Good evening. Dan, thank you for your kind introduction and for your service and counsel these many years. I am very grateful to Professor Reichman, Professor Mintz, and Dr. Hoffman for their generous hospitality. After admiring the Herzliya Conference from afar, it is a great pleasure to finally be here.
I am honored to be on the program with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. I keep a well-worn copy of his masterpiece “Diplomacy” by my desk—a secular bible for every would-be practitioner of foreign policy.
The first opportunity I had to meet Secretary Kissinger, I was introduced to him as the new Senior Director for European Affairs at the White House in the Clinton administration. I said to him, “Dr. Kissinger, that is kind of a daunting way to be introduced to you given your history.” He paused, and he said, “That’s alright. This is where you’ve done the least damage.” Like no one else, Secretary Kissinger married strategic vision with a relentless ability to put it into practice.
It is also wonderful to be here in Israel for something we are doing tomorrow and that is the annual U.S.-Israel Strategic Dialogue, one of the most important and longest-running exchanges between our two governments. In this and so many other endeavors, I am especially grateful for the leadership of our truly unmatched U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro. Dan and I have been friends as well as colleagues for many years. Neither the United States nor Israel could ask for a more ardent defender or committed emissary.
As my own nation grieves over the horrific loss of life in Orlando, I bring with me as well our deepest condolences for the people of Israel as you cherish the memory of four bright lives extinguished only one week ago. These are not the acts of martyrs—these are the acts of murderers. We condemn those who perpetrate them, those who glorify them, and, as Vice President Biden said, we condemn those who fail to condemn them. Violence against innocent civilians can never be justified.
As I join you this evening, I am also mindful of those no longer with us whose insights once illuminated this hall, including my old boss, mentor, and friend Sandy Berger, who spoke here at the Herzliya Conference only two years ago.
Sandy taught a generation of young staffers to approach complexity with pragmatism and principle, to face challenges with strength and wisdom, to lead with confidence and humility.
Today, these are the north stars by which the United States strives to navigate a global strategic environment that is more fluid and fraught with complexity than ever before.
Power is shifting among, below, and beyond nation-states—urged on by the rapid pace of technological change, the growth of economic interdependence, and scale of global connectivity.
It requires governments to be more accountable to sub-state and non-state actors—from the mayors of mega-cities to the private sector to super-empowered groups and individuals.
All of us are linked in unprecedented ways—incentivizing new forms of cooperation but also creating shared vulnerabilities.
Among those vulnerabilities are the weakening of state authority, the erosion of order, the emergence of ungoverned spaces, the proliferation of weapons and technology, the surfacing or resurfacing of old hatreds and animosities. Between states, we see it too—the growth of regional rivalries, the spread of dangerous proxy wars, the stoking of violent extremism.
These changes are happening within an international order—a system of rules, norms, and institutions that the United States helped establish in the aftermath of World War II. Whatever its deficiencies, that system got the picture right—averting another global war and creating profound opportunities for human development.
International law, environmental protections, human rights safeguards, public health systems, trade regulations, international financial institutions, peacekeeping forces, the nonproliferation regime—these norms, these institutions gave life to a global order that provides the best and sometimes only means to prevent conflict, to accelerate progress, and to resolve differences peacefully and diplomatically.
But today that system is under siege, as it struggles to cope with this modern era of seemingly seismic change.
Our challenge is to adapt the global order to suit this young century while also preserving the fundamentals of its construction—the rules, the norms, the institutions, the principles we depend on for our security and prosperity.
The United States is clear-eyed about our role and our responsibility. We know that we cannot solve all the world’s problems on our own, and we cannot fully solve any of them alone.
But we can seize on America’s unique capacity to mobilize others against common threats and shape change—at least on the margins—to help make the world just a little bit safer, a little bit healthier, a little bit wealthier, a little bit wiser.
Under President Obama’s leadership, that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’ve built a global coalition of more than 65 countries to defeat Daesh, and we have decimated core al Qaeda.
We’ve rallied the world to penalize Russia for its aggression in Ukraine, revitalized NATO, jump-started European energy security.
