Samantha Power

The Meaning of U.S. Partnership to Israel at the UN and in Middle East Peace - Dec. 13, 2015

Samantha Power
December 13, 2015— New York, New York
HaaretzQ Conference
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Thank you for that wonderful introduction. You don’t get that at the UN every day for some reason. [Laughter]

Thank you, Charlotte. Let me begin by recognizing the leadership of Haaretz and the New Israel Fund for co-hosting this conference, as well as the range of Israeli officials and Knesset members in the audience this afternoon. There are many officials – I also want to recognize PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat. It’s an honor to share the stage this afternoon with Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List. And I’m happy also to have the chance just now to catch up a little bit with Tzipi Livni, who has been so relentless in the pursuit of peace. Lastly, to all those celebrating, I’d like to extend wishes for a happy Hanukkah.

As you all know, a key theme of this conference is democracy. One of the many beliefs that the United States and Israel share is that a free and vibrant press is essential to a healthy democracy – both through informing citizens and holding accountable the governments they elect. As Thomas Jefferson once famously wrote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

It will come as no surprise to you all that I am an avid believer in the value of a robust press. I’m biased, of course; I began my career as a journalist, covering the wars in the Balkans. But if anything, my appreciation of the press’ critical importance has only increased since I started working in government seven years ago. Despite what can at times feel, honestly, like a pummeling, our policies are improved every single day by hearing from the press which can tell us what is happening outside of what can often feel like a bubble.

Haaretz has long understood strengthening Israel’s democracy as part of its mission. Publisher Amos Schocken said that it was the aim of his father Gershom – who edited Haaretz for more than fifty years, from 1939 to 1990 – “to create a newspaper that would provide its readers with whatever information an active member of a modern democracy needs.” For Haaretz – a key element of delivering that information has been trying to capture for its readers the perspectives of people in Israel from communities different than their own – communities they otherwise have very little contact with – if any at all. It has meant, for example, embedding reporters in Palestinian communities as well as in Israeli communities, so as to be able to reflect the hardships, fears, and hopes of people living on all sides. And let me take a moment to recognize the leadership that Amos has demonstrated – together with Aluf Benn – in insisting that Haaretz hold fast to this approach and larger vision. The New Israel Fund – the other co-sponsor of this conference – has made it a core mission to build similar relationships and values in Israel’s civil society, with the aim of promoting the rights and dignity of all of the nation’s people. At its best, journalism and activism of this kind makes it easier for us to imagine ourselves in the shoes of another; smart diplomacy is not so different.

As everyone knows, some have been asking whether the closeness between the two democracies of Israel and the United States is somehow at risk, or if the United States will stay the steadfast partner to Israel it has been since the nation came into existence. The answer is simple: Yes, we will stay that partner. And today, I want to challenge the premise of the question by speaking to two ways in particular that the United States continues to be an unparalleled partner to Israel.

I think it is reasonable to assume that this audience is well informed on the security relationship between the United States and Israel, and that the vast majority of you have heard speeches on this topic by other members of the Administration of President Obama – in whose Cabinet I have the privilege of serving. It is critically important, this security relationship, it remains unrivaled, and has never been greater. You are familiar with the empirical evidence that backs up this statement – from our commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, to the exceptional access Israel enjoys to advanced U.S. military equipment, such as the F-35 fighters, to our joint funding and development of Iron Dome, ARROW, and David’s Sling missile defense systems. The list is long, the resources invested great, the commitment, above all, enduring.

But today, I want to focus first on a different kind of “defense” relationship. I’m referring to our efforts to defend Israel at the United Nations, and to fight every day for something that no nation should actually have to fight for: the ability to be treated just like any other country. That’s the objective. It shouldn’t be hard. Now, the UN is an institution that celebrates in its charter “the equal rights of nations large and small.” And yet, as you know well, unfortunately the UN has been a place where Israel is not always treated fairly. Just a few weeks ago, we marked the 40th anniversary of one of most infamous of those moments, the moment when a huge majority in the UN General Assembly voted to declare Zionism as “a form of racism.” Seventy-two nations voted for that resolution 40 years ago, more than double the number that voted against it.

While that deplorable resolution was revoked 16 years later by an overwhelming majority of UN Member States – including many of those who had originally voted for it – bias against Israel at the UN does persist. Member States have sought to use the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, and other UN institutions as platforms to try to delegitimize the country. And when they do, the United States pushes back. Consider the UN Human Rights Council, which has only one permanent agenda item devoted to a single country: that’s Israel. Think about the absurdity of that for the moment given the state of the world. The one country in the world with a standing agenda item is not Syria, which gasses its people and barrel bombs them without mercy. It is Israel.

