Monday, May 23, 2011

AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr: we need you to help policy-makers focus on fundamentals vital for Israel

We have gathered at times of crisis in the Middle East – at times of grave concern, with peace and war in the balance.

Today, it is different.

Today, we gather at a moment of great transition and hopeful anticipation.

For decades now – for generations – Israel has been the Middle East’s only democracy – in a sea of dictatorships.

Think back just one year ago:

Which one of us, when people thronged the streets and squares across the Arab world, demanding regime change – which one of us would have predicted they would not be shouting slogans against the United States, or carrying signs slandering Israel? Which one of us would have predicted we would hear those voices crying out against the injustices of their own rulers – crying out for the right to determine their own fates?

This is something friends of Israel have dreamt of forever: For Israel to no longer be the only democracy in the region.

Because, as we know, democracies do not attack other democracies.

Even as we are right to hope – perhaps precisely because we do hope – we must recognize that the path to freedom—as we are witnessing throughout the region -- is never easy. There are forces – internal and external – in every one of the Arab nations who seek a different ending to the story.

Who seek to strengthen the forces of oppression and stifle democracy. Who seek to defeat America and to destroy Israel.

Who seek to use this moment of hope to advance their own power and substitute a new era of repression and aggression – in which America and Israel are once more the enemy.

Dictators in the region have spent decades destroying any of the mediating structures that could pose a threat to their power – the people-to-people organizations that owe nothing to the State, and are the building blocks of democracy.

They have spent decades fabricating external enemies to justify their own internal repression, subjecting generations to hateful, horrible anti-Israel rhetoric.

Even now, when the dictators have been deposed, that remains their legacy heard today on the Arab Street.

Is it any surprise that the fall of a dictator leaves a vacuum – setting off a scramble for power in which the forces of democracy are just one contender among many?

We should all celebrate the genuine green shoots of democracy in the Arab world, but we must never shrink from calling out and condemning anti-Semitic policy under the guise of popular will.

True democracy is more than the right to vote. True democracy includes building civil institutions and a sense of civic responsibility. And true democracy can never be rooted in racist hatred.

We have an obligation to urge our policy-makers to do all they can to ensure that Egypt holds to its peace treaty with Israel…

That the fractured factions of a post-Gadhafi Libya, a post-Saleh Yemen or a post-Assad Syria take a different view of Israel and America.

The fact is -- this most hopeful time of change in the region is at one and the same time one of the most challenging periods in Israel’s history.

Imagine you are an Israeli military planner. The security architecture that has existed for the last 30 years, and that has allowed Israel to flourish, may be in jeopardy – indeed, it may be crumbling:

For 30 years, the prospect of an all-Arab war against Israel has been inconceivable – impossible, without the participation of Egypt. For 30 years, not only Israel, but the United States and the world have benefited in a shared strategic interest that there be no regional war in the Middle East.

Should the new Egyptian Government renounce the peace treaty with Israel – the inconceivable becomes possible.

For the sake of stability in the region, maintaining the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty must be an American policy imperative.

While we all hope that Egypt emerges from its current political transition with a functioning, western-oriented democracy, the fact is the best-organized political force in Egypt today is the Muslim Brotherhood – which does not recognize Israel and which has called for the abrogation of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

If Egypt walks away from 30 years of peace, the strategic implications are inescapable:

The militaries of both the United States and Israel would have to consider how to counter a possible Egyptian threat.

While the peace treaty may be the cornerstone of stability and security in the region this should not be all that American policy should expect from a post-Mubarak Egypt.

A true Egyptian commitment to peace means a continuation of the blockade of Gaza;

It means no rapprochement with Iran;

And it means maintaining the integrity of the Suez Canal.

Now, look to Israel’s northern border. Lebanon has, for the first time in its history, a prime minister who owes his office to Hezbollah. After the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, it was estimated that Hezbollah had a few thousand rockets left in its arsenal.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution forbidding anyone from re-arming Hezbollah -- and then beefed up the UN military presence in southern Lebanon.
But now, not 5 years later, we estimate Hezbollah, a rogue terrorist organization, has somewhere close to 55,000 rockets and missiles. That is more than most countries have.

