Senator Barack Obama
AIPAC Policy Conference 2008
June 4, 2008
(AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY)
It's great to see so many friends from across the country. I want to
congratulate Howard Friedman, David Victor and Howard Kohr on a successful
conference, and on the completion of a new headquarters just a few blocks
Before I begin, I want to say that I know some provocative emails have been
circulating throughout Jewish communities across the country. A few of you
may have gotten them. They're filled with tall tales and dire warnings about
a certain candidate for President. And all I want to say is - let me know if
you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty frightening.
But if anyone has been confused by these emails, I want you to know that
today I'll be speaking from my heart, and as a true friend of Israel. And I
know that when I visit with AIPAC, I am among friends. Good friends. Friends
who share my strong commitment to make sure that the bond between the United
States and Israel is unbreakable today, tomorrow, and forever.
One of the many things that I admire about AIPAC is that you fight for this
common cause from the bottom up. The lifeblood of AIPAC is here in this
room - grassroots activists of all ages, from all parts of the country, who
come to Washington year after year to make your voices heard. Nothing
reflects the face of AIPAC more than the 1,200 students who have travelled
here to make it clear to the world that the bond between Israel and the
United States is rooted in more than our shared national interests - it's
rooted in the shared values and shared stories of our people. And as
President, I will work with you to ensure that it this bond strengthened.
I first became familiar with the story of Israel when I was eleven years
old. I learned of the long journey and steady determination of the Jewish
people to preserve their identity through faith, family and culture. Year
after year, century after century, Jews carried on their traditions, and
their dream of a homeland, in the face of impossible odds.
The story made a powerful impression on me. I had grown up without a sense
of roots. My father was black, he was from Kenya, and he left us when I was
two. My mother was white, she was from Kansas, and I'd moved with her to
Indonesia and then back to Hawaii. In many ways, I didn't know where I came
from. So I was drawn to the belief that you could sustain a spiritual,
emotional and cultural identity. And I deeply understood the Zionist idea -
that there is always a homeland at the center of our story.
I also learned about the horror of the Holocaust, and the terrible urgency
it brought to the journey home to Israel. For much of my childhood, I lived
with my grandparents. My grandfather had served in World War II, and so had
my great uncle. He was a Kansas boy, who probably never expected to see
Europe - let alone the horrors that awaited him there. And for months after
he came home from Germany, he remained in a state of shock, alone with the
painful memories that wouldn't leave his head.
You see, my great uncle had been a part of the 89th Infantry Division - the
first Americans to reach a Nazi concentration camp. They liberated Ohrdruf,
part of Buchenwald, on an April day in 1945. The horrors of that camp go
beyond our capacity to imagine. Tens of thousands died of hunger, torture,
disease, or plain murder - part of the Nazi killing machine that killed 6
When the Americans marched in, they discovered huge piles of dead bodies and
starving survivors. General Eisenhower ordered Germans from the nearby town
to tour the camp, so they could see what was being done in their name. He
ordered American troops to tour the camp, so they could see the evil they
were fighting against. He invited Congressmen and journalists to bear
witness. And he ordered that photographs and films be made. Explaining his
actions, Eisenhower said that he wanted to produce, "first-hand evidence of
these things, if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge
these allegations merely to propaganda."
I saw some of those very images at Yad Vashem, and they never leave you. And
those images just hint at the stories that survivors of the Shoah carried
with them. Like Eisenhower, each of us bears witness to anyone and everyone
who would deny these unspeakable crimes, or ever speak of repeating them. We
must mean what we say when we speak the words: "never again."
It was just a few years after the liberation of the camps that David
Ben-Gurion declared the founding of the Jewish State of Israel. We know that
the establishment of Israel was just and necessary, rooted in centuries of
struggle, and decades of patient work. But 60 years later, we know that we
cannot relent, we cannot yield, and as President I will never compromise
when it comes to Israel's security.
Not when there are still voices that deny the Holocaust. Not when there are
terrorist groups and political leaders committed to Israel's destruction.
Not when there are maps across the Middle East that don't even acknowledge
Israel's existence, and government-funded textbooks filled with hatred
toward Jews. Not when there are rockets raining down on Sderot, and Israeli
children have to take a deep breath and summon uncommon courage every time
they board a bus or walk to school.
