Under Obama’s Pressure, Netanyahu Apologizes to Turkey

Two senior administration officials addressed the issue of the phone call held today between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish PM Erdogan.

Netanyahu apologized for the Mavi Mamara flotilla incident and acknowledged “operational mistakes,” said one official. Erdogan accepted the apology, according to this official.

The other SAO called this a “first step” toward normalization of relations between the two countries. They said this had been the subject of talks between Obama and Netanyahu in Jerusalem this week.

The call took place in the trailer at the airport just before Obama took off. The leaders talked for about 30 minutes. At some point, Obama got on the phone.

Obama’s response:

I welcome the call today between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Prime Minister Erdogan. The United States deeply values our close partnerships with both Turkey and Israel, and we attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security. I am hopeful that today’s exchange between the two leaders will enable them to engage in deeper cooperation on this and a range of other challenges and opportunities.

Obama and Netanyahu Hold Joint Press Conference


Obama and Netanyahu tease NBC’s Chuck Todd for asking so many questions on the eve of Passover.

Complete Transcript

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: Mr. President, Barack, it’s a great pleasure for me to host you here in Jerusalem. You’ve graciously hosted me many times in Washington, so I’m very pleased to have this opportunity to reciprocate. I hope that the good will and warmth of the people of Israel has already made you feel at home.

US President Barack Obama: Very much so.

Transcript continues after the jump along with full video.

Netanyahu: We had an opportunity today to begin discussing the wide range of issues that are critical to both our countries, and foremost among these is Iran’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Mr. President, you have made it clear that you are determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. I appreciate your forthright position on this point. I also appreciate that you have noted, that you have acted, to thwart this threat, both through determined diplomacy and strong sanctions that are getting stronger yet.

Notwithstanding our joint efforts and your great success in mobilizing the international community, diplomacy and sanctions so far have not stopped Iran’s nuclear program. And as you know, my view is that in order to stop Iran’s nuclear programs peacefully, diplomacy and sanctions must be augmented by a clear and credible threat of military action.

In this regard, Mr. President, I want to thank you once again for always making clear that Israel must be able to defend itself by itself against any threat. I deeply appreciate those words because they speak to the great transformation that has occurred in the life of the Jewish people with the rebirth of the Jewish state. The Jewish people only two generations ago were once a powerless people, defenseless against those who sought our destruction. Today we have both the right and the capability to defend ourselves. As you said earlier today, the essence of the State of Israel, the essence of the rebirth of the Jewish state, is the fulfillment of the age-old dream of the Jewish people: to be masters of our fate in our own state, and I think that was a wonderful line that I will cherish, because it really gets down to the essence of what this state is about.

That is why I know that you appreciate that Israel can never cede the right to defend ourselves to others, even to the greatest of our friends, and Israel has no better friend than the United States of America.

So I look forward to continue to work with you to address what is an existential threat to Israel, and a great threat to the peace and security of the world.

Mr. President, we discussed today the situation in Syria. We share the goal of seeing a stable and peaceful Syria emerge from the carnage that we have witnessed over the last two years. That carnage has already resulted in the deaths of over 70,000 people and the suffering of millions. We also share a determination to prevent the deadly arsenal of weapons within Syria from falling into the hands of terrorists. And I have no doubt that the best way to do that is to work closely with the United States and other countries in the region to address this challenge; and that is what we intend to do.

Finally, Mr. President, your visit gave us an opportunity to try to find a way to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians. My new government was sworn in two days ago. I know there have been questions regarding what the policy of the new government will be towards peace with the Palestinians. So let me be clear: Israel remains fully committed to peace and to the solution of two states for two peoples. We extend our hands in peace and in friendship to the Palestinian people. I hope that your visit, along with the visit of Secretary of State Kerry will help us turn a page in our relations with the Palestinians. Let us sit down at the negotiating table. Let us put aside all preconditions. Let us work together to achieve the historic compromise that will end our conflict once and for all.

Let me conclude, Mr. President, on a personal note: I know how valuable the time and the energies of the American president, of yourself. This is the tenth time that we have met since you became President and since I became Prime Minister. You’ve chosen Israel as your first venue in your foreign visits in your second term. I want to thank you for the investment you have made in our relationship, and in strengthening the friendship and alliance between our two countries. It is deeply, deeply appreciated.

You have come here on the eve of Passover. I’ve always considered it as our most cherished holiday. It celebrates the Jewish people’s passage from slavery to freedom. Through the ages, it has also inspired people struggling for freedom, including the founding fathers of the United States. So it’s a profound honor to host you, the leader of the free world, at this historic time in our ancient capital.

Mr. President, welcome to Israel, welcome to Jerusalem.

Obama: Well, thank you Prime Minister Netanyahu for your kind words and for your wonderful welcome here today. And I want to express a special thanks to Sara, as well as your two sons, for their warmth and hospitality. It was wonderful to see them. I did inform the Prime Minister that they are very good looking young men who clearly got their looks from their mother.

Netanyahu: Well, I could say the same of your daughters.

Obama: This is true. Our goal is to improve our gene pool by marrying women who are better than we are.

Mr. Prime Minister, I want to begin by congratulating you on the formation of your new government. In the United States, we work hard to find agreement between our two major parties. Here in Israel you have to find consensus among many more. And few legislatures can compete with the intensity of the Knesset. But all of this reflects the thriving nature of Israel’s democracy.

As Bibi mentioned, this is our tenth meeting. We have spent more time together, working together, than I have with any leader. And this speaks to the closeness of our two nations, the interests and the values that we share and the depth and breadth of the ties between our two peoples.

As leaders, our most solemn responsibility is the security of our people. That’s job number one. My job as President of the United States, first and foremost, is to keep the American people safe. Bibi, as Prime Minister, your first task is to keep the people of Israel safe. And Israel’s security needs are truly unique, as I’ve seen myself.

In past trips I’ve visited villages near the Blue Line; I’ve walked through Israeli homes devastated by Hezbollah rockets; I’ve stood in Sderot and met with children who simply want to grow up free from fear; and flying in today, I saw again how Israel’s security can be measured in mere miles and minutes.

As President, I have therefore made it clear America’s commitment to the security of the State of Israel is a solemn obligation, and the security of Israel is non-negotiable. Today our military and intelligence personnel cooperate more closely than ever before; we conduct more joint exercises and training than ever before; we’re providing more security assistance and advanced technology to Israel than ever before. That includes more support for the missile defenses, like Iron Dome, which I saw today and which has saved so many Israeli lives.

In short, and I don’t think this is just my opinion, I think, Bibi you would share this, America’s support for Israel’s security is unprecedented and the alliance between our nations has never been stronger. That’s the sturdy foundation we built on today as we addressed a range of shared challenges.

As part of our long-term commitment to Israel’s security, the Prime Minister and I agreed to begin discussions on extending military assistance to Israel. Our current agreement lasts through 2017, and we’ve directed our teams to start working on extending it for the years beyond.

I’m also pleased to announce that we will take steps to ensure that there is no interruption of funding for Iron Dome. As a result of decisions that I made last year, Israel will receive approximately 200 million dollars this fiscal year, and we will continue to work with Congress on future funding of Iron Dome. These are further reminders that we will help to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge so that Israel can defend itself by itself against any threat.

We also discussed the way forward to a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, and I very much welcomed Bibi’s words before I spoke. I’ll be meeting with President Abbas tomorrow, and I will have more to say on this topic in the speech that I deliver to the Israeli people tomorrow. But for now, let me just reiterate that a central element of a lasting peace must be a strong and secure Jewish state, where Israel’s security concerns are met, alongside a sovereign and independent Palestinian state.

In this regard, I’d note that last year was a milestone: the first year in four decades when not a single Israeli citizen lost their life because of terrorism emanating from the West Bank. It’s a reminder that Israel has a profound interest in a strong and effective Palestinian Authority. And as the Prime Minister’s new government begins its work, we’ll continue to look for steps that both Palestinians and Israelis can take to build trust and confidence upon which lasting peace will depend.

We also reaffirm the importance of ensuring Israel’s security given the changes and uncertainty in the region. As the United States supports the Egyptian people and their historic transition to democracy, we continue to underscore the necessity of Egypt contributing to regional security: preventing Hamas from rearming and upholding its peace treaty with Israel.

With respect to Syria, the United States continues to work with allies and friends and the Syrian opposition to hasten the end of Assad’s rule, to stop the violence against the Syrian people, and begin a transition towards a new government that respects the rights of all its people. Assad has lost his legitimacy to lead by attacking the Syrian people with almost every conventional weapon in his arsenal, including Scud missiles.

