Howard Berman
Committee on Foreign Affairs
January 24, 2010 - 1:00am

Thank you, Luis (Lainer), for that introduction, and thanks as well to Americans for Peace Now for this invitation to speak with you. I am very gratified that you have awarded the Yitzhak Rabin Peace Prize to my friend of nearly 50 years, Irwin Levin. Everyone here knows how much he deserves it.

We’ve had a warm and productive relationship for many years now. I admire and share your firm commitment to peace, even on those occasions when we disagree about how best to achieve it.

Furthermore, APN is among the most reliable and valuable sources of information about the peace process, especially regarding Israeli settlements in the West Bank. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent in my office poring over maps with the knowledgeable and articulate policy director for APN in Washington, Lara Friedman, as well as the Jerusalem expert nonpareil Danny Seidemann, who has frequently accompanied her.

Throughout my nearly three decades in Congress, and now as Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I have been preoccupied with issues involving Israel’s security and Middle East peace. I made my first trip to Israel as a congressman in 1983. It was then that I first began to discern the primary problem Israel would have to face if it maintained its hold on the West Bank and Gaza: Either it would eventually have to rule over a disenfranchised Palestinian majority, or – if it enfranchised the Palestinians -- Israel would eventually cease to be Jewish. Call it the “democracy/demography” problem. I knew I wanted Israel, as a Jewish homeland, to be a democracy.

That was 1983. I wasn’t yet convinced that the answer was Palestinian statehood. But over the years, as I made many more trips to Israel and the region, I discovered two things. First, I learned that there were, indeed, many Palestinians who were prepared to accept Israel and who genuinely believed in co-existence.

Second, I discovered the immense toll the occupation was taking on Israel. Like Ariel Sharon, I came to believe – and I’m quoting Prime Minister Sharon from 2003 – “to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation … I believe that is a terrible thing for Israel and for the Palestinians. … It can't continue endlessly. Do you want to stay forever in Jenin, in Nablus, in Ramallah, in Bethlehem? I don't think that's right." Close quote.

Over the years, I have seen periods of close American involvement in the peace process and times of relative disengagement. Like you, I believe that a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will require robust U.S. engagement in the Middle East peace process. In that regard, it’s encouraging to see that the Obama Administration is fully engaged in the quest for peace between Israel and its neighbors. I have immense respect for George Mitchell, who has made numerous trips to the region in his pursuit of a diplomatic solution.

Just this past year there have been a number of positive developments in Israeli-Palestinian relations. While those developments may have been less definitive than we would have hoped, I respectfully disagree with APN’s statement last week that the past year has seen only “intransigence” on the part of Israel and the Palestinians.

The Prime Minister of Israel has now endorsed a two-state solution. This same man also serves as leader of the Likud Party -- whose center-piece commitment, if not its very raison d’être, for many years was its support for a Greater Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu may have staked out a tough negotiating position regarding the conditions for Palestinian statehood, but his endorsement of two states is nevertheless nothing short of historic.

Mr. Netanyahu has also agreed to a 10-month settlement freeze that Secretary of State Clinton controversially but accurately described as “unprecedented.” Again, it is not all that some of us may have hoped, but this step demonstrated a willingness to compromise that most people didn’t expect, especially not from a Likud leader on a core political issue affecting a key constituency.

And, to Mr. Netanyahu’s further credit, he took that step without any prospect of compensating steps toward normalization by the Arab world, which he had originally been led to expect would part of the deal.

Netanyahu also has followed through on his pledge to ease access and movement in the West Bank, accelerating the efforts begun toward the end of the Olmert prime ministry. And thanks to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority’s excellent prime minister, Salaam Fayyad, West Bank security has improved dramatically and the region’s economy responded last year with significant economic growth for the first time since the onset of the Second Intifada a decade ago.

Also over the past year, Mr. Fayyad has developed a two-year plan for Palestinian institutional and economic development in preparation for statehood. It is a serious plan, and it merits strong consideration.

None of this is meant to suggest that peace is around the corner, but I would suggest that 2009 saw some positive developments that might meaningfully contribute to peace over time. And let’s be honest: Without the determination and seriousness of purpose shown by President Obama, Senator Mitchell, and others in the Administration, several of these developments likely would not have taken place.

At the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his colleagues are the ones who have taken the difficult decisions, and for this they deserve more credit than they get. In my view, Netanyahu has demonstrated greater maturity and pragmatism during this, his second prime ministry, than he did in the 1990s. I believe he well understands intellectually what peace requires, and he wants to be a peace-maker. Time will tell whether, in fact, he is willing and actually able to achieve peace.

I do know this: A strong US commitment is not adequate for achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace. Not even a strong US commitment, PLUS a supportive Israeli government, is adequate to the task.

