’ve asked someone well known to pretty much everyone here, Hady Amr, to serve in that role. (Applause.) Hady is here today. I hope you appreciate the applause. (Laughter.) As all of you who work with him know, his knowledge, his experience, his relationships, his principles will make him an ideal leader for this role. (Applause.)
Speaking in Bethlehem earlier this year, President Biden said, and I quote, “The best way to feed the flame of hope is to demonstrate that things can be better.”
To me, it is heartening to look out at all of you, to see so many people, particularly the younger people among you, who still believe in this vision of peace, and not only who believe in it but who are willing to do the hard work to try to make it a reality.
Now, I’m told that there are more than 400 rising leaders from the J Street U that are here at this conference. (Applause.) You’re representing some 80 colleges and universities from across the United States.
Your commitment to preserving the values that define the partnership between our two nations for decades, that’s continuing to feed the flame of hope. That’s what gives me confidence that these values will endure no matter how profoundly they’re tested. And know we will stand with you in this righteous effort.
To each and every one of you, my thanks again for everything that you’re doing, again, not just on this day, but every day, to help realize a vision of progress, of possibility throughout the Middle East for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Again, when times are challenging, this is when we rise to the moment. I’m grateful that J Street continues to do that, continues to make a difference. It’s more needed than ever. Thank you so very much. (Applause.) Thank you.