In my judgment, it was unwise for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a joint session of Congress in early March. It has led to partisanship in Washington and polarization in the Jewish community, and I believe there were more appropriate forums to convey his message. That said, barring any unforeseen circumstances, he is giving the speech. Here is the one I would like to see him deliver:
Honored members of the U.S. Congress, I stand before you today as prime minister of the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people, a people yearning for security and peace in a part of the world wracked by extremism and violence.
I know that my decision to accept the invitation to speak here today has generated much controversy, for which I am genuinely sorry. Please know that it certainly was not my intention to create an atmosphere of partisanship around the U.S.-Israel relationship. Quite to the contrary; our two nations have forged an unshakable bond anchored in shared values and vital strategic interests. This bond, which crosses all political lines both here and in my country, cannot be broken by occasional disagreements that may come up between the leaders of our two countries.
In addition, my appearance here today should not be interpreted as a sign of disrespect for President Obama, who has been a great friend of the State of Israel. We are deeply grateful for the support he and his administration have given us during the last six years, as we also appreciate the wonderful bipartisan support Israel has received from the U.S. Congress. The Iron Dome program, which saved countless Israeli lives in recent conflicts, is just one example of our partnership.
Perhaps it would have been preferable to wait until after our general election to speak to you. But because it is scheduled to take place just one week before the target date for a framework agreement with Iran, I decided this appearance could not be delayed. It is true that my main opponent for the prime minister’s office, Mr. Isaac Herzog, criticized my decision. However, you should not mistake his criticism as a difference of policy. On the threat to Israel posed by Iran, he and I are very much like-minded.
Recognizing that negotiations with Iran are ongoing, nonetheless we are concerned about the direction they are taking. Unlike your expansive country that sits halfway around the world from Iran, Israel is small, roughly the size of New Jersey; it is in the heart of the turbulent Middle East; and it has been explicitly and repeatedly threatened with annihilation by the rulers in Tehran.
Iran’s regime for many years has been the leading state sponsor of global terrorism. Israelis, Americans, Europeans and South Americans all have been the victims of its unbridled violence. It is a regime, which, to this very day, refuses to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and hides important facets of its nuclear and missile programs. In short, it is a regime that cannot be trusted to keep its commitments.
It is not that we are against diplomacy with Iran. If successful, it is far preferable to other options. For us, however, it is not enough simply to deny Iran an actual nuclear weapon. Israel cannot accept — and our children cannot comfortably go to sleep at night knowing — that Iran continues to possess the capability to produce a nuclear weapon in a relatively short period of time. That means Iran should not be permitted to maintain significant uranium enrichment capacity. Make no mistake; this same concern is shared in the region. While they are not as open and candid about this issue as I, many of America’s Arab allies feel exactly the same way.
Again, a final deal has not yet been struck. But from what we understand, negotiators may be on the verge of reaching one that keeps Iran’s ability to threaten us and America’s other allies in place. We beseech President Obama and Congress — in the interest of regional and, indeed, global security — do not let this happen!
I also recognize that Israel’s security as the Jewish and democratic state requires that we reach an historic conflict-ending agreement with the Palestinians. We have no interest in ruling over another people who are entitled to self-determination no less than the Jewish people. Both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered long enough — far too long. President Abbas, going to the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court in an attempt to isolate Israel diplomatically will not lift your people to independence. Now is the time to return to the negotiating table and to stay there as long as it takes until we are successful.
When negotiations resume, President Abbas should be aware that when it comes to fundamental Israeli security, there can be no compromise. With three terrorist organizations operating just outside of our borders — Hezbollah, Hamas, and, now, ISIL, all of them armed with thousands of sophisticated rockets — Israel has no margin for error.
But we can reach a compromise agreement on permanent borders based on the 1967 boundaries with agreed-upon swaps; we can reach a compromise on Palestinian refugees and their descendants that provides for dignity and appropriate compensation; we can also reach a creative compromise on Jerusalem that allows for both our states to have internationally recognized capitals without requiring us to divide the Holy City. Meanwhile, as a demonstration of good faith and the sincerity of my commitment to the vision of two states, I also am declaring a freeze on growth outside of the large settlement blocs during the course of our negotiations. In parallel, we also wish to advance toward normalized relations with the rest of the Arab world based on the constructive Saudi Peace Initiative.
I have also called for Palestinian recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state, not as a precondition to negotiations, but in the context of a final agreement. Let me be clear about this issue. It means that Israel will continue to serve as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people, while remaining fully committed to protecting the equal rights of all its citizens. I regard this matter as fundamental to Israel’s long-term security. Until our Arab neighbors accept that the Jewish people have reclaimed our sovereignty in Israel by right — that we are not an illegitimate colonial presence — true reconciliation in unattainable. Please know that I have not raised this matter to place obstacles on the path to peace, but rather to make sure the treaty we may sign today will not be discarded by future generations.
Since Israel’s founding in 1948, we have found ourselves occasionally in disagreement with our friends here in the United States. But on the big issues of seeking peace, defeating tyranny and terrorism, and promoting democracy and freedom, fundamentally the United States and Israel have stood together. I have no doubt we will continue to do so long into the future.
Martin J. Raffel recently retired as senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). He now consults for the JCPA and for the Israel Policy Forum.