We’ve deepened our engagement with the Asia-Pacific—the fastest-growing region in the world… soon to be home to two-thirds of the global middle class—by strengthening our alliances, forging new partnerships, opening new markets.
We’ve reinvigorated the world’s commitment to nuclear security and reduced the catastrophic risk of terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear device.
Since President Obama first convened the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, technologies have been upgraded, capabilities enhanced, treaties ratified and implemented, reactors converted, and nuclear material removed or eliminated.
We led a United Nations effort to remove and destroy Syria’s strategic chemical weapons capacity, an enormous arsenal that has loomed large for decades in the minds of every Israeli defense planner as well as in our own.
We enlisted China in the effort to mitigate climate change and rallied 195 countries in a historic deal to protect the only planet that we have.
Together with Israel, we have led an effort to put health security at the top of the global agenda. As Ebola ravaged parts of West Africa, our two nations together carried forward a proud legacy of humanitarian leadership—with the United States representing the largest single donor in absolute terms and Israel the largest per capita.
We have bolstered the capacity of our world’s overwhelmed humanitarian response system. Last year, at the United Nations General Assembly, the Leaders’ Summit on Peacekeeping, convened by President Obama, resulted in commitments for 50,000 new military personnel and police to help advance peacekeeping missions.
This September, President Obama will hold a similar summit on the global refugee crisis—a mission that evokes for me, like many of us, the flight of our own families and forbearers for survival and sanctuary.
Under President Obama’s leadership, we helped competing Afghan blocs achieve that country’s first peaceful democratic transition in that country’s history, reestablished relations with Cuba, supported the democratic and economic progress of new partners Vietnam and Myanmar, carried our engagement with India to new heights, transformed food, power, and health systems across Africa, and built a community of young leaders on three different continents.
I say all this because I believe, by this record and many more things that I could have mentioned, we are more deeply engaged, in more places, in more ways than ever before—technologically, militarily, diplomatically, economically, culturally, politically.
And that is especially true here in the Middle East, where assertions that we are somehow disengaged, somehow indifferent to the challenges in the region do not withstand the weight of scrutiny.
What this argument is really about is the nature of our engagement—especially for those whose definition of engagement is weighed heavily towards large-scale, open-ended military interventions.
We have a broader definition. One that seeks to use all the sources of American power—the might of our military but also the reach of our economy, the determination of our diplomacy, the universality of our values, and the powerful attraction of American education, science, technology, and innovation. One that builds the capacity of willing partners to fight for the future of their own countries.
We should and we must debate our strategies and consider the full range of all our options—knowing that there can be consequences to inaction.
But we cannot deny the lessons we’ve learned over a decade of sacrifice about the effectiveness and sustainability of indefinite and undefined military interventions that have vast unintended consequences.
And we cannot overlook that the most sustainable solutions are political and economic as well as military—and best generated by the people and governments of this region—with our strong support—not imposed from the outside.
Vice President Biden likes to say that in many places he visits, he hears that the United States is all at once the source of all its problems and the only solution.
The fact is most of the turmoil in the Middle East is not about us. It is not about the United States. Nor can we magically solve its problems.
But it affects us and our interests, and those of our allies. And so we are—we have to be, we will be—engaged.
The erosion of the old order has brought the rise of new constituencies, the empowerment of diverse voices, the demand for economic opportunity and a respect for human rights—all welcome developments in humanity’s long and universal pursuit for greater freedom and dignity.
We have also seen the violent counter-reaction—the vacuum of authority filled by violence and strife in Libya, the death spiral of atrocities and bloodletting in Syria, the emergence of Daesh in ungoverned spaces.
Even in this chaotic and dangerous environment, the United States remains squarely focused on securing our core interests, defending our allies, and empowering those in the region committed to building a better future for their people.
This region, the Middle East, is home to some of our oldest and closest friends and allies, oil supplies that have powered industries and economics for generations, and a wealth of human resources to rival and indeed surpass that of any other region. We would be shortcoming our own future if we do not stand forcefully for yours.
In Iraq and Syria, where Daesh has sought to establish a caliphate, our comprehensive campaign is systematically eliminating its sanctuaries, cutting off its financing, stemming the flow of foreign fighters, liberating communities, and gutting the foundation upon which its global ambitions rest.