We have been clear that the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people would be a serious and tragic mistake. We also share Israel’s grave concern about the transfer of chemical or other weapons systems to terrorists, such as Hezbollah, that might be used against Israel. The Assad regime must understand that they will be held accountable for the use of chemical weapons or their transfer to terrorists.

And finally we continued our close consultation on Iran. We agree that a nuclear armed Iran would be a threat to the region, a threat to the world and potentially an existential threat to Israel. We agree on our goal. We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to a nuclear Iran. Our policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. We prefer to resolve this diplomatically, and there is still time to do so. Iran’s leaders must understand however that they have to meet their international obligations. And meanwhile, the international community will continue to increase the pressure on the Iranian government. The United States will continue to consult closely with Israel on next steps, and I will repeat: all options are on the table; we will do what is necessary from prevent Iran from getting the world’s worst weapons.

Meeting none of these challenges will be easy. It will demand the same courage and resolve as those who have preceded us. On Friday I’ll be honored to visit Mount Herzl and pay tribute to the leaders and soldiers who have laid down their lives for Israel. One of them was Yoni Netanyahu. In one of his letters home, he wrote to his family, “Don’t forget: strength, justice and staunch resolution are on our side and that is a great deal”.

Mr. Prime Minister, like families across Israel, you and your family have served and sacrificed to defend your country and to pass it safe and strong to your children, just as it was passed on to you. Standing here today I can say with confidence that Israel’s security is guaranteed because it has a great deal on its side, including the unwavering support of the United States of America.

Mark Regev: First question, Israel Channel Two, Udi Segal.

Udi Segal: Mr. President, may I ask you about Syria? A practical question and a moral one. Morally, how is it possible that for the last two years, tens of thousands of innocent civilians are being massacred, and no one — the world, the United States and you — are doing anything to stop it, immediately. On a practical level, you have said today and also in the past that the use of chemical weapons would be a crossing of a red line. It seems that this line was crossed yesterday. What specifically do you intend to do about it?

Obama: I’ll answer the question in reverse order, if you don’t mind. I’ll talk about the chemical weapons first, and then the larger question. With respect to chemical weapons, we intend to investigate thoroughly exactly what happened. Obviously in Syria right now, you’ve got a war zone. You have information that’s filtered out, but we have to make sure that we know exactly what happened, what was the nature of the incident, what can we document, what can we prove. So I’ve instructed my teams to work closely with all other countries in the region and international organizations and institutions to find out precisely whether or not this red line was crossed.

I will note, without at this point having all the facts before me, that we know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical weapon attacks; we know that there are those in the Syrian government who expressed a willingness to use chemical weapons if necessary to protect themselves. I am deeply skeptical of any claim that, in fact, it was the opposition that used chemical weapons. Everybody who knows the facts of the chemical weapon stockpiles inside of Syria, as well as the Syrian government’s capabilities, I think would question those claims, but I know that they’re floating out there right now.

The broader point is that once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer, and I won’t make an announcement today about next steps because I think we have to gather the facts. But I do think that, when you start seeing weapons that can cause potential devastation and mass casualties and you let that genie out of the bottle, then you are looking potentially at even more horrific scenes then we’ve already seen in Syria, and the international community has to act on that additional information. But, as is always the case when it comes to issues of war and peace, I think having the facts before you act is very important.

More broadly, as I said in my opening statement, I believe that the Assad regime has lost all credibility and legitimacy, and I think Assad must go and I believe he will go. It is incorrect for you to say that we have done nothing. We have helped to mobilize the isolation of the Assad regime internationally; we have supported and recognized the opposition; we have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support for humanitarian aid; we have worked diligently with other countries in the region to provide additional tools to move towards a political transition within Syria.

If your suggestion is that I have not acted unilaterally militarily inside of Syria, well, the response has been or my response would be that, to the extent possible, I want to make sure that we’re working as an international community to deal with this problem because I think it’s a world problem, not simply a United States problem or an Israel problem or a Turkish problem. It’s a world problem when tens of thousands of people are being slaughtered, including innocent women and children. And so we will continue to work in an international framework to try to bring about the kind of change that’s necessary in Syria. Secretary Kerry has been working nonstop since he came into his current position to try to help mobilize and organize our overall efforts and we will continue to push every lever that we have to try to bring about a resolution inside of Syria that respects the rights and the safety and security of all people, regardless of whatever sectarian lines currently divide Syria.

The last point I’ll make, which is probably obvious, is this is not easy. When you start seeing a civil war that has sectarian elements to it and you’ve got a repressive government that is intent on maintaining power and you have mistrust that has broken out along sectarian lines and you have an opposition that has not had the opportunity or time to organize itself both politically as well as militarily, then you end up seeing some of the devastation that you’ve been seeing. And we’re going to do everything we can to continue to prevent it, and I know that the vast majority of our international partners feel the same way.

White House Press Secretary: From the White House Press Corps, Matt Spetalnick of Reuters.

Matt Spetalnick: Yes, thank you. There was some friendly banter between you two gentlemen on the tarmac today about red lines, and I’m wondering how much of a serious matter that actually became in your talks, and will be in your talks to come tonight?  President Obama has said it will take Iran at least a year to build a bomb. That’s months longer than the Prime Minister believes. Mr. President, are you asking the Prime Minister to be more patient, to hold off for at least a year on any kind of military action against Iran?  Mr. Prime Minister, has President Obama’s words, have they convinced you that he is putting forth the credible military threat that you have repeatedly asked for or does he need to go further?

Obama: Bibi, why don’t you go? Take the first swing at this.

Netanyahu: Well, first of all, there are so many strips of different colors on the tarmac that we did have a joke about that, but obviously this matter is no joke. It relates to our very existence and to something also that the President correctly identified as a grave, strategic threat to the United States and to the peace and security of the world. I’m absolutely convinced that the President is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. I appreciate that. And I also appreciate something that he said, which I mentioned in my opening remarks: that the Jewish people have come back to their own country to be the masters of their own fate. And I appreciate the fact that the President has reaffirmed, more than any other President, Israel’s right and duty to defend itself by itself against any threat.

We just heard those important words now, and I think that sums up our, I would say our common view: Iran is a grave threat to Israel, a grave threat to the world – a nuclear Iran. The United States is committed to deal with it. Israel is committed to deal with it. We have different vulnerabilities, obviously, and different capabilities. We take that into account, but what we do maintain, and the President, I think, is the first to do so, is that Israel has a right to independently defend itself against any threat, including the Iranian threat.

Obama: I think the only thing I would add is that our intelligence cooperation on this issue, the consultation between our militaries, our intelligence, is unprecedented, and there is not a lot of daylight between our countries’ assessments in terms of where Iran is right now. I think that what Bibi alluded to, which is absolutely correct, is each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action, and Israel is differently situated than the United States. And I would not expect that the Prime Minister would make a decision about his country’s security and defer that to any other country, any more than the United States would defer our decisions about what was important for our national security.

I have shared with Bibi, as I’ve said to the entire world, as I’ve said to the Iranian people and Iranian leaders, that I think there is time to resolve this issue diplomatically. The question is: will Iranian leadership seize that opportunity? Will they walk through that door?  And it would be in everybody’s interests, not just Israel’s interests, not just the United States’ interests — it would be in the interests of the Iranian people if this gets resolved diplomatically. Because the truth of the matter is that the most permanent solution to the Iranian situation is ultimately going to be their decision that it is not worth it for them to pursue nuclear weapons. That’ll be the lasting change. If we can get that, that’s good for everybody, including Iran, because it would allow them to break out of the isolation that has hampered their society and their economic development for many years.

But I don’t know whether they’re going to be willing to take that step, and obviously their past behavior indicates that, in a play on words on what Ronald Reagan said: we can’t even trust yet, much less verify. But we do have to test the proposition that this can be resolved diplomatically, and if it can’t, then I’ve repeated to Bibi what I’ve said publicly, and that is that we will leave all options on the table in resolving it.

Mark Regev: From Channel One Israel, Ayala Hasson.

Ayala Hasson: Thank you. Welcome, Mr. President. On your way back to Washington on Friday, what will you consider a successful visit?  Convincing the Israeli leaders that they can rely on you on the Iranian issue, especially that I learned that there are differences between Israel and the United States concerning the enrichment of the uranium? Or convincing both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, to revive the floundering negotiations, reviving the floundering peace process?