The most important ingredient for peace-making is the sustained determination of the two parties together, including their willingness to negotiate directly. The U.S. can -- and perhaps must -- continue to stir the pot in the process of peace-making. But the spark for engagement must come from the Israelis and Palestinians in partnership.

That has been the recipe for all three of the major diplomatic breakthroughs in Middle Eastern diplomacy: the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, the 1993 Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles, and the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty.

It is time for Palestinian Authority President Abbas to come to the negotiating table. The United States cannot negotiate on the Palestinians’ behalf by proxy, as some have reported President Abbas would like. It would be unfortunate indeed if the Palestinians chose to stay on the sidelines rather than negotiate for the statehood they have long craved.

Like many of you, I have very high regard for President Abbas. Based on all evidence, his longstanding renunciation of violence seems genuine and he has worked to reverse much of the damage to Israeli-Palestinian relations caused by his predecessor. I also think we may have done him a disservice by not making clear at the outset of the Administration that negotiations should not be linked to a settlement freeze. That said, it is past time for President Abbas to find his way back to the negotiating table. The region needs that, and the Palestinians need that. I agree with the statement recently attributed to President Shimon Peres that postponing negotiations is “playing with fire.”

We have recently passed the one-year anniversary of the end of the Gaza war. There is great suffering in Gaza, especially because of Israel’s refusal to allow reconstruction materials to be brought in. The root cause of that suffering, however, is not Israel but Hamas. Hamas has supported the kidnapping and ransom of Gilad Shalit, which has now persisted more than 3 1/2 years. No factor looms larger in Israeli policies toward Gaza than Shalit’s ongoing detention. Hamas likewise has refused to accept the Quartet conditions: renunciation of violence, acceptance of past agreements between Israel and the PLO, and recognition of Israel’s right to exist.

You might have seen a recent television report – it was on either CNN or the BBC – in which a Gazan woman asks the journalist plaintively if Shalit’s detention justified all the Palestinian suffering that has resulted. I believe she’s far from the only Gazan who harbors such thoughts. Public opinion polls suggest that Hamas’s popularity in Gaza is waning. In all, the Israeli measures toward Gaza may inflict suffering but they are not unprovoked or illogical. Israel’s unique security situation – as a small state whose population and economic centers are vulnerable – cannot easily tolerate on its border a hostile entity that may soon be capable of conducting targeted attacks.

It is rare that I have a strong disagreement with APN positions on a major legislative issue, but that is what occurred recently regarding my Iran sanctions legislation, which passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 412-12. I would be remiss not to discuss it here.

In my view, there is no greater threat to the world than the prospect of a nuclear Iran. An Iran with nuclear arms would dramatically alter the political balance in the Middle East, greatly increasing Iran’s ability to intimidate its neighbors and making it essentially impervious to outside pressure, including from the United States. Terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah would be strengthened and emboldened. The chances of nuclear terrorism would increase. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would be essentially shattered. And the State of Israel would come under serious threat from a state that does not view it as a conventional enemy but rather as an enemy that should not exist. I’m sure most of you agree with that analysis.

Peace-loving people must take every peaceful step possible to prevent Iran from going nuclear. There is no certain means of achieving this goal, but I can think of no more likely way to achieve it than through strong sanctions. Although it is true that ordinary Iranians may suffer under a strong sanctions regime, they and their neighbors would likely suffer far less under sanctions than they would in a world where Iran is about to go nuclear, for that will be an uncertain world indeed. Unfortunately, there are no sanctions that are both strong enough to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course and limited enough not to impinge on the quality-of-life of average Iranians.

And it should be pointed out that a nuclear Iranian regime might even be less vulnerable to pressure from internal dissenters, such as the brave Green Movement activists who have been giving their lives in an effort to change the nature of the Iranian regime. Why? Because any neighboring regimes that might otherwise be inclined to help the dissidents, in ways bold or covert, would likely think twice before risking offense to an Iranian regime that wields nuclear arms.

Sanctions may not work, but, for the sake of peace, they are worth a try. Sanctions that hurt the Iranian economy will impose painful nukes-or-butter choices on a regime that is already tottering. And sanctions would be lifted once the regime complies with UN Security Council resolutions demanding that it suspend uranium enrichment. If someone has an idea better than sanctions – one that is peaceful and also has some plausible prospect of success – I am more than open to listening.

What I admire about APN is that unlike some on the left who come to their positions because they do not really care about Israel’s survival and security, APN comes to its positions because it does care. I look forward to continuing my close relationship with APN, both when in agreement and otherwise. For many years now, APN has been an informative and creative partner in Middle East policy debates. I will continue to be intimately involved with you in that discussion, fully assured that our main objectives – a secure Israel, an independent Palestine, and a peaceful Middle East – remain the same.


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