Before the United States rejoined the Human Rights Council in 2009, more than half of all country-specific resolutions it adopted focused on Israel. That is many more resolutions than are dedicated to North Korea, for example – and North Korea is a country where the UN estimates that between 80 and 120,000 people are being held in gulags in which they are routinely tortured, raped, starved, and worked to death. Since the U.S. has became a member of the Human Rights Council, we’ve helped cut the proportion of Israel-focused resolutions in half – to one-quarter of all resolutions. And that is still far too high, but I think a measurable improvement that results largely from our efforts.

We also fight relentlessly for Israel’s full and equal participation in UN bodies. Again, this shouldn’t be hard, but it is stunningly difficult. While membership in these groups may sound bureaucratic, and you may have to be a UN nerd like me to really follow all of the niceties – these are the places where actual UN policies are hammered out, and where key UN leadership posts are determined. They’re also a symptom of a phenomenon. For years Israel was the only UN Member State that was excluded from being in a regional body at the UN in Geneva; it was an orphan. And in New York, though its voting record coincided with other countries in a like-minded human rights caucus, Israel was shut out. Ron Prosor – who, until recently, was the Israeli Ambassador to the UN here in New York replaced by Danny Danon – Ron and I were determined to change these aberrant facts once and for all. And we did. In January 2014, after a sustained, full court diplomatic press, we helped secure for Israel permanent membership in what’s called the “Western European and Others Group” – the group that the United States also belongs to; in February 2014 we secured Israel’s membership in that like-minded human rights caucus from which it should have never been excluded.

Just this past fall, we have secured Israel’s inclusion in the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, COPUOS (for people interested in the acronym: COPUOS). This is a body that has a global scope, and includes a full range of countries – from those with massive space programs to those with none at all. Now, the practice with COPUOS – over the course of 57 previous sessions – had been to consider membership candidates as a single slate by consensus. Yet when Israel was one of the six countries put forward as a block in June, a group of Arab states insisted that each candidate be voted on separately at the next meeting. So, no more “clean slate.” In other words – breaking with convention in order to deny Israel’s membership. We got to work, spending months methodically persuading other countries to co-sponsor a resolution that would ensure Israel was able to join COPUOS. We worked the phones; we cornered countries’ representatives at the UN in strange places; U.S. ambassadors around the world made the case in nations’ capitals. And last week, 155 countries voted for the block of six new COPUOS members, including Israel. And here’s the even better news: not a single country opposed the vote. Lest anyone think for a second that U.S. support for Israel’s equal treatment is limited to planet Earth. It’s not. It’s intergalactic. [Laughter]

Why does the United States fight so hard for Israel’s equal treatment at the UN? I give you three reasons. One is that, given the equal opportunity to contribute, Israel has shown time and again how much its contributions can benefit the UN and the world. There’s a lot of suffering out there. People need help. Consider Israel’s participation in responses to global humanitarian crises like the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa – a cause to which Israel gave one of the highest per capita contributions in the world – at the same time it delivered critically important mobile Ebola treatment units to the most affected countries, which allowed victims to be treated in isolated areas; or consider its rapid and outsized response to the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. With U.S. logistic help, Israel deployed an entire field hospital and 200 personnel within four days of the earthquake. That’s not something a lot of countries have the capability to do. Why on Earth would anyone in the international community want to stand in the way of such efforts?

The second reason we fight for a seat at the table for Israel is because we recognize that efforts that seek to delegitimize Israel actually end up delegitimizing the United Nations. The world’s crises demand a credible and effective UN; but the UN gives itself a bad name when it fails to practice the principle of equality and non-discrimination that it preaches. And this is what Chaim Herzog, Israel’s Permanent Representative to the UN back in 1975, understood so clearly when the “Zionism is racism” resolution was passed. Remember he declared, “The issue before this assembly is not Israel and is not Zionism. The issue is the fate of this organization.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan – Herzog’s U.S. counterpart at the time, my predecessor – saw it similarly. He told countries at the time of the vote: “What we have at stake here is not merely the honor and the legitimacy of the State of Israel, but the integrity of the whole body of moral and legal precepts, which we know as human rights.” Those remain the stakes today.

