Remarks by Phil Gordon, White House Coordinator
for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf (AS PREPARED)
American Task Force On Palestine (ATFP)
10th Anniversary Gala, October 29, 2013
Thank you, Ziad, for that warm welcome and generous introduction. It really is an honor to join you, your honorees, and so many distinguished guests in attendance tonight to help celebrate the tenth anniversary of the American Task Force on Palestine. ATFP is a remarkable organization. In many ways, this organization is the embodiment of what President Obama said in his historic address in Jerusalem in March: “You must create the change that you want to see.”
Your efforts to develop partnerships with a wide and diverse array of stakeholders are a model for public engagement in a city not always known for civility or reaching out across party lines. One need look no further than the many different organizations represented here tonight to see this approach at work. You are known and respected not just for what you do, but for how you do it. And your tradition of honoring the accomplishments of Palestinian-Americans and the broader Arab-American community has called America’s attention to a history of public engagement and service that is too often overlooked. The honorees tonight are a testament to this tradition.
Your work has also carved out space for a nuanced, informed policy discussion, helping provide the American public with a better understanding of the Palestinian narrative and its importance for the United States. Your work has served to reinforce what the President emphasized during his visit to Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bethlehem: that the creation of a Palestinian state living alongside Israel in peace, security, and dignity is not only in the interest of Palestinians and Israelis, it is in the national security interest of the United States.
As some of you know, I moved over from the State Department to the White House to become the President’s Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region shortly before he took that trip to the region. And as many of you here today may recall, there was real skepticism about his decision to travel to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan for the first foreign trip of his second term. Some, even among his own advisers, argued the issue was just too intractable, the politics too difficult, and the risk of controversy too great.
But the President understood the importance of the issues and of his personal engagement. He was determined to speak directly – and candidly – to the Israeli and Palestinian people and to underscore his personal commitment to ending this conflict.
I was privileged to join him on the trip and know how heartfelt were his remarks in Jerusalem and in Ramallah, when he talked about the necessity, urgency, and possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace. In Jerusalem, President Obama made clear that the United States understands how critical security is to the people of Israel. He underscored the reality that “the security relationship between the United States and Israel has never been stronger.” We are proud of that. In the same speech, before a large audience of Israelis, the President made clear his commitment to the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice.
He appealed to Israelis to put themselves in the shoes of Palestinians and to look at the world through their eyes. “It is not fair,” he said, “that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”
From many meetings in the White House on this issue, I can personally attest to the President’s passion, commitment, and resolve, which I think are evident in all he says and does. But why take my word for it? Instead, let me read to you a message that President Obama wanted to share with this group on the occasion of your tenth anniversary.
I send greetings to all those gathered for the 10th Anniversary Gala of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP).
As I emphasized during my visit to Ramallah this March, the United States remains deeply committed to realizing the vision of a just and lasting resolution to a conflict that has continued for far too long. And I am pleased to have a partner in ATFP who shares this vision for peace.
Let me reaffirm the unwavering support of the United States for a negotiated outcome that results in an independent, viable, and contiguous Palestinian state living in peace alongside the State of Israel – two peoples enjoying self-determination, security, and peace. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign state of their own.
We are under no illusions. A lot of work—and tough choices—lie ahead for Israelis and Palestinians. But I firmly believe that we cannot give up on the search for peace, which is why my Administration continues to work tirelessly to support the parties’ current negotiations. And it is why we continue to invest significant effort and resources in the vital work of building the institutions of a future Palestinian state and the foundations of a vibrant economy that can create new opportunities for Palestinians from all walks of life.
Peace is necessary, peace is just, and peace is possible. The support of the Palestinian and Arab-American communities and of important groups like yours is critical to making it a reality. Congratulations, again, on the 10th anniversary of ATFP. I wish you all the best for the years ahead.
President Barack Obama
So where are we now? Let me just talk a bit about how we are going about advancing the President’s vision. President Obama’s visit in March set off a series of developments that has led to the resumption of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians – the first face-to-face negotiations since 2010.
At the President’s direction, Secretary Kerry has tirelessly led this effort, in close coordination with the rest of our team, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice and the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Martin Indyk. I think we would all agree that Secretary Kerry deserves enormous credit for the time, energy, and commitment he has put into getting this effort off the ground. Now you’re not going to hear me talk about negotiating details. Despite all the noise and rumors and misinformation that may occasionally appear in the press – in fact, because of them – the parties have committed to meet in private and keep the substance of the talks confidential. But I will say this: The core issues – borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees – are all on the table and part of a serious discussion.
Getting to negotiations was not easy. It took courage from President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu. They showed courage to begin the process and they have shown courage to continue it even in the face of criticism and what we knew would be periodic controversies and bumps in the road.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to release Palestinian prisoners, and President Abbas’ decision to put aside efforts to upgrade the status of the Palestinians in international organizations during the 9-month time frame of the negotiations, are constructive steps conducive to creating a positive environment for the negotiations. Just today, in fact, the Israeli government released the second group of 26 pre-Oslo era Palestinian prisoners – a key request of President Abbas, but a difficult and controversial issue for Israelis.
Israeli settlement announcements have also continued, contributing to an increased level of mistrust by Palestinians. With olive harvest season in full swing throughout the West Bank, we are also acutely aware that settler violence remains a serious concern. Lest there be any doubt, let me underscore what has been the United States’ policy, not just for this Administration but for preceding administrations. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. They are not constructive and are corrosive to the cause of peace. And we strongly condemn settler violence – an issue we continue to press with the Israeli government. At no time in the course of resuming negotiations have we or the Palestinians condoned settlement activity.