I have long understood Israel's quest for peace and need for security. But
never more so than during my travels there two years ago. Flying in an IDF
helicopter, I saw a narrow and beautiful strip of land nestled against the
Mediterranean. On the ground, I met a family who saw their house destroyed
by a Katyusha Rocket. I spoke to Israeli troops who faced daily threats as
they maintained security near the blue line. I talked to people who wanted
nothing more simple, or elusive, than a secure future for their children.
I have been proud to be a part of a strong, bi-partisan consensus that has
stood by Israel in the face of all threats. That is a commitment that both
John McCain and I share, because support for Israel in this country goes
beyond party. But part of our commitment must be speaking up when Israel's
security is at risk, and I don't think any of us can be satisfied that
America's recent foreign policy has made Israel more secure.
Hamas now controls Gaza. Hizbollah has tightened its grip on southern
Lebanon, and is flexing its muscles in Beirut. Because of the war in Iraq,
Iran - which always posed a greater threat to Israel than Iraq - is
emboldened, and poses the greatest strategic challenge to the United States
and Israel in the Middle East in a generation. Iraq is unstable, and al
Qaeda has stepped up its recruitment. Israel's quest for peace with its
neighbors has stalled, despite the heavy burdens borne by the Israeli
people. And America is more isolated in the region, reducing our strength
and jeopardizing Israel's safety.
The question is how to move forward. There are those who would continue and
intensify this failed status quo, ignoring eight years of accumulated
evidence that our foreign policy is dangerously flawed. And then there are
those who would lay all of the problems of the Middle East at the doorstep
of Israel and its supporters, as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the
root of all trouble in the region. These voices blame the Middle East's only
democracy for the region's extremism. They offer the false promise that
abandoning a stalwart ally is somehow the path to strength. It is not, it
never has been, and it never will be.
Our alliance is based on shared interests and shared values. Those who
threaten Israel threaten us. Israel has always faced these threats on the
front lines. And I will bring to the White House an unshakeable commitment
to Israel's security.
That starts with ensuring Israel's qualitative military advantage. I will
ensure that Israel can defend itself from any threat - from Gaza to Tehran.
Defense cooperation between the United States and Israel is a model of
success, and must be deepened. As President, I will implement a Memorandum
of Understanding that provides $30 billion in assistance to Israel over the
next decade - investments to Israel's security that will not be tied to any
other nation. First, we must approve the foreign aid request for 2009. Going
forward, we can enhance our cooperation on missile defense. We should export
military equipment to our ally Israel under the same guidelines as NATO. And
I will always stand up for Israel's right to defend itself in the United
Nations and around the world.
Across the political spectrum, Israelis understand that real security can
only come through lasting peace. And that is why we - as friends of Israel -
must resolve to do all we can to help Israel and its neighbors to achieve
it. Because a secure, lasting peace is in Israel's national interest. It is
in America's national interest. And it is in the interest of the Palestinian
people and the Arab world. As President, I will work to help Israel achieve
the goal of two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state,
living side by side in peace and security. And I won't wait until the waning
days of my presidency. I will take an active role, and make a personal
commitment to do all I can to advance the cause of peace from the start of
The long road to peace requires Palestinian partners committed to making the
journey. We must isolate Hamas unless and until they renounce terrorism,
recognize Israel's right to exist, and abide by past agreements. There is no
room at the negotiating table for terrorist organizations. That is why I
opposed holding elections in 2006 with Hamas on the ballot. The Israelis and
the Palestinian Authority warned us at the time against holding these
elections. But this Administration pressed ahead, and the result is a Gaza
controlled by Hamas, with rockets raining down on Israel.
The Palestinian people must understand that progress will not come through
the false prophets of extremism or the corrupt use of foreign aid. The
United States and the international community must stand by Palestinians who
are committed to cracking down on terror and carrying the burden of
peacemaking. I will strongly urge Arab governments to take steps to
normalize relations with Israel, and to fulfill their responsibility to
pressure extremists and provide real support for President Abbas and Prime
Minister Fayyad. Egypt must cut off the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.