Obama: Well, my main goal on this trip has been to have an opportunity to speak directly to the Israeli people at a time when, obviously, what was already a pretty tough neighborhood has gotten tougher, and let them know that they’ve got a friend in the United States, that we have your back, that we consider Israel’s security of extraordinary importance to us, not just because of the bonds between our peoples, but also because of our own national security interests. In that context, what I have also sought to achieve here is further consultations, building on what we’ve already discussed – as Bibi has just formed a new government, as I am entering my second term — that we continue to have close consultation around some of these shared interests that we’ve already discussed, Iran being obviously a prominent shared concern.

I want to make sure that the Israeli people and the Israeli government consistently understand my thinking and how I’m approaching this problem. And I want to understand how the Israeli government and the Prime Minister is approaching these problems — to make sure that there are no misunderstandings there.

With respect to the peace process, as I said, I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow, but I think you are absolutely right that over the last year, year and a half, two years, two and a half years, we haven’t gone forward. We haven’t seen the kind of progress that we would like to see. There are some elements of good news. I mean, the fact of the matter is that even with all that’s been happening in the region, the Palestinian Authority has worked effectively in cooperation with the international community, in part because of some of the training that we the United States provided, to do its part in maintaining security in the West Bank. We have seen some progress when it comes to economic development and opportunity for the Palestinian people. But the truth of the matter is, trying to bring this to some sort of clear settlement, a solution that would allow Israelis to feel as if they’ve broken out of the current isolation that they’re in in this region, that would allow the incredible economic growth that’s taking place inside this country to be a model for trade and commerce and development throughout the region at a time when all these other countries need technology and commerce and jobs for their young people; for Palestinians to feel a sense that they too are masters of their own fate; for Israel to feel that the possibilities of rockets raining down on their families has diminished.

That kind of solution we have not yet seen, and so what I want to do is listen, hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu. Tomorrow I’ll have a chance to hear from Abu Mazen. To get a sense from them, how do they see this process moving forward?  What are the possibilities and what are the constraints, and how can the United States be helpful? And I purposely did not want to come here and make some big announcement that might not match up with what the reality is and possibilities on the ground are. I wanted to spend some time listening before I talked, which my mother always taught me was a good idea. And so hopefully, I’ll consider the success if when I go back on Friday, I’m able to say to myself: I have a better understanding of what the constraints are, what the interests of the various parties are, and how the United States can play a constructive role in bringing about a lasting peace and two states living side by side in peace and security.

Thank you.

White House Press Secretary: Chuck Todd, from NBC.

Chuck Todd: Thank you, Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister. Mr. President, I want to follow up a little bit on the peace process. You began your first term, big fanfare, the Cairo speech to talk to the Muslim world, the decision to have a Middle East Envoy early. You said you weren’t going to let this slip to your second term. We’re in your second term with the Mideast peace process. What went wrong? Why are we further away from a two state solution? I know you said you want to talk more about this tomorrow, by I am curious: what do you believe went wrong? Did you push Israel too hard? What do you wish you would have done differently?

And Mr. Prime Minister, I want to help out my colleague over here, and the follow up that he had which had to do with: do you accept the President’s understanding that Iran is a year away when it comes to nuclear weapons? And then another question I had for you is why do you…?

Obama: Chuck, how many… yeah. Do you guys do this in the Israeli press? You say you get one question, and then you add like five?

Todd: Well, I’m helping him. I’m helping him with his follow up.

Obama: You see how the young lady from Channel One, she had one question. She was very well-behaved, Chuck.

Todd: I’ve got one for you, and…

Netanyahu: These are Talmudic questions. They have reiterations, yeah.

Todd: Apparently. I thought I had four questions. Passover starts in a couple of days; I get four questions, right?

Netanyahu: Look, this is not a kosher question, but don’t hog it.

Todd: I guess my question to you was going to be: why do believe the Israeli people have not embraced President Obama the same way they embraced our last two U.S. presidents? Thank you.

Obama: So you had to get a polling question in there right in the end, huh? Chuck, I mean, you’re just incorrigible.

Well, look, the opening premise to your question was that, having failed to achieve peace in the Middle East in my first term, that I must have screwed up somehow. And I will tell you, I hope I’m a better president now than when I first came into office, but my commitment was not to achieve a peace deal in my first year, or in my second year, or my third year. That would have been nice. What I said was I was not going to wait to start on the issue until my second term because I thought it was too important. And that’s exactly what I did.

I’m absolutely sure that there are a host of things that I could have done that would have been more deft and would have created better optics, but ultimately this is a really hard problem. It’s been lingering for over six decades, and the parties involved have some profound interests that you can’t spin, you can’t smooth over, and it is a hard slog to work through all of these issues.

I will add that both parties also have politics just like we do back home. There are a whole bunch of things that I’d like to do back in the United States that I didn’t get done in my first term. And I’m sure I could have been more deft there as well, but some of it’s just because it’s hard, and people disagree and it takes, I think, a confluence of both good diplomatic work, but also timing, serendipity, things falling into place at the right time, the right players feeling that this is the moment to seize it. And my goal here is just to make sure that the United States is a positive force in trying to create those opportunities as frequently as possible, and to be as clear as possible as to why we think that this is an important priority. Not only because of some Pollyannaish views about, “Can’t we all get along and hold hands and sing Kumbaya“, but because I actually believe that Israel’s security will be enhanced with a resolution to this issue. I believe that Palestinians will prosper and can channel their extraordinary energies and entrepreneurship in more positive ways with a resolution to this issue. The entire region, I think, will be healthier with a resolution to this issue.

So I’m going to keep on making that argument, and I will admit that, frankly, sometimes it would be easier not to make the argument and to avoid the question precisely because it’s hard. That’s not the approach that I’ve tried to take, and there have probably been times where, when I’ve made statements about what I think needs to happen, the way it gets filtered through our press, it may be interpreted in ways that get Israelis nervous, just like there are folks back home who sometimes get nervous about areas where they aren’t sure exactly where I stand on things. That’s why I always like the opportunity to talk directly to you guys. Hopefully, you’ll show the live film as opposed to the edited version.

With that, I think you’ve got four questions to answer, Bibi.

Netanyahu: I think that there’s a misunderstanding about time. If Iran decides to go for a nuclear weapon, that is to actually manufacture the weapon, then it probably will take them about a year. I think that’s correct. They could defer that a long time but still get through the enrichment process. That is, to make a weapon you need two things: you need enriched uranium of a critical amount; and then you need a weapon. You can’t have the weapon without the enriched uranium, but you can have the enriched uranium without the weapon.

Iran, right now, is enriching uranium. It’s pursuing it. It hasn’t yet reached the red line that I had described in my speech at the UN. They’re getting closer though. The question of manufacturing the weapon is a different thing. The President said correctly that we have, on these issues that are a little arcane, they sound a little detailed to you, but on these matters, we share information and we have a common assessment. We have a common assessment.

In any case, Iran gets to an immunity zone when they get through the enrichment process, in our view. Whatever time is left, there’s not a lot of time. And every day that passes, diminishes it. But we do have a common assessment on these schedules, on intelligence. We share that intelligence and we don’t have any argument about it. I think it’s important to state that clearly.

I think that people should get to know President Obama the way I’ve gotten to know him, and I think you’ve just heard something that is very meaningful. It may have escaped you but it hasn’t escaped me, and that is the President announced that, in addition to all the aid that his Administration has provided, including Iron Dome, including defense funding for Israel during very difficult times, he has announced that we are going to begin talks on another ten-year process arrangement to ensure American military assistance to Israel.

I think this is very significant. And I want to express my thanks for everything that you have done and I want to thank you also for that statement you just made. I think it’s very, very important.

So I think Israelis will judge this by the unfolding events and by what is happening, what is actually taking place. And for this, you know, there’s a very simple answer to your question — the gentleman from NBC, right?

For this you need, you see, a second term as President and a third term as Prime Minister. That really fixes things.

Obama: All right. Thank you very much everybody.

Obama Inspects Iron Dome, Holds Meetings with Peres, Netanyahu

Following his landing in Israel, President Obama arrived in a black SUV to inspect Iron Dome and other air-defense systems lined up outside an hangar on the tarmac. They are a mix of rockets and mobile anti-missile batteries.

“I’m a young man. I’m always looking for any chance to walk,” Obama said to Israeli military officials after hopping out of the SUV.

