Senator Robert Menendez


Good morning. Thank you, Lonnie, for your gracious introduction and above all your support and friendship over many years. And thank you to AIPAC for the warm welcome you have always given me at every event that I have attended. I appreciate your advocacy.

And let me also recognize in the Jersey delegation there are some 500 of you here today. Many of you are here and I know friends like Steve Klinghoffer, Mike Levin and others are leading the way. So again, let's hear it for New Jersey. Thank you for your engagement.

And let me just say to all of you at AIPAC, all who are committed to the strongest possible relationship between the United States and Israel, as I have been throughout my public service career, that I look forward to working with you in my new role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It is one of the Senate's it is one of the Senate's original 10 standing committees and it has helped shape American foreign policy through the complex geopolitics of an ever-changing world.

The committee has helped every American president, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, protect and defend our fundamental promise to stand with Israel and the Israeli people in a strong and lasting and enduring alliance. And as chairman, I can say without hesitation I will keep that promise as I always have. There will never be any daylight between the United States and Israel on my watch. Never. Not on my watch.

I follow I follow in the footsteps of two great chairman, Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden, who yesterday stressed in his speech that Israel and the United States have always agreed on the strategic imperative that Israel be able to defend itself. And I couldn't agree more. And I look forward to doing even more to strengthen our commitment to Israel, to share democratic values, to matter what may bloom from the shifting sands of the Arab Spring.

Whatever challenges lay ahead, whatever new threats we face, whether in the form of rockets from Gaza, a nuclear threat from Iran, the spillover of violence from Syria, or the rise of Islamist extremists anywhere in the region, the strength of Israel's democracy will remain a beacon of hope for good governance, economic progress, and the power of an enlightened society to foster democratic ideals.

In my view, the challenges of the 21st century world will require two things. First, we continue to project the wisdom of our democratic ideals everywhere, and the power of our military strength where necessary. Second, we must be fully prepared to adjust our policies and preparedness to the shifting nature of the new threats we will face. Today we see these new threats taking shape from the northwest frontier province of Pakistan, where I just came back from, across Afghanistan to Iran, Iraq, the Middle East, and now increasingly in North Africa.

We heard former Secretary Clinton issue a clear warning to the committee last month of an evolving threat in Mali in North Africa from al-Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb. She told us that it is more than a terrorist organization; it's a criminal enterprise armed with heavy weapons spreading from a conflict in Libya. The fact is, we need to be ahead of the curve. And as chairman, I intend to keep us ahead of the curve when it comes to the present and future threats to our security.

But even but even in the face of uncertainty and upheaval around the world, I believe that there is room for optimism. Even amongst revolutionary change in the Middle East, the United States-Israel relationship has reached unprecedented levels. Simply put, our two countries' military and security cooperation have never been better. From Egypt to Syria and beyond, we understand that the Arab revolutions have been, at best, a mixed bag for Israel. We cannot help but admire the courage of those willing to risk their lives for universal freedoms and human dignity.

But these revolutions will have been for nothing if they replace secular dictatorships with religious ones. The challenge to the United States is as clear as it is daunting: to forge long-term durable relationships with a more democratic Middle East, instead of relying on authoritarian regimes that may support our interest one day but could be gone the next.

Now, some here in Washington look at the challenges in this new Middle East and advocate disengagement. I strongly disagree. We can't advocate America's interests, including the protection of Israel, from the sidelines. We need to roll up our sleeves and engage in the support of our ideals, our values, and our interests.

And this means engaging with emerging populace, immature political actors, whose views we will undoubtedly at times find objectionable. But these new actors must know that America will never compromise our democratic principles, our commitment to human rights to tolerate political discourse and above all to Israel's security. They must know that very, very clearly.

Hopefully in the long term they can result in the establishment of democracies that increase economic growth everywhere and lead to a peaceful settlement that secures Israel's future and ultimately stabilizes the region. But in the short term, they can threaten the security of the United States and Israel and test our resolve.

We have already seen instability on Israel's borders both in Syria and the Sinai. This turbulence will likely continue for the foreseeable future. But one thing will remain constant: the strong, unshakable, unbreakable, and always rock-solid relationship between the United States and Israel. That relationship is and will always remain a given.