Third – and relatedly – we need a UN that is a model of equal treatment and anti-discrimination at a time when we are seeing an alarming rise around the world in anti-Semitism. As you all know, anti-Semitism is surging by every objective measure – reported harassment, polling data, violent attacks – posing a threat not only to Jewish communities around the world, but to liberalism and to pluralism everywhere. Even in Ireland – where Chaim Herzog and I both spent our childhood years – the Belfast building where he was born in 1918, which was marked with a simple plaque celebrating his birth, was defaced with anti-Israel graffiti, and one group of vandals even tried to pry off the plaque with a crowbar. It got so bad that, last year, the plaque had to be taken down by local officials. Bougie Herzog, I think, was here earlier, and I can only imagine how painful it was and has been for his family to know that haters would not even leave a plaque to Chaim Herzog alone.

This surge in hate is why it is so important that – in January of this year – we joined Israel and the European Union in sponsoring the first-ever meeting on anti-Semitism in the UN. And it took place in the very same chamber where the “Zionism is racism” resolution was passed 40 years before. More than 50 countries and organizations came together to condemn this horrific problem, and pledged to take concrete and urgent steps to confront it. Implementation and follow through was key, but this is the role the UN can and must play.

Now, the other area in which the United States has been a partner to Israel is in our efforts to achieve a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as between Israel and its Arab neighbors. President Obama’s commitment to achieving a two-state solution has been unwavering. And it has been driven by his deeply held conviction – as he said in Jerusalem in March of 2013, and has repeated consistently since – that, as he puts it, “peace is necessary, just, and possible.” We believe that to this day, and we remain committed to Israel’s future as a secure, democratic, and Jewish state. And we are committed to an independent and viable Palestinian state, where Palestinians can live with freedom and with dignity.

We are under no illusions that achieving peace will be easy. We know that it will take a dedicated commitment by both parties, and a willingness on the part of leaders to make tough choices. We also know that it is up to both Israelis and Palestinians to take the steps necessary to make it possible, and to ensure that words are backed up by actions. But the reality is that we have not seen a sufficient commitment to make these tough choices from either side in recent years, despite ongoing U.S. efforts to bridge the differences between the parties.

The recent violence has been terrifying, and we have been clear that it must stop. There is never, and will never be, any justification for attacks targeting civilians. We condemn these attacks in the strongest possible terms, and mourn for the victims and their families. Victims like 18-month old Ali Dawabsheh, who was killed along with his parents by the firebombing of his family’s home in Duma in July. And victims like Richard Lakin, a 76-year old Israeli-American citizen, English teacher to Jewish and Arab students, and grandfather of eight who was killed as the result of a stabbing attack on a public bus in Jerusalem in mid-October. Those responsible for these and other deplorable attacks must be held accountable; and the attackers must be unequivocally condemned by leaders on all sides and by people everywhere around the world.

Let me, for a moment, speak not as a diplomat – but as a mother. I have two children – a six-year-old boy, Declan, and a three-year-old, Rían. And I cannot imagine what it must feel like for mothers or fathers to see their kids off every morning and worry that they might not make it home. An Israeli 10th grader recently told one reporter, “I’m petrified. Children are scared to leave the house. They won’t go to the shop or walk around the neighborhood.” A Palestinian father said, “I don’t feel safe. The best strategy for me was to keep the children home from school.” In Jerusalem, an Israeli shopkeeper described a wholly new mode of interaction with customers who “came, bought, and fled” – he explained, “People are afraid.” And a Palestinian shopkeeper in the Old City said, “When I prepare the juice, I am scared to cut the oranges in case someone sees me with the knife and shoots me.”

I understand that this fear can be extremely powerful – overwhelming, even. Look at recent events in the United States. Following the horrific attack in San Bernardino, we have seen how acts of terror not only spur legitimate fear, but also can be used by some cynical political actors to stoke prejudice and hatred. But as one of the great UN diplomats, Sergio Vieira de Mello – who unfortunately, tragically, was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq – once said, “Fear is a bad advisor.” Fear is a bad advisor. And that is true whether our fears are born out of genuine anguish about rising violence or for some other reason. Fear is a bad advisor.

As we have said publicly and privately to both sides, ongoing attacks like these, incitement to violence, settlement activity, home demolitions, and other current trends are endangering the viability of a two-state solution. They must be stopped and reversed in order to prevent a one-state reality from taking hold. These trends, as Secretary Kerry pointed out last week at the Saban Forum, are crushing the hopes of people on both sides for peace.

We’ve also made clear that Israel not only has the right but the obligation to defend its citizens. We have called on the Palestinian leadership to do everything within its power to combat incitement and to publicly condemn terrorist attacks, improve governance, and continue building institutions. And the Obama Administration has worked hard to press the parties to find a way to curb this violence. We continue to stress the critical importance of exercising restraint, refraining from inflammatory rhetoric, and taking steps to reduce tension.