Obama listened as an officer explained the functions of an Iron Dome battery, a squat, desert-grey weapon pointed skyward. He then entered what appeared to be a control room.

Back outside, Obama shook hands with a line of Israeli officials in front of Iron Dome. He paused again in front of the battery, gesturing with his hands, as an officer spoke to him.

Video and remarks after meeting with Peres after the jump.
Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu then walked, in shirt sleeves, to Marine One, for the short flight into Jerusalem.

After freshening up at the King David Hotel, President Obama headed to the residence of the Israeli president. The two Presidents strolled together in the late-afternoon sunlight to gaze at fig and olive trees and then to dedicate a small magnolia tree that is a gift of President Obama. “A magnolia tree, just like what we have outside the White House,” Obama said to reporters. “I want everyone to know, this was on Air Force One.”

Turning over two spades of dirt on the freshly-planted tree, Obama said:

It is an incredible honor to offer this tree to this beautiful garden, and to someone who is champion of the Israeli people and a champion of peace.

“And we’re very good gardeners,” Obama added.

The two men then began a bilateral meeting inside. Secretary of State John Kerry took a seat to Obama’s right. Ambassador Michael Oren to Peres’ left. President Obama and President Peres met for about 55 minutes at the Israeli president’s residence. They emerged to make brief statements, standing at two podiums on a small stage with three U.S. flags and three Israeli flags behind them.

Peres said there is a common vision uniting the two countries: “The greatest danger is a nuclear Iran,” he said. “We trust your policy […] You have made it clear that your intention is not to contain but to prevent.”

Peres spoke of the threat of chemical weapons in Syria, saying that they cannot allow those weapons to fall into terrorist hands. He also said that Obama made clear that “peace is not only a wish but a possibility.”

Obama said he reaffirmed to Peres that in the work ahead, Israel will have no greater friend than the U.S. He praised Peres as someone with astonishing vision and a practical-minded politician. Obama said Mr. Peres’ work had planted the seeds of progress, security and peace.

According to Nadav Tamir, foreign policy adviser to the president:

We spoke about the Iranian threat, Syria, the peace process for the Palestinians, and change in the Middle East. The meeting was good and President Obama was in a listening mood. On the Iranian threat, we were convinced by the commitment and the determination of the Americans to deal with the issues. President Obama reaffirmed that all options remain on the table. On Syria, the chemical arsenal was mentioned but I cannot say more. On the peace process, it is achievable. We have to resume the negotiations as soon as possible and President Obama agreed with that.

After the meeting, the two president carried short remarks:

President Peres: President Obama, it is a great privilege for me and for the people of Israel to host you here in Jerusalem.

It was a real pleasure to sit with a true friend — very knowledgeable, fortunately — and sit candidly and discuss issues openly and freely.

After the meeting we just had, I have all confidence that your vision can transform the Middle East. Your vision is achievable. You arrived here already with an impressive record of answering our needs, particularly — and unforgettably — in the domain of security. I want to thank you personally, dear friend, for the long days and for many long, sleepless nights — you know about them — which you spend caring for our country and for our future.

We live in an age that is both global and domestic, inseparably. Interest may divide people; vision may unite them. There is common vision uniting us to confront the dangers, to bring peace closer as soon as possible. The greatest danger is a nuclear Iran — so you said, so you do. We trust your policy, which calls to, first, by non-military — to fight by non-military means with a clear statement that other options remain on the table. You made it clear that your intention is not to contain but to prevent.

We are trying together to start negotiations with the Palestinians. We already agreed that the goal is a two states for the two people solution. There is no better one, or more achievable one. We consider that the President of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen, is our partner in that effort to stop terror and bring peace.

Hamas remains a terror organization that targets innocent people. On our northern border, Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, continues to stockpile arms and threaten our civilians while they target innocent people across the world. Hezbollah is destroying Lebanon and supporting the brutal massacre of the Syrian people by President Assad. Fortunately, the Syrian nuclear capacity was destroyed. But unfortunately, thousands of chemical weapons remain. We cannot allow those weapons to fall in the terrorists’ hands. It could lead to an epic tragedy.

There is an attempt to bring spring to the Arab world. It is an Arab choice. It is an Arab initiative. It may bring peace to the region, freedom to the people, economic growth to the Arab states. If realized, it can lead to a better tomorrow. We pray it will become a reality.

I really believe the vision is within skeptics and those who believe in peace. Your voice will encourage belief. You came to us with a clear message that no one should let skepticism win the day — a vision that states clearly that peace is not only a wish, but a possibility. I fully support your call. There is no other way to make the future better. There is no better leader to make it possible.

Your visit is a historic step in that direction.  We shall journey with you all the way. Thank you.

President Obama: Thank you so much.

Well, thank you, President Peres, for your very generous words and your warm welcome. It is wonderful to be here once again. I first visited you when I was still a senator and had the opportunity to visit the lovely garden, and for me to be able to bring a tree from the United States that will find a home in that garden I think is symbolic of not only the friendship between our two nations, but between the two of us personally.

Mr. President, you once remarked that a prime minister’s job is to rule, a president’s job is to charm. Well, as with all our visits together, I have once again succumbed to your charms and I’m grateful to your hospitality.

It is wonderful to be back in Jerusalem, the Eternal City. And I’m pleased to begin my visit with a son of Israel who’s devoted his life to keeping Israel strong and sustaining the bonds between our two nations. President Peres knows that this is a work of generations. Just as he joined the struggle for Israeli independence in his early 20s, he’s always looking ahead, connecting with young people. And I’m especially grateful for the time he allowed me to share with those extraordinary Israeli boys and girls.

Their dreams are much the same as children everywhere. In another sense, though, their lives reflect the difficult realities that Israelis face every single day. They want to be safe. They want to be free from rockets that hit their homes or their schools. They want a world where science and technology is created to build and not destroy. They want to live in peace, free from terror and threats that are so often directed at the Israeli people. That’s the future that they deserve. That’s the vision that is shared by both our nations. And that is Shimon Peres’s life work.

And, Mr. President, Michelle and I have such fond memories of your visit to the White House last spring, when I was honored to present you with America’s highest civilian honor — our Medal of Freedom. And that medal was a tribute to your extraordinary life, in which you have held virtually every position in the Israeli government.

So today was another opportunity for me to benefit from the President’s perspective on a whole range of topics — from the historic changes that are taking place across the region to the perils of a nuclear-armed Iran, to the imperatives of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, to the promise of our digital age.

And I should note that one of the advantages of talking to President Peres is not only does he have astonishing vision, but he’s also a pretty practical-minded politician and consistently has good advice in terms of how we can approach many of these problems.

I reaffirmed to President Peres, as I will throughout my visit, that in this work, the State of Israel will have no greater friend than the United States. And the work we do in our time will make it more likely that the children that we saw today alongside children from throughout the region have the opportunity for security and peace and prosperity.

This obligation to future generations I think was well symbolized by the tree planting that we started our meeting with. The Talmud recounts the story of Honi, the miracle worker, who saw a man planting a carob tree. And he asked the man, how long before this tree yields fruit?  To which the man responded, “Seventy years.” And so Honi asked, “Are you sure you’ll be alive in another 70 years to see it?” And the man replied, “When I came into the world, I found carob trees. As my forefathers planted for me, so will I plant for my children.”

President Peres I think understands that story well. And so we want to all thank you for all the seeds you’ve planted — the seeds of progress, the seeds of security, the seeds of peace — all the seeds that have helped not only Israel grow but also the relationship between our two nations grow. And I believe that if we tend to them, if we nurture them, they will yield fruit in every hill and valley of this land, not only for the children we met today but for Israelis, for Palestinians, for Arabs across the region. That’s not only good for the children of this region, but it’s good for my children and the children of America.

I deeply believe that. And I couldn’t ask for a more wise or more thoughtful partner in that process. I’m very grateful for you hospitality, and I look forward to our continued work in the future.

President Obama then traveled to Netanyahu’s Residence for a bilateral meeting that was scheduled to last for 2 hours and 15 minutes.

President Obama presented Netanyahu with a framed wooden artifact from the George Washington Room in the Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI. The synagogue is one of the oldest Jewish houses of worship in the United States that still stands, and its congregation dates back to the 1650s. President George Washington visited the synagogue in August of 1790, and in response to a letter from the congregation’s warden, wrote the famous Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport. The presentation of this special artifact includes a plaque with a passage from the letter, which reads “…every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

President Obama Landed in Israel: “Our Alliance is Eternal”

Full transcript after the jump.
President Peres (as prepared): President Barack Obama, Dear Friend, Welcome to Israel.

