As Air Force One prepared to touch down in the Holy Land last year, I looked out my window and was once again struck by the fact that Israel’s security can be measured in a matter of minutes and miles. I’ve seen what security means to those who live near the Blue Line, to children in Sderot who just want to grow up without fear, to families who’ve lost their homes and everything they have to Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s rockets.
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And as a father myself, I cannot imagine the pain endured by the parents of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, who were tragically kidnapped and murdered in June. I am also heartbroken by the senseless abduction and murder of Mohammed Hussein Abu Khdeir, whose life was stolen from him and his family. At this dangerous moment, all parties must protect the innocent and act with reasonableness and restraint, not vengeance and retribution.
From Harry Truman through today, the United States has always been Israel’s greatest friend. As I’ve said time and again, neither I nor the United States will ever waver in our commitment to the security of Israel and the Israeli people, and our support for peace will always remain a bedrock foundation of that commitment.
Over the past five years, we’ve expanded our cooperation and today, as Israel’s leaders have affirmed, the security relationship between Israel and the United States is stronger than ever. Our militaries conduct more exercises together.
Our intelligence cooperation is at an all-time high. Together, we’re developing new defense technologies, such as remote IED-sensing equipment and lightweight protective armor that will protect our troops.
Budgets in Washington are tight, but our commitment to Israel’s security remains ironclad. The United States is committed to providing more than $3 billion each year to help finance Israel’s security through 2018. Across the board, our unprecedented security cooperation is making Israel safer, and American investments in Israel’s cutting-edge defense systems like the Arrow interceptor system and Iron Dome are saving lives.
Our commitment to Israel’s security also extends to our engagement throughout the Middle East. Last month, under American leadership, the international community successfully removed the last of Bashar al-Assad’s declared chemical weapons from Syria. Eliminating this stockpile reduces the ability of a brutal dictator to use weapons of mass destruction to threaten not just the Syrian people but Syria’s neighbors, including Israel. And we will continue working with our partners in Europe and the Arab world to support the moderate opposition and to press for a political solution that resolves a conflict that is feeding a humanitarian crisis and regional instability.
We are also working to ensure that Iran does not ever possess a nuclear weapon. Through tough international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, we are attempting to peacefully address a major threat to global and regional security, including the security of Israel. We have been clear that any agreement must provide concrete, verifiable assurances that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful, and we have consulted closely with Israel throughout this process. As we draw near to the deadline for negotiations, we do not yet know if these talks will succeed, but our bottom line has not changed. We are determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and we are keeping every option on the table to accomplish that goal.
The United States has also demonstrated our commitment to Israel’s security through our enduring commitment to a lasting peace in the Middle East. We have always been clear-eyed that resolving the decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians would take enormous effort and require difficult decisions by the parties. So while we were disappointed that the tough decisions weren’t made by both parties to keep moving the peace process forward, the United States will never give up on the hope of a lasting peace, which is the only path to true security for Israel.
As I said last year in Jerusalem, peace is necessary, just, and possible. I believed it then. I believe it now. Peace is necessary because it’s the only way to ensure a secure and democratic future for the Jewish state of Israel. While walls and missile defense systems can help protect against some threats, true safety will only come with a comprehensive negotiated settlement. Reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians would also help turn the tide of international sentiment and sideline violent extremists, further bolstering Israel’s security.
Peace is also, undeniably, just. Just as the Israeli people have the right to live in the historic homeland of the Jewish people, the Palestinian people deserve the right to self-determination. Palestinian children have hopes and dreams for their future and deserve to live with the dignity that can only come with a state of their own. And, in President Abbas, Israel has a counterpart committed to a two-state solution and security cooperation with Israel. The United States has repeatedly made clear that any Palestinian government must uphold these long-standing principles: a commitment to non-violence, adherence to past agreements, and the recognition of Israel. With negotiations on hiatus, these principles are more important than ever. All parties must exercise restraint and work together to maintain stability on the ground.
Finally, peace is possible. This is one of the most important things to remember during setbacks and moments of frustration. It will take political will to make the difficult choices that are necessary and support from the Israeli and Palestinian people and civil society. Both parties must be willing to take risks for peace. But at the end of the day, we know where negotiations must lead—two states for two peoples. Refusing to compromise or cooperate with one another won’t do anything to increase security for either the Israeli or the Palestinian people. The only solution is a democratic, Jewish state living side-by-side in peace and security with a viable, independent Palestinian state. That’s why Secretary Kerry and I remain determined to work with both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to pursue a two-state solution. When the political will exists to recommit to serious negotiations, the United States will be there, ready to do our part.
A few weeks ago, I met with President Peres at the White House as he prepares to end his term. As always, it was an honor to sit and talk with a man who has given so much of his life to building the State of Israel and who has so much hope for his country. Shimon Peres has been a dauntless advocate for Israel’s security, and last month, in his historic meeting with President Abbas and Pope Francis at the Vatican, he put it simply: “Without peace,” he said, “we are not complete.”
For all that Israel has accomplished, for all that Israel will achieve, Israel cannot be complete and it cannot be secure without peace. It is never too late to seed the ground for peace—a true and living peace that exists not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of all Israelis and Palestinians. That is the future the United States remains committed to, as Israel’s first friend, Israel’s oldest friend, and Israel’s strongest friend.
Barack Obama is president of the United States of America.
This article was written for Haaretz's Israel Conference on Peace before June 30, 2014.