J Street 2018 Conference

Delivered Monday, April 16, 2018, 3:00 PM

Thank you all very much. Greetings to all of you visiting from around the country, from Europe, and especially those of you who have come from Israel and Palestine. It is an honor to be here with you today.

I also want to give a special greeting to many of the students here as part of J Street U, coming from chapters all over the country. Thank you for your activism, for your engagement, and for your commitment to building a future of peace and justice for all people.

I want to thank J Street for inviting me to address your conference today, and for the courage you have shown in tackling some enormously contentious issues. Now, more than ever, we need organizations like J Street who are prepared to break with the failed policies of the past which have led us into a world of increased militarism, hatred and never-ending wars. Too often, our foreign policy debate here in Washington is dominated by those whose answer to complicated international situations seems always to involve dropping more bombs, as we saw in Syria just a few days ago.

After 17 years of war in Afghanistan, after 15 years of war in Iraq, after years of growing hostility and armed conflict between Israel and Palestinians, after growing tensions between Sunni and Shia forces throughout the entire region, after the expenditure of trillions of dollars and massive loss of life and displacement, it is clear that we need a new direction in attempting to bring peace, stability and justice to the middle east. J Street has played an important role in that process and I applaud you for what they are doing.

My friends, the issues that we are dealing with are enormously complicated, nobody I know has any simple or magical answers to them and real solutions will require a great deal of hard work. But what I do know is that the United States of America should lead the world with a foreign policy which emphasizes the need to bring nations together, which focuses on diplomacy and international cooperation, rather a foreign policy that emphasizes the continued use of military force.

And let me also say this. As someone who believes absolutely and unequivocally in Israel’s right to exist, and to exist in peace and security; as someone who as a young man lived in Israel for a number of months and as is very proud of his Jewish heritage; as someone who is deeply concerned about the global rise of anti-Semitism and all forms of racism; we must say loudly and clearly that to oppose the reactionary policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu does not make us anti-Israel.

I would like to stress today that one of the places where a new turn toward diplomacy and cooperation is desperately needed — is Gaza.

After being blockaded for over a decade, the situation in Gaza is now a humanitarian disaster. A 2012 UN report predicted that, if current trends continued, Gaza would become unlivable. A follow-up report last year said that that day might have already come. According to the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, “The coastal aquifer, which Gaza relies on as its primary water source, has been polluted by over-pumping and wastewater contamination. As a result, 96.2% of the water pumped from the aquifer and supplied for domestic use in Gaza is unsafe to drink.” According to Oxfam, this water pollution is among the factors causing a dramatic increase in kidney problems among Gaza’s population.

According to the World Bank, nearly 80% of Gaza’s residents receive some form of humanitarian aid. Unemployment is over 40%. Among the youth it is even higher, nearly 60%. Let me repeat that. Youth unemployment in Gaza is nearly 60%. It is hard for me to imagine how peace and stability will come to an area where so many young people have given up hope for a decent future. This is an issue that the United States and the international community cannot continue to ignore.

Earlier this year, Israeli security officials warned that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza increases the chances of incidents at the border fence turning deadly. Israeli security officials also believe conditions in Gaza could worsen to the point of a total collapse of order in the territory, leading to all-out confrontation between and among various factions within Gaza and with Israel.

There is much blame to go around for the horrific conditions in Gaza. Hamas — due to its ongoing repression, corruption and insistence on pursuing a violent struggle against Israel — bears significant responsibility for the deteriorating situation.

Israel is to blame as well. While Israel withdrew its forces from within Gaza in 2005, its continuing control of Gaza’s air, sea, and northern, southern, and eastern borders, and its restrictions on the freedom of movement of people, and legitimate goods and equipment in and out of Gaza, have made the humanitarian situation worse.

Egypt and the Palestinian Authority have also contributed to this problem, as has the United States.

As you all know, over the past weeks, there have been a series of large demonstrations by the Palestinian population in Gaza. Tens of thousands of people have demonstrated near the fence dividing Gaza from Israel to protest against the blockade, against the occupation, and for the right to return to their former homes inside Israel.

Israeli forces were commanded to respond by opening fire on the crowd with a combination of live ammunition and rubber-coated bullets. Over the past two weeks, over 30 Palestinians have been killed, including a journalist who was clearly identified, and well over a thousand demonstrators have been injured.

Though the overwhelming majority of these protesters were non-violent, we know that some of them were not. And when Israeli soldiers are in danger, they have a right to defend themselves. Nobody argues with that. But I don’t think any objective person can disagree that Israel has massively overreacted to these demonstrations.

As a New York Times editorial put it last week, “The right of Palestinians to demonstrate peacefully should not be controversial… Journalists have a right to work, and people have a right to demonstrate peacefully — and to assume that responsible authorities will ensure that they can do so without being shot.” I support the statement last week from several of my colleagues in the House of Representatives calling on Palestinians to protest peacefully and on Israel to fully comply with international law and exercise the utmost restraint in their use of deadly force.

I understand that the Netanyahu government is trying to make this all about Hamas, in order to delegitimize any opposition to the blockade and the occupation. The presence of Hamas members among a crowd of tens of thousands does not justify the level of violence we saw, and frankly it’s amazing to me that anyone would find that point controversial.

I have condemned Hamas’ use of terrorist violence and will continue to do so. But that violence cannot excuse shooting at unarmed protesters, and it cannot excuse trapping almost 2 million people inside Gaza. In my view, the United States must play a much more aggressive and even-handed role in ending the Gaza blockade and helping Palestinians and Israelis build a future that works for all. And if the White House is unable to do that, Congress must take the lead.