We welcome you as a great President of the United States of America. As a remarkable world leader. As a historic friend of Israel. Of the Jewish People. Your visit here is a crown demonstration of the profound relationship between our two nations.

The people of Israel welcome you with open hearts. From the depth of our hearts, From the depths of our history:

“תודה רבה” (Thank you very much)

Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, America. Thank you for what you are. Thank you for what you do.

Thank you for the hopes you carry with you. In a few minutes you will be on your way to Jerusalem. Our ancient capital. The cradle of all believers, of all prayers. You will see the hills and mountains where our prophets preached. Where the soul of the Jewish People was born. Where the State of Israel was created.

America and Israel are somewhat different in size. In size, not in destiny. The American dream stems from the bible. The Israeli spirit is inspired by American exceptionalism. We are separated by an ocean and united by the commitment to freedom, to justice. By the ongoing struggle for peace. We face the same dangers. We share the same hopes.

Mr. President, The United States became great by giving. Not by taking. Your generosity enabled freedom to prevail all over the world. A world without America’s leadership, without her moral voice, would be a darker world. A world without your friendship, would invite aggression against Israel.

Mr. President, Your story reflects the history of the world as it is. Your vision reflects the future as it should be. You have offered the American people and the peoples of the world a leadership of vision, a leadership of values. A leadership dedicated to a brighter tomorrow. In times of peace, in times of war, your support for Israel is unshakeable.

You enabled our security in an extraordinary way, to project strength. To strive for peace. Strengthening security is the best way to strengthen peace. We long to see an end to the conflict with the Palestinians. To see the Palestinians enjoying freedom and prosperity in their own state. We extend our hand in peace to all the countries of the Middle East.

America stood by our side from the very beginning. You supported us as we rebuilt our ancient homeland. As we defended our land. From Holocaust to redemption. From Truman to Obama.

Mr. President, Wherever you go in our land, you will meet the friendship and warmth of the people of Israel. The people of Israel want you to feel at home. Welcome home Mr. President.

Prime Minister Netanyahu: President Obama,

This is an historic moment.

You have chosen to come to Israel as the first foreign visit of your second term. You, the leader of the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, have chosen to come to our somewhat smaller but no less vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East, the one and only Jewish state of Israel.

On behalf of the government and the people of Israel, I come here today with a simple message for you and the American people: Thank you. Thank you for standing by Israel at this time of historic change in the Middle East.

Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself by itself against any threat. Thank you for enhancing Israel’s ability to exercise that right through generous military assistance, revolutionary missile defense programs, and unprecedented security and intelligence cooperation.

Thank you, Mr. President, for upholding the Jewish people’s right to a Jewish state in our historic homeland, and for boldly defending that right at the United Nations. And thank you for strengthening the unbreakable alliance between our two nations during your Presidency.

In an unstable and uncertain Middle East, the need for our alliance is greater than ever. It is the key to thwarting dangers and advancing peace; it’s the key to achieve a stable and secure peace that the people of Israel yearn for all our neighbors and with all our hearts. We seek a peace with our Palestinian neighbors. I look forward to working with you over the next four years to make the alliance between our two countries even stronger.

Mr. President, on this historic visit, you will have an opportunity to see a different side of Israel. You will see past, present, and future in this tiny land which has left such a huge imprint on the course of civilization. You will see the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls, the world’s oldest text of the Bible, written in Hebrew here 2,000 years ago, scrolls that bear witness to the timeless bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

You will meet the young men and women of Israel who make it one of the most creative and dynamic societies on earth. And you will see Israeli technology and innovation which are fundamentally transforming the way we live.

Mr. President, Barack — on a lighter side, I had an opportunity to see your interview on Israeli television the other day. I took note of your desire to go incognito around Israel, so if you have a few free minutes, and you can arrange to slip away from your security — a daunting task — well, we picked out a few cafes and bars in Tel Aviv, and we even prepared a fake mustache for you.

Mr. President,

The people of Israel are honored to have you visit our country. We warmly welcome you as our cherished guest. We deeply appreciate your friendship. And we share your hope that the Middle East will enjoy a future of freedom, prosperity and peace.

Mr. President, Baruch HaBa L’Yisrael: welcome to Israel.

President Obama: Shalom. (Applause.) President Peres, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and most of all, to the people of Israel, thank you for this incredibly warm welcome. This is my third visit to Israel so let me just say tov lihiyot shuv ba’aretz (Good to be in this country again). (Applause.)

I’m so honored to be here as you prepare to celebrate the 65th anniversary of a free and independent State of Israel. Yet I know that in stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people.

More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.

Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages — to be “masters of their own fate” in “their own sovereign state.” And just as we have for these past 65 years, the United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend.

As I begin my second term as President, Israel is the first stop on my first foreign trip. This is no accident. Across this region the winds of change bring both promise and peril. So I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors.

I want to begin right now, by answering a question that is sometimes asked about our relationship — why? Why does the United States stand so strongly, so firmly with the State of Israel? And the answer is simple. We stand together because we share a common story — patriots determined “to be a free people in our land,” pioneers who forged a nation, heroes who sacrificed to preserve our freedom, and immigrants from every corner of the world who renew constantly our diverse societies.

We stand together because we are democracies. For as noisy and messy as it may be, we know that democracy is the greatest form of government ever devised by man.

We stand together because it makes us more prosperous. Our trade and investment create jobs for both our peoples. Our partnerships in science and medicine and health bring us closer to new cures, harness new energy and have helped transform us into high-tech hubs of our global economy.

We stand together because we share a commitment to helping our fellow human beings around the world. When the earth shakes and the floods come, our doctors and rescuers reach out to help. When people are suffering, from Africa to Asia, we partner to fight disease and overcome hunger.

And we stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land. For even as we are clear-eyed about the difficulty, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors.

So as I begin this visit, let me say as clearly as I can — the United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel. It makes us both stronger. It makes us both more prosperous. And it makes the world a better place. (Applause.)

That’s why the United States was the very first nation to recognize the State of Israel 65 years ago. That’s why the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes fly together today. And that is why I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever — lanetzach.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

New Government in Israel: Lapid, Bennett and Livni join Netanyahu

— by Amir Shoam

Update: The Government was sworn on Monday. See photo below.

As speculated after the elections in Israel last January, one-year-old center party Yesh Atid (19 Knesset seats) and rising right-wing party HaBait HaYehudi (12 seats) signed today coalitional agreements with HaLikud (31 seats in a list shared with the Israel Beytenu party), that had also reached an agreement with new center party HaTnuah (6 seats) earlier.

HaLikud leader Benjamin Netanyahu will remain Prime minister — for the third time — and will also be Foreign Minister until the end of Israel Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman’s ongoing court hearing. Yesh atid Leader Yair Lapid will be Finance Minister, while Habait Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett will be “Economy and Trade” Minister. Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni will be Justice Minister and will also be responsibe for the negotiations with the Palestinians.

With 68 of the 120 Knesset seats, it will be one of the only Israeli governments to have not contained religious parties (although Bennett himself is an Orthodox), due to differences with Yesh Atid about recuiting yeshiva students to the IDF. Also due to Yair Lapid’s pressure, it will be one of the smallest governments in Israel’s history, with 20 Ministers, in contrast to the current one, which started out with 30.


Left to right. Sitting: Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres
Standing in front row: Minister of Health Yael German, Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat, Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver, Minister of Communications and Home Front Defense Gilad Erdan, Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, Energy and Water Resources and Regional Cooperation Silvan Shalom, Minister of Economy and Trade and Religious Affairs Naftali Bennett, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Yair Shamir, Minister of Public Security Yitzhak Aharonovich, Minister of Finance Yair Lapid, Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz, Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz, Minister of Welfare and Social Services Meir Cohen, Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni, Minister of Science and Technology Yaakov Peri, Minister of Education Shai Piron
Standing back row: Minister of Tourism Uzi Landau, Minister of Environmental Protection Amir Peretz, Minister of Pensioner Affairs Uri Orbakh, Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon, Minister of Internal Affairs Gideon Sa’ar, and Minister of Housing and Construction Uri Ariel

Obama and Israel: a Medal-Worthy Record

— by Marc R. Stanley — Originally Published on JNS.org

Later this month, President Barack Obama will take his first presidential trip to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Obama’s trip “will give me and the people of Israel the opportunity to express our appreciation for what he has done for Israel.” To show Israel’s gratitude for Obama’s support, Israeli President Shimon Peres announced that he would present Obama with Israel’s Medal of Distinction during a special ceremony in Israel.