Israel can also advance the cause of peace by taking appropriate steps -
consistent with its security - to ease the freedom of movement for
Palestinians, improve economic conditions in the West Bank, and to refrain
from building new settlements - as it agreed to with the Bush Administration
Let me be clear. Israel's security is sacrosanct. It is non-negotiable. The
Palestinians need a state that is contiguous and cohesive, and that allows
them to prosper - but any agreement with the Palestinian people must
preserve Israel's identity as a Jewish state, with secure, recognized and
defensible borders. Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must
I have no illusions that this will be easy. It will require difficult
decisions on both sides. But Israel is strong enough to achieve peace, if it
has partners who are committed to the goal. Most Israelis and Palestinians
want peace, and we must strengthen their hand. The United States must be a
strong and consistent partner in this process - not to force concessions,
but to help committed partners avoid stalemate and the kind of vacuums that
are filled by violence. That's what I commit to do as President of the
The threats to Israel start close to home, but they don't end there. Syria
continues its support for terror and meddling in Lebanon. And Syria has
taken dangerous steps in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, which is
why Israeli action was justified to end that threat.
I also believe that the United States has a responsibility to support Israel's
efforts to renew peace talks with the Syrians. We must never force Israel to
the negotiating table, but neither should we ever block negotiations when
Israel's leaders decide that they may serve Israeli interests. As President,
I will do whatever I can to help Israel succeed in these negotiations. And
success will require the full enforcement of Security Council Resolution
1701 in Lebanon, and a stop to Syria's support for terror. It is time for
this reckless behavior to come to an end.
There is no greater threat to Israel - or to the peace and stability of the
region - than Iran. Now this audience is made up of both Republicans and
Democrats, and the enemies of Israel should have no doubt that, regardless
of party, Americans stand shoulder-to-shoulder in our commitment to Israel's
security. So while I don't want to strike too partisan a note here today, I
do want to address some willful mischaracterizations of my positions.
The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the
region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms
race, and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to
terrorists. Its President denies the Holocaust and threatens to wipe Israel
off the map. The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be
to eliminate this threat.
But just as we are clear-eyed about the threat, we must be clear about the
failure of today's policy. We knew, in 2002, that Iran supported terrorism.
We knew Iran had an illicit nuclear program. We knew Iran posed a grave
threat to Israel. But instead of pursuing a strategy to address this threat,
we ignored it and instead invaded and occupied Iraq. When I opposed the war,
I warned that it would fan the flames of extremism in the Middle East. That
is precisely what happened in Iran - the hardliners tightened their grip,
and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President in 2005. And the United States
and Israel are less secure.
I respect Senator McCain, and look forward to a substantive debate with him
these next five months. But on this point, we have differed, and we will
differ. Senator McCain refuses to understand or acknowledge the failure of
the policy that he would continue. He criticizes my willingness to use
strong diplomacy, but offers only an alternate reality - one where the war
in Iraq has somehow put Iran on its heels. The truth is the opposite. Iran
has strengthened its position. Iran is now enriching uranium, and has
reportedly stockpiled 150 kilos of low enriched uranium. Its support for
terrorism and threats toward Israel have increased. Those are the facts,
they cannot be denied, and I refuse to continue a policy that has made the
United States and Israel less secure.
Senator McCain offers a false choice: stay the course in Iraq, or cede the
region to Iran. I reject this logic because there is a better way. Keeping
all of our troops tied down indefinitely in Iraq is not the way to weaken
Iran - it is precisely what has strengthened it. It is a policy for staying,
not a plan for victory. I have proposed a responsible, phased redeployment
of our troops from Iraq. We will get out as carefully as we were careless
getting in. We will finally pressure Iraq's leaders to take meaningful
responsibility for their own future.
We will also use all elements of American power to pressure Iran. I will do
everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That
starts with aggressive, principled diplomacy without self-defeating
preconditions, but with a clear-eyed understanding of our interests. We have
no time to waste. We cannot unconditionally rule out an approach that could
prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We have tried limited,
piecemeal talks while we outsource the sustained work to our European
allies. It is time for the United States to lead.
There will be careful preparation. We will open up lines of communication,
build an agenda, coordinate closely with our allies, and evaluate the
potential for progress. Contrary to the claims of some, I have no interest
in sitting down with men like Ahmadinejad just for the sake of talking. But
as President of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and
principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place
of my choosing - if, and only if - it can advance the interests of the
Only recently have some come to think that diplomacy by definition cannot be
tough. They forget the example of Truman, and Kennedy and Reagan. These
Presidents understood that diplomacy backed by real leverage was a
fundamental tool of statecraft. And it is time to once again make American
diplomacy a tool to succeed, not just a means of containing failure. We will
pursue this diplomacy with no illusions about the Iranian regime. Instead,
we will present a clear choice. If you abandon your dangerous nuclear
program, support for terror, and threats to Israel, there will be meaningful
incentives - including the lifting of sanctions, and political and economic
integration with the international community. If you refuse, we will ratchet
up the pressure.