We have eliminated tens of thousands of its fighters, and hundreds of senior leaders. Destroyed thousands of pieces of equipment and weapons. Deprived Daesh of 47 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria.
But while airstrikes and ground forces can clear the battlefield, they cannot rebuild it. And they cannot establish a lasting and inclusive political order that prevents the reemergence of the conditions that helped produce Daesh in the first place.
That is one reason why, every day, eight days a week, Secretary of State Kerry is working for a settlement in Syria that will give its people viable choices other than to support Asad for fear of terrorists or terrorists for fear of Asad. And as Secretary Kerry does so, we are continuing to work around the clock to preserve and extend a cessation of hostilities and get food and medicine to all Syrians in need.
In Yemen and Libya, we are intensely focused on helping form new, legitimate governments that can start to put their countries back together—and become over time effective partners in the fight against violent extremism.
In Jordan and Lebanon, we are helping host communities cope with what is truly an overwhelming strain of the refugee crisis that has stretched the limits of their services and their generosity. And I have to say, we have to approach this with extraordinary humility.
In Lebanon, to cite one example, there are somewhere between a third to half the population now comprised of refugees, mostly Syrian. There are now more Syrian children in public school than Lebanese. It is as if we in the United States over the period of five or six years, were taking in sixty or seventy million people. And I think many of you know the debate we are having in our own country about taking in a far, far, far smaller number. So we are trying to help these countries bear the burden, in Turkey as well. At the same time, we continue to invest in their stability and strength, particularly in their institutions of governance.
In Egypt, a critical partner for peace with Israel, a critical force for stability, we are focused on our shared fight for security in the Sinai and beyond—but that fight that cannot be won over time if it marginalizes, and by consequence radicalizes, a large segment of the population.
Whatever our convictions, the challenges before us defy silver bullet solutions.
Of course, this is not news to anyone who lives in Israel. It is not news to the people of this country, whose resilience and courage has overcome the tests of every generation and made the triumph of a democratic Jewish state possible in the Middle East.
Since eleven minutes after midnight 68 years ago, the United States and Israel have shared a bond with few parallels in history.
It is a bond rooted in the family ties and shared memories of communities in both our homelands that have endured the hellfires of persecution and the fragility of hard-fought freedoms.
It is a bond anchored in the sacrosanct commitment upheld by U.S. administrations of all stripes—Democrat, Republican—to protect the state of Israel and the safety of the Jewish people.
And for many of us, it is a bond that is passed down to each new generation—one that I inherited from my own family, including my father’s father, Maurice Blinken, who fled the pogroms in eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century, made a life for his family in America, and went on to commission the study that demonstrated Israel’s economic viability on the eve of its independence.
And it’s one that I inherited from my stepfather, Samuel Pisar, for whom we first said Kaddish nearly eleven months ago.
Having survived four years in Majdanek, Auschwitz, Dachau, my stepfather was just 16 when the war ended. The only survivor of his family. The only survivor of a school of 900 children in Bialystok, Poland.
As the guns of liberation moved towards Auschwitz during the final months of the war, he was sent out of the camp on a death march. With the Americans advancing from the west and the Russians from the east, he made a run for it and found cover, despite the German fire.
A day later, still hiding in the Bavarian forest, he heard a sound—a deep rumbling sound.
He looked out from the woods—and instead of seeing the dreaded swastika, he saw something else, a five-pointed white star. He ran for that star—he ran for that tank. And the hatch opened. He got down on his knees and spoke the only three words in English that he knew and that his mother had taught him. “God Bless America.”
The GI in that tank, an African American sergeant, lifted him from the ground into the tank, into the United States, and into freedom.
Sam honored that moment—that gift—by dedicating his life to the memory of the Holocaust, the advocacy of human rights, the search for co-existence among adversaries, and the preservation of a secure, democratic and Jewish state of Israel.
Those family legacies led me to serve with tremendous pride alongside extraordinary public servants in President Obama’s administration these past seven years—men and women who see our commitment to Israel’s security not just as a charge but as a conviction.