Since taking office in 2009, Obama has made supporting Israel one of his highest priorities. From championing sanctions against Iran to providing Israel with expedited supplemental assistance for the Iron Dome, Obama has been Israel’s most important ally. Peres said when he announced the award that Obama “is a true friend of the State of Israel, and has been since the beginning of his public life” and that he has “has stood with Israel in times of crisis.”

More after the jump.
Obama has ensured that Israel’s annual aid of $3 billon remains untouched in this time of tighter budgets, and has allocated more than $11.4 billion in foreign aid over the past four years. That aid has allowed Israel to equip itself with the best and most advanced weapons available and restored the Jewish State’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) — which lapsed during President George W. Bush’s Administration.

Obama’s vocal support for Israel — as well as $275 million in funding for the Iron Dome — was crucial during November’s operation Pillar of Defense. The supplemental funding ensured that the Iron Dome system was able to protect Israeli citizens from Hamas‘ rocket attacks by intercepting 85 percent of the rockets fired towards populated areas. Iron Dome has been lauded by Israeli leaders for saving countless lives and was celebrated during this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference.  

In addition to the Iron Dome system, Obama secured additional funding for the Arrow and David’s Sling missile systems. A total of $650 million has been allotted for these systems — double what the Bush Administration provided for Israeli missile defense. Together these systems will create a multi-layered missile defense shield capable of protecting Israel from short, medium, and long-range missiles.

By taking a number of steps to restore Israel’s QME, Obama has helped strengthen and secure the U.S.-Israel relationship. From signing the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Act, to selling Israel bunker busting bombs, Obama has been deeply committed to expanding America’s strategic partnership with the State of Israel, as well as promoting a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Not only has Obama given military assistance to Israel, he has also taken a strong stance on the international stage in defense of Israel. He is the only American president to have a 100 percent pro-Israel voting record at the United Nations, and his speeches before the UN General Assembly have been explicitly devoted to advancing joint U.S. and Israeli interests. When it comes to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, he has been the global leader. The bills and executive orders he signed, coupled with the international sanctions movement he has spearheaded, have caused a 50 percent decline in Iran’s currency and a 40 percent decline in Iran’s oil exports and sales.

For these reasons, Israeli Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said, “History will surely record [Obama’s] immeasurable contribution to the strength of Israel, and the maintenance of the truly special relationship between our peoples.”

It has been abundantly clear throughout the Obama Administration that our president is a true friend to Israel. As Israel’s prime minister and president prepare to welcome, commend, and celebrate Obama, the American Jewish community should be echoing their sentiments and thanking the president for all of his work to support the Jewish state.

Marc R. Stanley is the chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Netanyahu Holds Preparatory Meeting for President Obama’s Visit‏


Israeli President’s Residence

The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office held a preparatory meeting ahead of US President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel. In addition to personnel from the PMO, representatives from the Israeli President’s Residence, the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the Israel Police, the Jerusalem Municipality, Ben-Gurion International Airport and other agencies also attended the meeting. National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror said:

It is very important that the visit be marked by three points: One, that it go smoothly from start to finish. It is important for us that the Prime Minister and the President have fruitful and productive talks — this is the basis for the continuation of work over the next four years. It is important to us that the President and all those who watch the visit see the beautiful Land of Israel as much as possible given the short schedule. Cooperation between all elements — among all the Israelis, and between us and the Americans — is also vital for the success of the visit.

Visit schedule and more after the jump.
The general outline of the visit was presented:

Wednesday, 20 March 2013:

  • Welcoming ceremony at BGI Airport
  • Presentation of Iron Dome (may be moved to the end of the visit)
  • Welcoming ceremony and meeting at the President’s Residence
  • Meeting, press conference and dinner with the Prime Minister

Thursday, 21 March 2013

  • Visit the Shrine of the Book (home of the Dead Sea Scrolls) at the Israel Museum
  • Visit exhibition of innovative technology at the Israel Museum
  • Visit the Palestinian Authority

    Herzl’s grave

  • State dinner with the President

Friday, 22 March 2013

  • Wreath-laying ceremony at Herzl’s grave
  • Wreath-laying ceremony at Rabin’s grave
  • Visit Yad Vashem

Gil Sheffer, the head of the Prime Minister’s bureau, said:

Arrangements by the Israel Police, the ISA, the Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office, the President’s Residence and staff at the official sites that the US President will visit are all in their final stages. We will go to the sites that the President will visit. In this context, we have already completed preparations ahead of the exhibit that will be held at the Israel Museum at which technological developments will be presented in the fields of — inter alia — renewable energy, search and rescue technology, and robotics. The exhibit will present Israel as a technological leader. National Economic Council Chairman Prof. Eugene Kandel chaired the committee that selected the items in the exhibit.

Edna Halabani, head of the Prime Minister’s Office department for international visits and liaison, said:

There is excellent cooperation with the Americans and with the various agencies: The Foreign Ministry, the President’s Residence, the ISA, the Israel Police, the Jerusalem Municipality and the various branches of the Prime Minister’s Office, including the Deputy Director General and the National Information Directorate. The cooperation is very good.

Head of the National Information Directorate, Liran Dan, said:

We are prepared for the arrival of hundreds of journalists ahead of US President Obama’s visit. Our goal is to give these hundreds of journalists the best service possible. We will set up media centers to provide information to journalists 24 hours a day. Emphasis will be given to providing information via social networks; to this end, we have launched a PMO application for smartphones. Our goal for the visit is to emphasize two things: One is the deep and abiding connection between Israel and the US. The second is that we want to utilize the international attention that will be on the State of Israel for the 48 hours of President Obama’s visit in order to stress Israel’s status as a technological leader.


Model of Ancient Jerusalem at the Israel Museum

Special AIPAC Conference Report

Highlight video

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu

— by Steve Sheffey

The 2013 AIPAC Policy Conference was a huge success, with over 13,000 delegates, 339 members of the Senate and House, and lobbying appointments with every member of the Senate and House.

Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the Conference by live video, expressing his appreciation for President Obama’s work and emphasizing three priorities: Iran, Syria, and peace with the Palestinians.

Vice President Joe Biden was amazing. His outline of the Obama administration’s Middle East foreign policy was frequently interrupted by applause and standing ovations.  

We lobbied for the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, the United States Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013, Senate Resolution 65, which reiterates our commitment to stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, and security assistance for Israel.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is off to a strong start. His first meeting as Secretary of Defense with a foreign counterpart was with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Barak wished Hagel well in his Policy Conference speech. When Hagel met with Barak on Tuesday, Hagel reiterated his commitment to Israel’s security and to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Hagel also noted his outstanding working relationship dating back to Minister Barak’s days as prime minister.

Barak said at the Policy Conference that a two-state solution with the Palestinians is the only long-term solution to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.

Much more after the jump.
Over 13,000 people attended the AIPAC Policy Conference last week in a powerful display of bipartisan support for a strong US-Israel relationship. Some of us left on Monday to avoid being stranded by the snowstorm in Chicago on Tuesday. Over 1700 flights were canceled at O’Hare on Tuesday, mainly based on fear of what the storm might be rather than what the storm turned out to be. The flight I would have been on was not canceled. I could have stayed. Good job National Weather Service!

Please read my article on AIPAC and J Street if you need a refresher on what AIPAC is and isn’t. I’m not going to repeat it here.

This year marked the first time in AIPAC Policy Conference history that AIPAC members scheduled meetings with every lawmaker in Congress for the Tuesday lobbying meetings.  Nearly half of Congress has turned over in the past four years, so pro-Israel activism more important than ever.

The Policy Conference itself was attended by 65 Senators, 274 members of the House, 33 representatives of the Obama administration, 77 Israeli officials, representatives from more than 65 countries, and over 13,000 delegates, including more than 700 from the Chicago area.

Chemi Shalev wrote that

Regardless of one’s political convictions – whether you believe Israel is warmonger or peace seeker, aggressor or defender, victim or victimizer, hero or villain, sinner or saint – the Annual AIPAC Policy Conference is a sight to be seen, a pageant to behold, a formidable spectacle that cannot be ignored.