In Syria – we are witnessing political turmoil not seen in 30 years. What we see there is the raw power of repression. Indiscriminate killing. Mass graves. Tanks rolling through the streets. Secret police going door to door, rounding up thousands of people – torn from their homes, many never to be seen again.

Where is the international outrage?

Where are the demands that this must stop?

And where is the U.N. Security Council Resolution?

We applaud last week’s decision by the White House to sanction Assad, and we hope this is the beginning of ratcheted pressure on this regime.

Watching events unfold in cities across Syria -- if you are that Israeli military planner, you can only wonder what is coming next.

Just this past week, we saw an attack by hostile Syrian residents who swarmed to breach Israel’s border in a clear challenge to Israeli sovereignty.

Israel rightfully defended her border -- as any country would do in those circumstances. This violent demonstration was apparently orchestrated and inspired by the Assad regime as a cynical ploy to create a distraction and turn the lens away from the killing of innocent Syrians.

Unfortunately, this inflammatory act may be just the beginning.

Let us be clear: As we meet today, Syria is a central battleground – a key piece in the struggle between the West and Iran to see what forces benefit from the upheaval in the Arab World these past few months – whether nations take their first steps on the path to secular democracies, respectful of rights and religious freedoms… Or whether Syria’s patron, Iran, succeeds in hijacking this season of change to advance its radical agenda.

If regime change takes place in Syria – if Assad falls and his regime fractures, Iran will lose its only Arab ally in its quest to extend its power in the region. And its ability to project an Iranian presence across Lebanon to Israel’s northern border would be severely diminished.

I ask you to hold these new realities reshaping Israel’s neighborhood firmly in mind as I turn to the second issue I want to discuss today.

There is one regime whose leaders regularly celebrate the rising masses in every Arab nation – and yet, will not tolerate the smallest street gathering at home.

When it comes to Iran – the international community has fallen silent.

Yet, Iran is fomenting unrest in Bahrain. They are aiding the crackdown in Syria.

Iran is funding Hezbollah, and they are arming Hamas.

Iran is projecting its strength by sending naval ships into the Eastern Mediterranean. Iran is running new weapons into the region, and they are encouraging their proxies to probe and provoke Israel.

And if that were not enough, Iran just went to the International Atomic Energy Agency and said – “We are ready to implement the next phase of our nuclear program.”

In January and February, we had momentum when it came to Iran. Then the Arab demonstrations began -- and the focus shifted. Nations everywhere began dealing with the very legitimate challenges and problems that the turmoil presented, and suddenly the world was not talking about Iran with the same sense of clarity and purpose.

And so, it falls to us: We must refocus our policy-makers’ attention on what Iran is doing in this time of turmoil. Its efforts to cultivate fifth columns in neighboring nations to advance Iranian ends. Its use of terror-by-proxy. Its relentless march toward a nuclear weapon.

Make no mistake.

This is a war of wills.

Iran sees this moment as a chance to project its power – its radical agenda -- into regimes across the region.

We see this moment as a chance for freedom-seeking forces to replace corrupt dictatorships and to build new ties to the West.

These two views– these two visions of the future –cannot be reconciled. One will prevail, and the other will fail.

So there is only one question. Iran is fully committed to its goal.

The question is – are we?

Are we in the West, are we in the United States committed to stopping Iran?

When we say we will not allow Iran’s proxies to prevail… When we say it is unacceptable for Iran to become a nuclear power…Do we mean it?

That is why the President’s comments yesterday, when he said -- “We remain committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,”--- are so important—because it reflects U.S. determination to ensure the policy of prevention is realized.

Iran can be stopped.

Amidst all the turmoil in the Middle East, there is yet another challenge that requires our attention: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict…

And specifically, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his choices – his bad choices.

Abbas is ready to go to the ends of the earth but he will not travel the few short steps to sit down with Israel to pursue real peace.

So for the past 18 months, he has traveled a long and winding path, taking him farther and farther away from the neighbor he needs to sit down and negotiate with.

Instead, Abbas has traveled as far as European and South American capitals, where he has encouraged the de-legitimization of the Jewish state, aimed at sapping Israel’s very ability to defend her own citizens. He has even begun to carve a path to the United Nations to seek a unilateral recognition for statehood.