That is why I can stand before you and say with utter certainty that no administration and no President has done as much for the defense and security of Israel as President Obama.
When wildfires engulfed Mount Carmel forest, President Obama pledged immediate assistance—flying in American disaster responders to battle the flames side-by-side with Israeli firefighters.
When a mob attacked Israel’s embassy in Cairo and threated the lives of its staff, the President’s rapid intervention helped mobilize Egyptian special forces and prevent a catastrophe.
And when Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, my friend Ron Dermer, who I think is here tonight, called me urgently in the middle of the Gaza crisis late one night at the White House. It was about 8 o’clock at night, in August, as I recall. He called to ask for an emergency resupply of Iron Dome interceptors, and asked if he could come in that night with a military attaché to see me. Ron came in with the attaché. We went over this urgent need.
The next morning, a Friday, I briefed the President in the Oval Office. He asked a few questions, and he said three words: “Get it done.”
And in a matter of days, legislation for an additional $225 million in short-fuse funding for Iron Dome was drafted, introduced, passed by Congress, and signed into law by the President of the United States.
In the defense, security, and intelligence spheres, our cooperation had never been stronger.
Under the Obama administration, the United States has invested nearly $24 billion in foreign military financing for Israel since 2009—far more than for any other country and more than at any previous time in the history of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
That commitment amounts to $8.5 million every single day—guaranteeing Israel’s qualitative military edge.
Above and beyond this assistance, our unprecedented support has helped develop a multi-tiered rocket and missile defense system, including of course Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow 3, to protect Israel from dangerous threats at any range—and any depth. Today, the IDF and our Department of Defense are developing anti-tunneling technology—appropriately nicknamed the Underground Iron Dome.
And this December, the first F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be delivered to Israel, making this nation the only in the Middle East with the most advanced fighter in the world.
We are also prepared to sign a new ten-year memorandum of understanding that would constitute the largest single pledge of military assistance from the United States to any country in our history—cementing our unparalleled security relationship all the way to 2029.
We made it the highest priority of our administration to ensure also that Iran is not allowed, under any circumstances, to obtain a nuclear weapon, which would pose an unacceptable risk to Israel, a threat to the United States, and a danger to the entire globe.
Now, we have had our differences on this issue, but from the outset, President Obama made clear that achieving a peaceful, diplomatic resolution was preferable—not only because of the costs of war and indeed the unintended consequences of war, but because a negotiated agreement offered a more effective, more verifiable, and more durable resolution of the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program. And he was right.
Today, every single one of Iran’s pathways to a bomb is blocked far into the future—its uranium pathway, its plutonium pathway, its covert pathway—all blocked.
Ninety-eight percent of Iran’s enriched uranium has been shipped out of the country. The majority of its centrifuges have shut down. The core of its heavy water plutonium reactor has been filled with concrete. And the most rigorous verification program in history is fully in place.
Even so, our unrelenting vigilance will not wane. When Iran holds an abhorrent Holocaust cartoon contest or suggests its missiles are designed to be a direct threat to Israel, we call the world to stand against such dangerous, destabilizing, provocative actions.
Iran’s recent ballistic missile launches only underscore the importance of our continued efforts to slow and degrade its missile program.
That is why we continue to disrupt Iran’s procurement activities with our partners and enforce sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile activities.
And we will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to counter Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist groups, from Hezbollah to Hamas.
On the world stage, we fight relentlessly to protect Israel’s legitimacy, ensure it is treated fairly, and create the diplomatic space that Israel needs to respond to an ever-changing threat matrix.
Every year, at the UN in New York and its various governing bodies, the U.S. has taken the lead in either successfully blocking anti-Israel resolutions—16 in the last UNGA session alone—or brokering resolutions on which Israel can agree. We will continue to stand with Israel and against one-sided, biased resolutions even if we are the only country on earth to do so.
At UNESCO, because we are there, we have had a visible impact, but I have to tell you, that impact will be far greater and far better sustained when the United States is allowed to contribute financially to the organization. Doing so will ensure critical programming, including Holocaust education, continues around the world.