It’s hard to decide which is more impressive: the sheer scale of the event, the many thousands of participants, the professional management, the impeccable execution, the creative pyrotechnics, the mind-boggling percentage of American lawmakers and officials who grace the event with their presence or their unequivocal, across the board, no ifs or buts support for the Israeli government and its policies.

You can save $200 off the registration fee for the March 2-4, 2014 Policy Conference by clicking here and signing up before March 18.

Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the Conference by live video from Israel. Bibi explained that while putting together a coalition government is consuming his time now,

The first thing that my new government will have the privilege of doing is to warmly welcome President Obama to Israel. I look forward to the President’s visit. It will give me an opportunity, along with the people of Israel, to express our appreciation for what he has done for Israel.

Netanyahu said his discussions with President Obama would focus on Iran, Syria, and the need to find a responsible way to advance the peace with the Palestinians.

Vice President Joe Biden rocked the house. His speech was amazing and was frequently interrupted by standing ovations. I’ll give you just a taste, but if you have time, you should read it or watch it. It’s worth watching rather than reading because Biden’s delivery is so effective. Said Biden:

The Arab Spring, at once full of both hope and uncertainty, has required Israel and the United States to reassess old and settled relationships. Iran — Iran’s dangerous nuclear weapons program and its continued support of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas not only endanger Israel but endanger the world. Attempts — (applause) — attempts of much of the world to isolate and delegitimize the state of Israel are increasingly common and taken as the norm in other parts of the world.

All these — all these pressures are similar but different. And they’ve put enormous pressure on the state of Israel. We understand that. And we especially understand that if we make a mistake, it’s not a threat to our existence, but if Israel makes a mistake, it could be a threat to its very existence. (Applause.)

And that’s why — that’s why from the moment the president took office, he has acted swiftly and decisively to make clear to the whole world and to Israel that even as circumstances have changed, one thing has not: our deep commitment to the security of the state of Israel. That has not changed. (Cheers, applause.) That will not change as long as I and he are president and vice president of the United States.

It’s in our naked self-interest, beyond the moral imperative. All of you — I thank you for continuing to remind the nation and the world of that commitment.

Lobbying is a key component of the AIPAC Policy Conference. This year, we lobbied for The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, The United States Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013, S. Res. 65, and security assistance for Israel. You can read the AIPAC summaries here.

The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013 (HR 850) states that United States policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons capability would embolden its already aggressive foreign policy, increase the risk that Iran would share its nuclear technology and expertise with extremist groups and rogue nations, destabilize global energy markets, and likely lead other governments in the region to pursue their own nuclear weapons programs.

HR 850 requires the Secretary of State to determine whether Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps meets the criteria for designation as a foreign terrorist organization. The bill also imposes additional sanctions on Iran. Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) is an original co-sponsor.

The United States Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 (HR 938) designates Israel as a major strategic partner of the United States. It also provides for increased assistance and cooperation with Israel, including the enhancement of the David’s Sling Weapon System, the enhancement of the joint United States-Israel Arrow Weapon System (Arrow 2 and Arrow 3), and the procurement and enhancement of the Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system.

Senate Resolution 65 contains an excellent history of Iran’s actions and statements on nuclear weapons and recognizes “the close military, intelligence, and security cooperation that President Obama has pursued with Israel.”  The bipartisan Resolution leaves no doubt about our nation’s commitment to stopping Iran, reminding the world that

  • In his State of the Union Address on February 12, 2013, President Obama reiterated, “The leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations. And we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.”
    On March 4, 2012, President Obama stated, ‘Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
  • On October 22, 2012, President Obama said of Iran, “The clock is ticking . . . And we’re going to make sure that if they do not meet the demands of the international community, then we are going to take all options necessary to make sure they don’t have a nuclear weapon.”
  • On May 19, 2011, President Obama stated, “Every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”
  • On September 21, 2011, President Obama stated, “America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring.”
  • On March 4, 2012, President Obama stated, “And whenever an effort is made to delegitimize the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them. So there should not be a shred of doubt by now: when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.”
  • On October 22, 2012, President Obama stated, “Israel is a true friend. And if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel. I’ve made that clear throughout my presidency . . . I will stand with Israel if they are attacked.”

Anyone who doubts President Obama’s commitment to Israel and to stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons hasn’t been paying attention.

The Resolution, which does not have the force of law, “urges that, if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence” but also states that “Nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war.”

We also lobbied for security assistance for Israel. Click here to read more.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is off to a strong start. I’m sure that Chuck Hagel came up at some of the break-out sessions, but the only mention I noticed of Hagel at the plenaries was when Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history, congratulated Hagel and wished him well. It was obviously an applause line, but some AIPAC delegates didn’t get it and the applause was tepid.

This is what Ehud Barak, who has known Hagel for ten years, said: “[Secretary Hagel] will, no doubt, serve his country with the same pride and honor with which he served, both on the battlefield and in Congress.”

Many of us had concerns about Hagel. But the nomination fight is over. Hagel is our Secretary of Defense. Regardless of whether we were for him or against him, we should all wish him well and judge him on how he does going forward. So when Israel’s Defense Minister (who might even be more pro-Israel than we are) applauds our Secretary of Defense, those of us who place a strong US-Israel relationship above partisan politics should join in that applause.

Thus far, Hagel is proving his critics wrong. His first meeting as Secretary of Defense with a foreign counterpart was with Ehud Barak on Tuesday. Here is the full Department of Defense statement on the meeting. Judge for yourself the state of US-Israel relations in the Hagel era:

Secretary Hagel hosted Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak today at the Pentagon for his first meeting with a foreign counterpart since taking office as secretary of defense.  Secretary Hagel expressed his strong commitment to Israel’s security, including maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge and continued U.S. support for missile and rocket defense systems in spite of fiscal constraints.

Secretary Hagel and Minister Barak agreed that the United States-Israeli defense relationship has never been stronger than during the Obama administration and that both nations will continue this unprecedented close cooperation.

The leaders discussed the range of security interests shared by the U.S. and Israel, including the need for the Syrian regime to maintain control over chemical and biological weapons in their country; the leaders pledged to continue U.S.-Israel contingency planning to counter that potential threat.

Regarding Iran, Secretary Hagel reiterated that President Obama is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon with all options on the table.  He stated that the United States continues to believe there is still time to address this issue through diplomacy, but that window is closing.

Secretary Hagel noted the two have had an outstanding working relationship dating back to Minister Barak’s days as prime minister and he thanked Minister Barak for his kind words at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference.  Secretary Hagel expressed his desire to visit Israel soon and Minister Barak stated that Israel looks forward to hosting him in the near future.

Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at the Policy Conference that a two-state solution with the Palestinians is the only long-term solution to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. Barak said that a two-state solution is essential for Israel, not a favor for the Palestinians. In one of the break-out sessions, David Makovsky said that both sides want a two-state solution, but each doubts the other’s sincerity.  Makovsky thinks that synchronized political messaging can help build trust on both sides. He thinks it’s important for Israel to set clear limits on settlement expansion.

Jeff Goldberg sums up in three paragraphs the essence of the occupation and what it means for Israel:

Remember, the occupation itself was originally justifiable: Jordanian forces fired on Israel from the West Bank, and Israel subsequently took the territory from which it was being assaulted. It was when some Israelis succumbed to messianic temptation and moved to the West Bank, with the help of successive Israeli governments, that the true problem began.

Israel faces only two choices here: It can offer citizenship to the Palestinians whose lives are affected by its decisions, or it can negotiate an end to settlement, especially the far-flung settlements that project deeply into the West Bank, and then work toward the creation of a Palestinian state. Will Jews be allowed to live and pray in that Palestinian state? I certainly hope so; it would be a crime to deny Jews access to their holy sites. Hebron is Judaism’s 2nd-holiest city, Jews lived there for millenia until they were massacred by some of their Arab neighbors (other Arabs played a role in the rescue of the remnant of the Jewish community) and Jews quite obviously have a right to live in all parts of their historic homeland.

That said, the Jewish state cannot maintain a double-standard in these areas, because it is also a crime to deny people full enfranchisement based on their ethnicity. Most Israelis want to maintain their country as a Jewish state, and as a Jewish haven. Jews, because they are an ancient people, and because they have suffered at the hands of Christians and Muslims for centuries, have earned the right to independence. Having finally earned the privilege of Jewish autonomy, Israelis do not want to become citizens of the world’s 23rd Arab-majority state. But eventually, if the Palestinians of the West Bank aren’t freed from Israeli domination, that is what they will become.