And now, in the last month, he has decided to come back – closer to home and pursue an effort to make peace ------ with Hamas.

And who is Hamas?

As President Obama, stated clearly yesterday, "Hamas is a terrorist organization."

A terrorist organization -- which refuses to recognize Israel;

A terrorist organization, recognized by the United States and the European Union as having the blood of literally thousands on their hands.

And the terrorist organization that condemned President Obama and the United States for the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

And this -- this is the organization that Abbas has joined forces with?

It is important to see what motivates Abbas – to piece together the plan he is pursuing.
Abbas seeks a path that absolves him from making the difficult choices and compromises necessary for real peace. He thinks he has found the path of least resistance.

It is up to us to create resistance.

In the swirl of activity this week, including several speeches and a meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, it is important to restate some bedrock principles about how to conduct the bilateral relationship between the United States and Israel and those principles that will guide the peace process forward.

First, Trust and Confidence – between the leaders of Israel and the United States.

This is critical, because Israel is the one with the most at risk in the peace process.
And unless Israel's leaders know that America will be there to back Jerusalem in the most difficult times, they must be far more cautious in their quest for peace.

In addition, if Israel's foes come to believe that there is diplomatic daylight between the United States and Israel, they will have every incentive to try to exploit those differences and shun peace with the Jewish state.

That is why it is so important that America and Israel work out whatever differences arise between them privately, and when tensions do arise, that the leaders work together to close those gaps.

The President's speech to us yesterday reflected just such an effort to close those gaps.

The second principle is for America to play its role as honest broker. And let us be clear: That should not be confused with even-handedness.
Part of being an honest broker is being honest. One party in this process is our ally – with whom we share values and strategic interests.

In a world which is demonstrably on the side of the Palestinians and Arabs -- where Israel stands virtually alone -- the United States has a special role to play.

When the United States is even-handed, Israel is automatically at a disadvantage, tilting the diplomatic playing field overwhelmingly toward the Palestinians and Arabs.

The third principle is a firm understanding that efforts to impose solutions from outside are counter-productive. At the end of the day, the parties to peace are the parties at the table.

As President Obama said yesterday, "Peace cannot be imposed on the parties to the conflict."

As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote, "In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car."

When neither party owns the plan or has responsibility to accept it, that plan is doomed to fail.

Outside mediators can play an important role. They can help bring the parties to the table, bridge gaps, and offer reassurances -- but they are not the ones who can define a durable peace.

The last principle is in many ways the most indispensible to progress: The path to peace must include direct talks between parties who are ultimately willing to live in peace with each other.

As President Obama stated here yesterday, “No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization, sworn to its destruction.”

That is why Israel cannot be expected to sit at the table with a Palestinian government that includes an unreformed Hamas.

As much as we have seen steps that put the Palestinian commitment to peace in doubt -- there is still time for a Palestinian leader to be bold and creative – to turn back from the current dead end. To reject Hamas. To reject the international path. To reject the road to unilateral recognition at the United Nations. And instead to embrace the chance to sit down with Israel to negotiate a real peace.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is ready, able and willing.

We have seen more change in the Middle East and in North Africa in the last 100 days than since the birth of the modern state of Israel.

We have witnessed ordinary people calling out for change, and that is a signal to us: History does not make us – so much as we make history.

Think about the reasons you are here today. The reasons you put aside your work obligations, the reasons you took time from your family – to come here to Washington to make history.

But making history requires hard work, and we have hard work to do:

To expand the pro-Israel political movement in America. To re-focus the discussion of the Middle East; To re-awaken leaders to the Iranian threat; To remind decision makers that a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is a bulwark for peace and stability.

We have hard work to do – to drive home the need for Egypt to continue its peace with Israel.

We have hard work to do – to say to those who profess to stand for peace:

There can be no end to strife for the Palestinian people unless their leaders pursue a partnership in peace with Israel.

Those fundamentals – those fixed points in our policy: They are the reason we are here together today.

Through all the change – through all the chaos, some seek to sew in order to harm Israel and harm America… we need you to help policy-makers focus on these fundamentals.
On freedom. On faith. On the values shared by America and Israel that make both of our nations – indeed, our world – safer and more secure.

This is our moment. This is our mission. And when I look around this room – I know we will succeed