My presidency will strengthen our hand as we restore our standing. Our
willingness to pursue diplomacy will make it easier to mobilize others to
join our cause. If Iran fails to change course when presented with this
choice by the United States, it will be clear - to the people of Iran, and
to the world - that the Iranian regime is the author of its own isolation.
That will strengthen our hand with Russia and China as we insist on stronger
sanctions in the Security Council. And we should work with Europe, Japan and
the Gulf states to find every avenue outside the UN to isolate the Iranian
regime - from cutting off loan guarantees and expanding financial sanctions,
to banning the export of refined petroleum to Iran, to boycotting firms
associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which has rightly been
labeled a terrorist organization.
I was interested to see Senator McCain propose divestment as a source of
leverage - not the bigoted divestment that has sought to punish Israeli
scientists and academics, but divestment targeted at the Iranian regime. It's
a good concept, but not a new one. I introduced legislation over a year ago
that would encourage states and the private sector to divest from companies
that do business in Iran. This bill has bipartisan support, but for reasons
that I'll let him explain, Senator McCain never signed on. Meanwhile, an
anonymous Senator is blocking the bill. It is time to pass this into law so
that we can tighten the squeeze on the Iranian regime. We should also pursue
other unilateral sanctions that target Iranian banks and assets.
And we must free ourselves from the tyranny of oil. The price of a barrel of
oil is one of the most dangerous weapons in the world. Petrodollars pay for
weapons that kill American troops and Israeli citizens. And the Bush
Administration's policies have driven up the price of oil, while its energy
policy has made us more dependent on foreign oil and gas. It's time for the
United States to take real steps to end our addiction to oil. And we can
join with Israel, building on last year's US-Israel Energy Cooperation Act,
to deepen our partnership in developing alternative sources of energy by
increasing scientific collaboration and joint research and development. The
surest way to increase our leverage in the long term is to stop bankrolling
the Iranian regime.
Finally, let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military
action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel. Sometimes
there are no alternatives to confrontation. But that only makes diplomacy
more important. If we must use military force, we are more likely to
succeed, and will have far greater support at home and abroad, if we have
exhausted our diplomatic efforts.
That is the change we need in our foreign policy. Change that restores
American power and influence. Change accompanied by a pledge that I will
make known to allies and adversaries alike: that America maintains an
unwavering friendship with Israel, and an unshakeable commitment to its
As members of AIPAC, you have helped advance this bipartisan consensus to
support and defend our ally Israel. And I am sure that today on Capitol Hill
you will be meeting with members of Congress and spreading the word. But we
are here because of more than policy. We are here because the values we hold
dear are deeply embedded in the story of Israel.
Just look at what Israel has accomplished in 60 years. From decades of
struggle and the terrible wake of the Holocaust, a nation was forged to
provide a home for Jews from all corners of the world - from Syria to
Ethiopia to the Soviet Union. In the face of constant threats, Israel has
triumphed. In the face of constant peril, Israel has prospered. In a state
of constant insecurity, Israel has maintained a vibrant and open discourse,
and a resilient commitment to the rule of law.
As any Israeli will tell you, Israel is not a perfect place, but like the
United States it sets an example for all when it seeks a more perfect
future. These same qualities can be found among American Jews. It is why so
many Jewish Americans have stood by Israel, while advancing the American
story. Because there is a commitment embedded in the Jewish faith and
tradition: to freedom and fairness; to social justice and equal opportunity.
To tikkun olam - the obligation to repair this world.
I will never forget that I would not be standing here today if it weren't
for that commitment. In the great social movements in our country's history,
Jewish and African Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder. They took
buses down south together. They marched together. They bled together. And
Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were willing to
die alongside a black man - James Chaney - on behalf of freedom and
Their legacy is our inheritance. We must not allow the relationship between
Jews and African Americans to suffer. This is a bond that must be
Together, we can rededicate ourselves to end prejudice and combat hatred in
all of its forms. Together, we can renew our commitment to justice.
Together, we can join our voices together, and in doing so make even the
mightiest of walls fall down.
That work must include our shared commitment to Israel. You and I know that
we must do more than stand still. Now is the time to be vigilant in facing
down every foe, just as we move forward in seeking a future of peace for the
children of Israel, and for all children. Now is the time to stand by Israel
as it writes the next chapter in its extraordinary journey. Now is the time
to join together in the work of repairing this world.