And just this past Monday, thanks to effective diplomacy, Ambassador Danon won election to chair the United Nations’ legal committee, the first time ever that an Israeli will head one of the UN’s six principal committees. That is progress.
Our resolve to stand with Israel in its quest for long-term peace and security remains as strong today as it has ever been.
But we also believe this: the status quo is not sustainable.
As we have said many, many times, Israel has not only the right, but the duty to defend its citizens. The horrific attacks that have shaken Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other communities claw away at the very idea of coexistence. With family in Tel Aviv, and some of them are with me tonight, and through them, I have some small understanding of the constant worry you endure and the extraordinary bravery with which you overcome it every day.
We strongly support the continued coordination between Israeli security services and the Palestinian security forces, which have played a key role in preventing a greater deterioration of the current security situation throughout these many months.
President Obama and Secretary Kerry have worked hard to press the parties to curb this violence, and we have called on and will continue to call on the Palestinian leadership to do everything within its power to combat incitement to violence and publically condemn terrorist attacks.
At the same time, we continue to strongly oppose settlement activity, which corrodes the prospects for two states living side-by-side in peace, with real security for Israel and dignity and self-determination for the Palestinians.
This is not just the position of the Obama Administration. It has been the position of every past administration since 1967—Republican and Democratic—because it is not about politics. It is about the preservation of Israel’s future as a secure, prosperous, and democratic homeland for the Jewish people. We should not be the generation that gives up on that dream.
Like so many others around the world, I’ve been inspired by former President Shimon Peres. Few statesmen see around the corner and peer into the future as he can. Even fewer can call forth our better angels in response. “We should use our imagination,” he has said, “more than our memory.”
Now I know that this future seems to many of us, to many of you, more distant than it has ever been. But to deny its possibility denies our obligation, as inheritors of a legacy of moral, physical, and political courage, to face down our own demons of cynicism and live our values in the cause of peace and security.
This past November, we marked the twentieth anniversary of a day seared into my memory and into the memory of so many others—the day of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.
On that day, I was a young speechwriter working in the White House working for President Clinton, and I remember like it was yesterday sitting at my keyboard in shock, desperately trying to help find the words for President Clinton to tell our country what had happened.
Only a few moments before, the President had come down from the residence literally in tears. Sitting there at the keyboard with colleagues behind me, I asked, “How do we end this statement? How can words possibly convey what’s happened and what this means to Israel, to our country, to the world?”
It was the late, remarkable Evelyn Lieberman, who offered the answer. “He needs to say goodbye to his friend. He needs to say shalom, haver.”
The next day, on the flight to Israel for the State Funeral, President Clinton called me into his cabin to work on the eulogy. Some parts were good, he said. But others still needed a little bit of work. There was someone on the plane he wanted to me to sit with to try to perfect a few sentences. “Go talk to him,” President Clinton said. “He’ll know what to say.”
And of course he did, because the man that the President sent me to talk to on the plane was Elie Wiesel.
Together, he helped us honor a leader whose great love of country and people guided him, in the words of President Clinton, to clear the path to peace and continue to light our way.
Two decades have passed, but America’s commitment to help Israel and its neighbors move forward on that path has not diminished.
It is a future my stepfather longed to see.
At the height of the Cold War, Sam, then an aide to President Kennedy, became one of the first to argue for normalizing relations between East and West—recommendations that later inspired the Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente.
Having survived the inferno of the Holocaust as a child, he was not credulous by nature or by experience. But he believed that the conflicts and animosities of the past must not be allowed to dictate our future. That no two groups are fated to be “hereditary enemies.” And that determined, purposeful diplomacy, backed by strength and anchored by principles, could change the course of history for the better.
As I prepared to speak at a memorial service for him just last month, I thought of that terrible moment—hopefully still far into the future—when we will lose our last Holocaust survivor and the grace of the last living memory of six million people.
In that moment, there will be upon us, there will pass to us a responsibility like none we have ever known—to live fully the lessons of those no longer alive to teach us.
May that moment find us prepared to lead with a measure of strength and wisdom commensurate with the eternal resilience and hope of the human spirit.
Thank you so very much.