Secretary of State John Kerry gave the keynote speech at the Brookings Institution's 10th anniversary Saban Forum, titled, "Power Shifts: U.S.-Israel Relations in a Dynamic Middle East."
Kerry, whose efforts to revive long-dead Palestinian-Israeli peace talks are off to a halting start, just returned from a trip to Israel to reassure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government that a newly inked deal to curtail Iran's nuclear program doesn't jeopardize Israel.
Netanyahu is furious about the deal; he and his government have issued harsh public criticism of the Obama administration. In his remarks, Kerry defended the Iran nuclear deal and said he was aware of the challenges of restarting the peace process in the aftermath of the Arab Spring upheaval, but argued that diplomacy was the best path on both those issues.
Here are some highlights of Kerry's speech, via the prepared remarks disseminated by the State Department.
On consulting with Israel on Syria:
Diplomacy, for example, is succeeding today in removing the threat of Syria’s chemical weapons. As the civil war raged just north of major population centers in Israel, there was a very real fear that those weapons of mass destruction would fall into the hands of Hizballah or Al Qaida-affiliated terrorists.
We consulted closely with Israel about those contingencies, but, frankly, neither of us had a good solution. As much as some yearned for a military strike on Syria, bombing Syria’s chemical weapons stores would not have effectively removed the threat and would have entailed enormous risks to innocent civilians. At best, we believed we could deter and degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capability through targeted military strikes – and President Obama announced publicly his decision to take that action.But in the end, it was diplomacy that resulted in a peaceful process of accounting for and eliminating these weapons that posed such a threat to Israeli citizens. The process to remove and destroy those weapons is now on track to be completed by the middle of next year, proving that diplomacy can be so powerful, it can defuse the world’s worst weapons.
On reassuring Israel in the Iran deal:
Believe me, the United States fully understands that Israel perceives a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. And while we may sometimes favor different tactical choices, the United States and Israel have always shared the same fundamental goal.
As we move forward in this negotiation, we will continue to consult very closely with Israel, as with our other friends and allies in the region and around the world whose input is critical to us in the process.
This week, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor Yossi Cohen will travel to the United States for direct conversations with our Iran experts that will help coordinate our positions going forward.As we enter negotiations for a final, comprehensive agreement, we do so with our eyes wide open, and, as yet, unconvinced that Iran will make all the hard decisions required to reach such an agreement. These negotiations will not be open-ended. And given what we all know of its history and current activities, we all have a right to be skeptical of Iran. That’s why this is not about trusting Tehran. This is about testing Tehran. This is about living up to verifiable, transparent, Internationally accepted standards. And only diplomacy can do that.
Passing mention of Israel's continued building of illegal settlements:
I understand that there are many who are skeptical of whether American diplomacy can achieve this breakthrough to peace. Steps that destroy trust, like continued settlement activity and incitement, only feed that skepticism.But I believe that if you indeed care about Israel, if you care about its security, if you care about its future, if you care about Palestinians achieving their legitimate aspirations to self-determination, we need to believe that peace is possible. And we all need to act on that belief. On Kerry's vision of a new Middle East order:
Israel could one day enjoy normal, peaceful relations with 22 Arab nations and 35 Muslim nations – 57 countries in all.
It is not beyond our imagination to envision that a new order in the Middle East could emerge, in which countries like Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the GCC states, a newly independent Palestine, and an internationally recognized Jewish State of Israel join together to promote stability and peace.Ben Gurion knew from the start that if his young state were to do more than just survive – if Israel were to succeed – it would need more than just strong defenses: Israel would need strong ties throughout the Middle East.
On Kerry's vision of a new Middle East order:
My friends, as everyone here knows, the world is mourning the loss of a great leader, Nelson Mandela.
Mandela was a stranger to hate. He rejected recrimination in favor of reconciliation and knew the future demands we move beyond the past. Just think of the lessons he taught the world, which have special significance at this moment in history: He said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”All of us who seek peace, and the skeptics who think it can’t be achieved, should bear in mind those words.