Have you seen this amazing speech by Ruth Calderon? At a break-out session on Israel’s recent election, Dr. Jonathan Rynhold recommended that we watch this video of new Knesset member Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid). A secular woman gives a Talmud lesson on pluralism and religious freedom in the Knesset during which the Speaker of the Knesset (from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party) not only participates, but says “amen” at the end. Truly remarkable.

As for the Israeli elections, the panel (which also included David Horovitz from the Times of Israel) agreed that Netanyahu would likely form a coalition government prior to President Obama’s scheduled visit. Rynhold said that the difference between Israeli and American democracy is that the American system was designed by geniuses to be run by idiots, whereas the Israeli system was designed by idiots and can only be understood by geniuses.

Both panelists agreed that the peace process was not much of an issue in the election–not because Israelis don’t think it’s important, but because there is a national consensus in favor of a two-state solution and a national despair of reaching a two-state solution with current Palestinian leadership.

And finally, a personal story. For some reason, there was no Republican Jewish Coalition presence at the Policy Conference, but there was a strong National Jewish Democratic Coalition presence. On Sunday morning, the NJDC’s Aaron Keyak and David Streeter gave me a Proud Pro-Israel Dem button to wear and a few dozen more to give to anyone who wanted one.

Later that afternoon, as I was walking down a crowded stairway, I tripped and fell down the stairs. My bag dropped and the buttons flew all over the stairs. Chevy Chase would have been proud of the way I took the fall, although if Aaron Stein hadn’t grabbed my arm I might have broken my neck. Within seconds, two security guards rushed to my side and everyone was looking at me. After reassuring the guards that I was okay, while still sitting on the stairs, I somehow had the presence of mind to loudly say “Now that I’ve got your attention, who wants a button?” Many people took buttons. It was pretty cool.  

President Obama Returns to Israel


Barack Obama and Joe Biden welcome Shimon Peres in the Oval Office.

— by Steve Sheffey

President Obama will visit Israel in March, fulfilling a campaign promise and making him only the fifth sitting president to ever visit Israel. He previously visited in 2006 and 2008. Only Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton visited Israel during their first terms; Richard Nixon and George W. Bush visited Israel in the last year of their second terms.

The goal of the President’s trip is to reaffirm the strong friendship between the United States and Israel and to work with Israel on two key issues: Iran and Syria.

When it comes to the US-Israel relationship, we must stand together, regardless of partisan differences on other issues.

More after the jump.
President Obama returns to Israel in March. He visited Israel in 2006 and 2008. This will be his first visit as President. Former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl told reporters in June 2012 that “we can expect [Obama] to visit Israel in a second term should he be elected.” And so he is.

Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren said “We’re delighted that he’s coming. President Obama was always welcome in Israel. He’ll be received enthusiastically by the government of Israel, by the prime minister of Israel, by the people of Israel.”

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said “The visit will be a good opportunity to reaffirm the strong and enduring bonds of friendship between Israel and the US.” Shapiro emphasized that the most pressing issues facing the two countries are the Iranian nuclear program and the potential transfer of chemical weapons in Syria. Read more in the Jerusalem Post.

Only two presidents visited Israel in their first term: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Richard Nixon and George W. Bush visited Israel in the last year of the their second terms. Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush never visited Israel as president.

During his first term, in 2003, George W. Bush did manage to participate in a summit at the Port of Aqaba in Jordan, just nine miles from Israel (closer to Israel than Cairo). But Bush didn’t visit Israel. Instead, Bush said that “we have a problem with Sharon” and was visibly irritated with the then-Prime Minister. Remember how the Democrats exploited this for political gain in the 2004 election? Me neither.


Only Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton visited Israel during their first term

During the 2012 campaign, President Obama was criticized by some people for not having visited Israel during his first term, as if US presidents routinely visited Israel. We were told how important it was for the President to visit Israel and what a shame it was that he hadn’t.

At the time, I said that I wished President Obama had visited Israel. Of course it’s good if the president visits Israel. It’s good if any politician visits Israel. The more times the better as far as I’m concerned. But the reality is that presidential visits to Israel are unusual. We in the pro-Israel community judge office holders on their policy positions, not their travel itineraries.

If the criticism from our Republican friends during the campaign was sincere, one would expect them to be praising President Obama for fulfilling a campaign promise and visiting Israel. Our Republican friends claimed last June that the reasons President Obama didn’t visit Israel were his personal distaste for Israel, his fear of being booed and rejected by Israelis, his desire to distance himself from Israel, and a desire to avoid drawing attention to the failed peace process.

And what do they say now? They say going to Israel is a mistake on President Obama’s part. Not the right time. I’m not making this up. If President Obama had visited Israel last year, do you think they would have praised President Obama for going or decried it as an election stunt? The President can’t win with this crew. If President Obama split the Sea of Reeds and walked through it dry-shod, they’d say he couldn’t swim.

It’s okay to disagree about policy. It’s okay to change your mind. But when you’ve excoriated President Obama for four years for not visiting Israel, and then he does exactly what you’ve said was so important, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that the President is doing something we should all be proud of and thankful for. The President of the United States is visiting the State of Israel. That’s good. And there is never a bad time to visit Israel.


Obama meets with Jewish organizations leaders, 2011

The reality is that prior to his re-election, President Obama eliminated Osama bin-Laden, did more than any other president to stop Iran’s illicit nuclear program, restored Israel’s qualitative military edge after years of erosion under the Bush administration, secretly sold Israel the bunker-busting bombs it requested but did not receive during the Bush administration, increased security assistance to Israel to record levels, boycotted Durban II and Durban III, took US-Israel military and intelligence cooperation to unprecedented levels, cast his only veto in the UN against a one-sided anti-Israel Security Council resolution, opposed the Goldstone Report, stood with Israel against the Gaza flotilla, and organized a successful diplomatic crusade against the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state in the UN Security Council.

After his re-election, freed from the need for Jewish votes, what did President Obama do? He spoke out against the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state at the UN, stated yet again that “we’re not going to let Iran get a nuclear weapon,” and forcefully condemned Hamas and unequivocally supported Israel’s right to defend itself in Gaza. And now he’s going to Israel.

When it comes to the US-Israel relationship, we must stand together. This is essential reading from Aaron Keyak. We can’t afford to let Israel become a partisan issue. There are major policy differences between Democrats and Republicans, but Israel is not one of them.

Please send Aaron’s op-ed to anyone who loves Israel and the values we cherish — even (or perhaps especially) disillusioned Republican moderates looking for a political home. Better yet, share this entire article by using the symbols at the top or the bottom to post it on Facebook or Twitter.  
 

Kerry Speaks with Netanyahu, Plans to Visit Israel Soon

— by David Streeter

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend. According to The Jerusalem Post:

New US Secretary of State John Kerry phoned both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday to discuss the diplomatic process, in an early sign he intends to make this a top priority on his agenda.

In both conversations he commended Netanyahu’s decision last week to release some NIS 400 million in tax revenues to the PA and praised it as a positive step.

The calls followed Kerry’s phone conversation Saturday with President Shimon Peres, who said the election results in Israel provided new opportunities in the diplomatic process […]

More after the jump.

A US State Department communiqué said that Netanyahu updated Kerry on his efforts to put together a new government.

The statement also said Kerry ‘underscored his personal commitment and that of President [Barack] Obama to support Israel’s security and to pursue a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.’

Kerry and Netanyahu also spoke about Iran and Syria, and — according to the statement — pledged to work closely together during Kerry’s tenure.

It was reported that Kerry is planning to visit Israel in the coming weeks. JTA also noted that other high level meetings between Obama Administration and Israeli officials will take place this month:

Also over the weekend, two top State Department officials dealing with Iran’s alleged nuclear threat said they would be stopping in Israel during overseas visits and Israel’s military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, was visiting Washington […].

The State Department in a statement laid out the agenda for the two State Department officials-Rose Gottemoeller, the acting undersecretary for arms control, and Thomas Countryman, the assistant secretary for nonproliferation.

Countryman will ‘meet with Israeli counterparts to discuss nonproliferation and international security issues of mutual concern,’ and Gottemoeller will ‘consult with senior civilian and military officials on pressing regional security issues and expanding our enduring strategic partnership’ and deliver remarks at a conference on nuclear nonproliferation, the statement said […].

The Israel Defense Forces in announcing the five-day visit by Gantz said it was ‘official […] as the guest of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey.’

In its statement, the IDF said the two generals would ‘discuss current security challenges, the regional security status in the Middle East and military cooperation.’