Mel Levine: Obama “Well Understands”

Following is the draft of the speech former congressman Mel Levine (D-CA) delivered Oct. 28, 2009 at the first convention of the pro-Israel lobbying group J-Street in Washington, D.C.

Let me begin with a candid personal statement and an acknowledgement of my own point of view, or personal reference point.

What has driven my involvement in Middle East issues throughout my adult life has been my commitment to work for Israel’s security and survival.

To anyone familiar with my legislative record, this will come as no surprise. 

 Having said that, I long ago concluded that, while maintaining her qualitative military superiority is essential to Israel’s security, ultimately the greatest guarantee of security would come from a stable, secure peace.

As numerous Israeli leaders across the political spectrum have concluded, the two state solution is now the only realistic path to a secure peace.

[Late Egyptian] President Anwar Sadat’s courageous initiative led to an Israeli-Egyptian peace which, while hardly perfect, has greatly benefited Israel, Egypt—and the United States.  Similarly, the peace between Israel and Jordan, with all its limitations, serves the interest of the parties, the region and the united states.

A man I was honored to call my friend—Yitzhak Rabin—one of Israel’s greatest warriors, concluded that peace was both essential and possible.  We heard that again today from highly respected and decorated israeli political and military officials.

One of the principal reasons why I became an early supporter of President Obama is that I believed then—and I believe now—that he is a unique individual who understands Israel’s need for security—and who also is uniquely situated, intellectually and temperamentally, to lead and achieve the necessary compromises on all sides to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians and between Israel and the Arab world.

We are only nine months into the Obama presidency and much remains to be done.  Already, however, he has set a tone which makes it much more likely that other countries will be receptive to American leadership both on issues of Middle East peace and more broadly as well.  And President Obama has not waited until the end of his administration to engage in Middle East peace.  At some political cost to himself, he has engaged from the outset—and has selected a highly respected and talented peacemaker, George Mitchell, to head the effort.

Further, President Obama’s actions have begun to make a tangible difference regarding Iran.  His decision to reconfigure the missile defense program in the Czech Republic and Poland not only led to a more sensible structure of the program, which better protects Israel and others from possible Iranian aggression, but also removes an obstacle to US-Russian cooperation, which is absolutely essential if we are to obtain the support we need for effective multilateral sanctions against Iran.  It does not guarantee success, but a critical step toward a policy that will actually work, rather than one which is characterized by strong words and no tangible results.

I must confess that, during the 2007 – 2008 election campaign—and still in the early months of the Obama presidency—I have been taken aback by the vitriol, the dishonesty and the relentless smears by those on the far right who want President Obama to fail.

I believe that those of us who care about Israel and who care about peace must stand up to those who will say or do anything to undermine the enterprise.

That leads to the core issue I was asked to discuss this afternoon: the politics of this enterprise—achieving the two state solution.

The politics are very straightforward: focus on the facts and the objectives and fight the smears.

For those of us who care deeply about Israel’s future, nothing less than achieving the two state solution will enable Israel to attain its most important national security objectives—- peace with her neighbors and security from a hostile regime in Iran.  A two state solution by itself will not solve the Iran problem but it will do more to take a critical issue away from the Iranian government than all of the tough talk we heard during the prior administration.

In fact, what did the last administration achieve in this regard?  Not much.  For all the tough talk about Iran and the warm and admittedly welcome praise for Israel, Iran moved closer to obtaining nuclear weapons, Hamas took over Gaza after elections were imposed by the bush administration despite Palestinian and Israeli opposition, American influence in the region waned, and American engagement toward peace was belated and largely ineffectual.

President Obama well understands that an Israeli-Palestinian peace will not solve all of the problems in the region.

But it would certainly make Israel safer.  It would serve both Israeli and American interests by removing the excuse Iran and other extremists have for supporting Hizbollah and Hamas—and it would enhance America’s ability to achieve our other middle eastern foreign policy goals.  It would take a powerful argument away from violent extremists, who may not care about the Palestinians but who have made it an artform to recruit zealots by appearing to embrace their cause.

It is true that success begets further success; and failure leads to more failure and policy stagnation.  It is in America’s interest both to protect israel and to develop a policy which actually succeeds, which will enhance other u.s. interests in the region.

For president Obama to succeed, he will need to personally engage—at home and abroad.  He will need to use his considerable persuasive powers to explain his objectives and his approach—to emphasize that he is seeking solutions that in no way compromise either Israel’s security—and that actually enhance the security of all of those in the region who seek peace.

Oddly, I see some similarities between the politics of what he needs to do to lead such an effort and what he has had to do to achieve a health care bill—where a similar set of unfounded and vicious assaults have been leveled—and where the rejoinders are calmly clear, specific, and reasoned.

As president Obama has dispensed with “death panel” rhetoric from the far right on health care, i am confident that he can as effectively—and as accurately—illustrate that American efforts to achieve the two state solution not only don’t undermine Israel’s security but greatly enhance it.

One of my most treasured possessions is a letter I received from then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on my retirement from Congress, thanking me for my effective support for Israel.  Yitzhak Rabin gave his life for daring to work for peace to protect israel.  He deeply believed, after a lifetime of wars, that achieving peace was essential to secure Israel’s future.  I do too.

President Obama understands that the achievement of a two state solution will serve America’s interest by protecting Israel, leading the middle east toward a more prosperous and productive future, and undermine violent extremists who want to harm America and America’s friends.  He understands the history, the needs of the parties, and the daunting challenges.

Reminding America that this can only be achieved through hard bargaining—with intensive American engagement and leadership—and not simply by “feel good” rhetoric—will be essential.  I am confident that these clear explanations will, despite all the obstacles, yield success in the region and support at home.