At the same time, continued settlement growth raises honest questions about Israel’s long-term intentions and will only make separating from the Palestinians much more difficult. These settlements are no justification for violence, and we have been clear about that. But the U.S. government has never defended or supported Israeli settlements because administrations from both parties have long recognized that settlement activity and efforts to change the facts on the ground undermine prospects for a two-state solution.

At the Saban Forum last weekend, Secretary Kerry set out some of the tough questions that each side must consider at this difficult juncture. And since this conference’s organizers have proposed that “questioning” be the organizing principle of the day, let me highlight just a few of them. The way they are answered will have profound implications well beyond Israel.

For the Palestinians: How would ceasing security coordination and dissolving the Palestinian Authority – as some have suggested – advance the cause of peace? Wouldn’t the Palestinian people suffer most if their leadership took such steps? Will boycotts and efforts to delegitimize Israel or efforts to pass unbalanced resolutions at the UN achieve dignity, security, and a state for the Palestinian people?

For the Israelis: How would it benefit Israel if the Palestinian Authority were to collapse? Separately, how could Israel possibly maintain its character as a democratic and Jewish state were it to lack a Jewish majority and indefinitely maintain military control over another people?

In addition to these tough questions, which Secretary Kerry mentioned last weekend, I would like to add just a few that we get here a lot in New York.

What do we say to those in the international community expressing frustration with the lack of progress toward two states? Not to the people who are tearing down plaques in Belfast or who are quietly rooting for a third intifada – but to those who actually want to see peace, who wish Israel well, and who don’t want to see another generation live through war and violence. Where do we point these people to give them grounds for hope? What is the explanation for continued settlement expansion, especially in areas that would have to be a part of any Palestinian state? What concrete policies and actions can we point to by either side that are advancing prospects for a two state solution on the ground?

Now, there are some who have suggested that the act of asking such questions suggest an emerging rift between our two countries. But we don’t see it that way. I think a genuine partner is candid about the tough steps that must be taken to achieve a shared goal – especially one as critically important to Israel’s future as peace.

When we say we believe peace is necessary, just, and possible – we mean it. We will never give up on that belief. And we will always be willing to do the hard work necessary to support making it a reality.

More than 20 years ago, Shimon Peres said that peace is the “no choice” option. If we accept, as he said, “that the vision of the future should shape the agenda of the present” – and I hope all of us do – then peace is the only course, because there is no other path that can lead concretely to a better future for coming generations of Israelis and Palestinians.

That is why President Obama has called on both sides to demonstrate, in words and actions, a genuine commitment to a two-state solution. It is why, at the UN and in other international fora, we will continue to support efforts that will strengthen stability and security in the region, and oppose efforts that we believe would undermine a two-state solution. It is why we will continue to support the UN Relief and Works Agency, the UN agency that helps Palestinian refugees and to which the United States is the largest donor, while working to improve its operations; it’s why we’ll continue to contribute to UN-led reconstruction efforts in Gaza; and speak up for Israel’s right to defend itself. And it is why we remain committed to diplomacy and will continue to participate actively in the Quartet. When the ministers who make up the Quartet – from the EU, Russia, the UN, and the United States – met during this year’s UN General Assembly in September in New York, they proposed immediate and concrete steps, including increasing Palestinian civil authority and strengthening the Palestinian economy; steps that would resume the transition envisaged by the Oslo accords without undermining Israel’s security. If taken, steps like these could begin to reduce tension, rebuild a baseline of trust, and lay the foundation for the bigger, more complex decisions that will need to be made down the road. These steps can also help make Israelis and Palestinians believe that a political process has a chance of eventually fulfilling their legitimate aspirations to two states, for two peoples, in security and in peace.

Let me conclude. As you all know, we recently marked the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, who made the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of peace. Few individuals – Israeli or Palestinian – have grappled with the immense and, at times, seemingly intractable challenges to achieving peace that Rabin did. To this day, we are awed by the brave and, at times, unpopular choices he was willing to make to lead his nation toward peace, and his ability to let his vision of Israel’s future guide its present. Here is how he described the challenge facing leaders in his position when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He said, “Our peoples have chosen us to give them life. Terrible as it is to say, their lives are in our hands. Tonight, their eyes are upon us and their hearts are asking: How is the authority vested in these men and women being used? What will they decide? What kind of morning will we rise to tomorrow? A day of peace? Of war? Of laughter or of tears?”

We must ask the same questions of ourselves today, and every day, until we can finally build the peace that the Israeli and Palestinian people yearn for and so deserve. Thank you so much.

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