The President’s policy and our approach to advancing peace have been grounded in our belief that ultimately, a peace agreement that addresses all final status issues is in the core interest of both parties, as well of the international community. It is also in our core interest. It is the only path to true security for Israel and real statehood and independence for the Palestinians.
The President has articulated his vision for what peace looks like on several occasions. It hasn’t changed. But it bears repeating. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. Any peace agreement will require robust security provisions that safeguard Israel’s security. And the Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
As the President said in Jerusalem, and repeated in his letter to you tonight, for peace to last, peace must also be just. As he put it in Ramallah, “The Palestinian people deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it. Palestinians deserve to move and travel freely, and to feel secure in their communities. Like people everywhere, Palestinians deserve a future of hope — that their rights will be respected, that tomorrow will be better than today and that they can give their children a life of dignity and opportunity. Put simply, Palestinians deserve a state of their own.”
These aren’t just words. They are principles that guide our policy and shape our choices. This vision has guided our international diplomatic efforts to bolster the negotiations.
We have made it a point to engage the Arab League and encourage the revitalization of the Arab Peace Initiative, which holds out a vision not just of peace between Israelis and Palestinians but also of normalization between Israel and the Arab world. With four meetings in the past six months, we have never seen such sustained engagement and strong commitment from Arab partners. Their support will be critical as we reach the home stretch.
We have also mobilized the international Quartet. Secretary Kerry, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and High Representative of the European Union Catherine Ashton met at the UN General Assembly in September and for the first time in years were briefed by the Israeli and Palestinian chief negotiators. This meeting was significant in signaling support to both parties from the international community.
This vision has also guided our strong commitment to Palestinian institution-building. The United States has devoted more effort and more resources than any other country to help Palestinians stand up the institutions necessary for Palestinian statehood and exercise the responsibilities that come with it.
Stabilizing the Palestinian Authority’s finances is an urgent and important goal. Without significant budget support, so much of what the PA has achieved to professionalize its government and security forces will be put at risk. We are therefore working with our Gulf Arab partners to ease the burden of private sector debt faced by the Palestinian Authority. Last week, Secretary Kerry announced that the Government of Qatar has agreed to provide $150 million in urgently needed debt relief to the Palestinian Authority. Contributions toward debt relief will be used to pay down PA debts to its local suppliers and banks. We have provided $348 million in budget support to the PA this year, and we continue to encourage the donor community to provide robust economic support.
Part of a just peace, of course, is a peace that also brings prosperity to the parties, and I applaud the work of the ATFP to help promote this goal. A prosperous future Palestinian state would obviously serve the interests of Palestinians, who have suffered from so much deprivation over the years. But it’s also in the interest of Israel, and of the United States. We are also working with the PA to fund and implement development projects that bring an immediate economic impact and support everyday working Palestinians.
Last month, Secretary Kerry unveiled a new $100 million initiative to invest immediately in high-impact micro-infrastructure projects in the West Bank. We are helping to revitalize health clinics, repair roads, and build schools and youth development centers, similar to the one the President visited in Ramallah in March. We have already dedicated $25 million to this effort and are seeking additional international support to create practical improvements in locations across the West Bank. From my multiple trips to the West Bank, including for meetings with Palestinian business leaders, I can attest to what many of you know so well: Palestinians have enormous untapped potential. They have the skills and spirit of entrepreneurship to produce real economic growth that would make a huge difference for a future Palestinian state and throughout the region.
This vision for a prosperous, independent, sovereign Palestine is something the President and the Secretary Kerry strongly believe in. From the start of his tenure, Secretary Kerry has focused on helping to create sustainable long term growth in the Palestinian economy by leveraging foreign direct investment and private sector know-how, with the aim of growing key sectors of the Palestinian economy at a potentially rapid pace.
In partnership with the Palestinian Authority, efforts are underway to complete the foundation of what is now being called the Palestinian Economic Initiative – a private-sector led effort to sustainably grow the Palestinian economy. It is no surprise that the private sector has been reluctant to provide substantial new resources unless they believe there is a reasonable chance of success in the negotiations and that political or security risks will be mitigated. And yet, the promise of Palestine has already generated broad international support for the Palestinian Economic Initiative.
In the immediate term, the Israelis can and should ease restrictions to facilitate a conducive investment climate. Israel has already begun taking some steps in this direction within the context of the negotiations and last month Secretary Kerry welcomed a number of measures that they announced on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. But much more remains to be done. In the longer-term, investors and partner governments that believe in Palestine’s potential appreciate – as we do – that the full benefits of large-scale economic investment can only be realized with a viable political outcome.
But as I talk about all we – and you – are doing for the Palestinian economy, I also want to be clear: For peace to last, it must be enshrined in lasting, binding, and fair political agreements.
Economic efforts cannot be a substitute for real political progress and agreement by the parties themselves that meets their needs. That is why the President, Secretary Kerry, Ambassador Indyk, and the entire peace team have been so focused on encouraging the parties to commit themselves to sustained and serious negotiations, and to make the hard decisions we all know are necessary for agreements to be reached and for an independent Palestine to be created, at peace with its neighbors.
Let me sum up: The prospects for an agreement are real, but they will require difficult decisions. In this we, and the parties, are clear-eyed. And the parties will need support. From the international community. From courageous regional partners. And from the United States.
That is where the work of ATFP and like-minded groups becomes so vital. ATFP has made the case for peace through thick and thin. We need your passionate commitment now more than ever.
For those here today, your belief in peace has never wavered. From this, we draw hope, inspiration, and resolve to finish the work that so many before us have worked so hard to achieve.
Your continued dedication and effort at this important juncture is vital. With your support, we make the case for an independent Palestine and for a secure Israel. And we make the case for a more peaceful future that is profoundly in the national interest of the United States.
Thank you for listening, but most of all thank you for your commitment to resolving a conflict that has gone on for far too long.