Let me also make a point here that is too rarely made. While we rightfully criticize the Netanyahu government for its obstructionism and for its unwillingness to seriously negotiate with the Palestinians, we must also demand that incredibly wealthy regional states and kingdoms in the area play a new and much more positive role in helping to rebuild Gaza and bring stability to the region.

I read a story the other day about the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. He was just in the United States for a visit, and you might have seen one of the 50 different TV and magazine interviews he did. In any case, as I understand it, the Crown Prince recently purchased a $500 million yacht because he thought it looked nice. And I’m sure it did. This is on top of his owning the world’s most expensive mansion — worth some $300 million.

So I say to the Crown Prince and the other multi-billionaire leaders in the region, stop just talking about the poverty and distress in Gaza, do something meaningful about it. I heard the other day that the Saudi king pledged $50 million to UNRWA, the UN agency that works with Palestinian refugees. $50 million is not a small sum of money, but let us not forget that it is ten percent of what the Crown Prince paid for a yacht.

We all understand that the political and security challenges in Gaza are difficult, but support for the basic human rights of the people there, and the observance of international humanitarian law by all parties, must go forward. The basic needs of Gaza’s people must not be held hostage. It’s time for the inhumane blockade of Gaza to end.

But the problem of Gaza is only one part of the broader conflict between Israel and Palestine. And here I am very concerned about the policy of the Trump administration regarding the two-state solution.

I know that this week my friends in Israel will observe your Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron, the remembrance of those who have fallen in defense of the State of Israel.

My friends, I believe that the best way to honor the memories of those who have died in defense of our countries is to strive for a future of peace.

When I look at the Middle East, I see our ally Israel making enormous technological advances, with the capacity to serve as an engine of innovation and prosperity for the entire region, yet unable to achieve this because of its unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. And I see a Palestinian people crushed underneath a military occupation now in its fiftieth year, creating a daily reality of pain, humiliation, and resentment.

Ending that occupation and enabling the Palestinians to have independence and self-determination in a sovereign, economically viable state of their own is in the interest of the United States, Israel, Palestinians and the entire region.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies seem to be preparing for a different future, in which Israel controls the entire territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River in perpetuity, and the Palestinians are at best provided limited “autonomy” within a disconnected series of cantons.

The settlements continue to grow, slowly diminishing the chances for any peaceful resolution. But building more settlements will not bring peace. Demolishing Palestinians’ homes and villages will not bring peace.

Last year, as many of you know, I wrote a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu along with nine of my Senate colleagues, protesting the deeply inhumane policy of demolishing Palestinian villages. And I want to take this opportunity to thank J Street for your support on this issue.

Frankly, I wish Donald Trump was as committed as you are to the cause of peace in the Middle East. But that does not seem to be the case. Even though he claims to want to make “The Ultimate Deal,” that deal is now farther away than it has ever been, and trust in the United States as an honest and even-handed broker is almost non-existent. And one of the main reasons for that is President Trump’s extremely unwise decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Listen, everyone knew that at some point the United States was going to make this recognition. But the idea was that we would do it at the end of a process, in a way that recognized the importance of Jerusalem to all its people — to Jews, Christians, Muslims and to the Palestinian people. Instead, by recognizing only its importance to Israel, President Trump has severely undermined the peace process.

Friends, I am also very concerned that the Trump administration still has not stated its support for the two-state solution as a goal. Because if not that, then what? If Palestinians in the occupied territories are to be denied self-determination in a state of their own, will they receive full citizenship and equal rights in a single state? These are very serious questions with significant implications for the United States’ broader regional partnerships and goals, for our interests and our values.

We should not downplay the political challenges of reaching a solution. They are very difficult, but they are doable. The truth is that the parameters of a solution are well known. They are based in international law. They are based in multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions. And they are supported by an overwhelming international consensus: Two states negotiated based on the 1967 lines, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states.

My friends, before I end I’d like to take a moment to touch upon some new and difficult challenges our societies are now facing, not just in Israel and the United States, but all over the world. As we all know, the last several years have seen very troubling political developments: and that is the rise of intolerant, authoritarian political movements and governments which are attacking the very foundations of democratic societies.

These movements have drawn strength from the fact that a time of increased globalization, climate change, exploding technology, growth in oligarchy, kleptocracy and corruption, massive levels of income and wealth inequality, and millions of immigrants fleeing war torn regions, more and more people have come to see their governments as ineffective and not delivering for them or their children.

And, in the midst of all that, we have leaders like President Trump and many others who are willing to exploit these frustrations for their own political and economic ends. Instead of bringing us together to resolve these difficult global crises, they attempt to try and divide us up — by the color of our skin, by the country we came from, by our gender, or our religion or our sexual orientation.

As history reminds us time and time again, the antidote to hatred, division, and resentment is to bring people together around a shared vision of equality and prosperity — of creating governments that work for all, and not just the few.

Brothers and sisters, we have an enormous amount of work in front of us in so many areas. And no area for this planet is more important in terms of trying to create peaceful resolutions than is the cauldron of the Middle East. So I just want to thank J Street, and I want to thank all of you, for having the courage to get involved in this issue. And while today we look around us with deep concern, I am absolutely convinced that the future will belong to those of us who believe in peace and justice, not those who believe in bigotry and hatred. Thank you all very much.