Israel and its adversaries must always know that it will not stand alone in meeting any challenge or any threat to its national security. America must always stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel.

Now, recently it has become necessary, as I have found at different times during my 20 years in the Congress, to reaffirm our commitment to Israel in several ways. First, in condemning comments by the Turkish prime minister equating Zionism, the foundation of the Jewish state and the movement for Jewish self-determination with fascism and anti-Semitism and labeling it a crime against humanity.

We are committed to an alliance with Turkey, but we cannot accept such comments as comments that in fact a leader of a country can make about Israel and in the context of its right to exist and its right for self-determination and freedom.

Secondly secondly I reaffirmed with my colleague, Senator Lindsey Graham, our commitment to Israel with the introduction of a bipartisan resolution that simply calls on the United States to stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the government of Israel in defense of its territory, its people, and its existence.

There are new challenges that emerge every day in the region. One might say that the first challenge is Israel's relationship with Egypt, which presents a dynamic set of issues for both Israel and the United States. The Camp David Accords have been the cornerstone of 35 years of peace between the two nations. They are essential to maintaining regional stability and Israel's security. The fact is, the United States derives significant security benefits from our ongoing bilateral military and intelligence relationship with Egypt. It has meant close counterterrorism cooperation, privileged access to the Suez Canal, the over-flight rights that are important.

Those of us who have met with senior Israeli officials since the 2011 revolution have heard concerns about the prospect of suspension of American military assistance to Egypt. The November 12th Israeli military operation in Gaza is a reminder of the critical importance of Egypt as a mediator in the Arab world. We should be focusing more of our efforts on keeping Egypt stable by helping a struggling Egyptian economy, which is the context in which I accept Senator Kerry's announcement -- Secretary Kerry's hard to break, you know -- Secretary Kerry's announcement of the weekend pledging $250 million in non-military assistance.

But we must be ever-vigilant in monitoring the situation. American security assistance to Egypt cannot be a blank check. That's why Congress made it abundantly clear in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 that U.S. assistance to Egypt would be contingent upon upholding its 1979 peace treaty with Israel. That is our bottom line and it will remain our bottom line when it comes to the U.S.-Egypt relationship.

In short, for the good of the region, for the good of Israel, and for our own security interests, we must work with Egypt and help steer it in the right direction. They are an essential partner of the region. It will require patience as Egypt works through a difficult but hopeful time for its people. But we must also make clear in no uncertain terms where our interests lie and what type of actions we cannot and will not accept as we try to move forward. Now, for the prospects for the peace process it has always been my position, as it has been AIPAC's, that we must move towards an acceptable two-state solution.

If we can finally achieve that goal, it will be in Israel's interest; it will be in the Palestinian's interest; it will be in America's interest. And I am hopeful that with the president's upcoming trip to Israel and with the diplomatic skills Secretary Kerry brings to the table, we will not only re-engage and re-connect but we will make real progress towards a two-state solution.

But let's be clear. If we are to get there, it is critical that the Palestinians come back to the negotiating table and stop the stunts, the distractions, and the grandstanding at the United Nations. Unilateral Palestinian action at the United Nations will not work. In fact, it is counterproductive and it fundamentally jeopardizes the Palestinians' relationship with the United States and undermines their own interest.

Let's be clear. Palestinian membership in any U.N. organization, whether it's the IAEA or the World Health Organization or any other U.N. organization could have a ripple effect that will only serve to set back the peace process and potentially do grave damage to America's role in the U.N. system. We must be careful not to allow U.S. engagement on strategic international security and economic issues, like nuclear nonproliferation or intellectual property rights, to be jeopardized by a mercurial Palestinian action at the United Nations.

Frankly, in my view, President Abbas' misguided actions at the U.N. will not help bring peace to the Palestinian people. It will not help restart peace negotiations with Israel. And it will not bring any political advantage to the Palestinian Authority. To create a solid Palestinian state with clear boundaries, there has to be a negotiated settlement with the state of Israel. There must be partners for peace. There are no shortcuts. The only way to achieve a true, lasting peace for the Palestinian people is through comprehensive negotiations and dialogue with the state of Israel.

Now, we cannot standing idly by and allow the Palestinians to evade the peace process by pressing their political cause in a different way, in a back-door approach. Legitimate state-building, the kind that America can energetically support, doesn't happen at the United Nations; it happens with the Palestinians themselves. To keep the peace process moving forward, it's also critical that Egypt and Israel continue to work closely to implement the cease-fire that was agreed to after the November conflict in Gaza.

This means, first and foremost, making certain no more weapons smuggling into Gaza. It must end, period. It threatens Israel and it could lead to a repeated cycle of violence that none of us want to see. Now, I'm optimistic that if we can continue progress on this front between Gaza, economic activity between Gaza and Israel can increase, it can help stabilize the region. And it can directly benefit Israelis and Palestinians and give us reason to be hopeful that progress is possible.

What has also proven to be most effective, and what I consider to be absolutely vital, is our continued security assistance to Israel. That's why I cosponsored the bill authorizing Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile defense system to intercept short-range missiles launched against Israel. It is why I cosponsored the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act that will ensure Israel has the defensive and offensive capabilities it needs, when it needs them.

And one more thing. I fully supporting funding the Arrow 3 missile defense interceptor. It is an essential part of Israel's security in the changing dynamic in the region. While Iron Dome has demonstrated the importance of defending Israel from rockets that can be launched from across its border, Arrow 3 allows Israel to defend itself against longer-range missile threats, specifically from Iran. And as chairman, I can assure you I will vigorously support Israeli development of a multi-tiered missile defense system that protects the Israeli people from missiles launched anywhere, any time.

Of course of course, the greatest threat to Israel's security is Iran. It is clear to everyone in this room that there can never be any daylight between the United States and Israel. Not ever. But certainly not when it comes to Iran's drive to achieve nuclear weapons capability. We cannot, we must not, and we will not stand for a nuclear Iran. Period.

Let's put the Iranian threat to Israel and the region in perspective. Some people say this is all about Israel. I say it's about the national interest and security of the United States as well. And Iran with nuclear weapons capability would be emboldened to take more aggressive actions against both Israel and the United States.

Yes, a Shahab 3 missile can hit Israel, but it can also hit a NATO ally. And under our NATO treaty agreement, we are obligated to respond on behalf of any NATO ally. It's already unacceptable and deplorable support for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah would only increase. Its provocative behavior around one of the world's most important strategic waterways, the Strait of Hormuz, could escalate. And a nuclear Iran could unleash an arms race in the world's most dangerous tinderbox. Clearly, the threat to Israel's existence would increase dramatically and the situation would become far, far more dangerous.

Once we put the extent of the nuclear threat in this context, it is easy to see why we need to be prepared to act. We need to be absolutely clear that it is the unequivocal policy of the United States to do everything in its power to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapon capability. And absolutely clear that we reject policy options designed simply to contain a nuclear-armed Iran. Containment is not an option for the United States.

Any policy built around the containment of a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Our clear intention must be to prevent Iran from ever reaching nuclear capacity, I should say. One way to prevent that from happening is through the tough sanctions that I have authored and been passed by the Congress with your help and your advocacy. Sometimes I know you wonder whether your advocacy makes a difference. It does.

In fact, over the past year and a half I have authored three pieces of legislation that have imposed the toughest sanctions that Iran has ever faced, sanctions that are now strangling the Iranian economy and have had a real impact on the behavior of those companies and countries that were in bed with the regime. But we must do more to fully implement these sanctions and make absolutely clear to the Iranian government that unless they change their course, their situation will only get worse and economic struggles and economic international isolation will grow.

An indication of how well the sanctions are working is that more than 20 countries, including in the EU, Korea, Singapore, to mention a few, have either stopped purchasing oil from Iran or decreased purchases. And others like Japan who, despite difficult domestic circumstances, have gone further than we expected. And according to the International Atomic Energy entity, Iran's crude oil exports have already dropped a million barrels a day, from 2.5 million barrels a day in 2011 to 1.5 million barrels per day, a cost to Iran of nearly $8 billion in lost revenues every quarter.

Now, not only that, but the Iranian rial has suffered a dramatic devaluation that is now causing major concerns among the powerful merchant class in Iran. Iran's leaders must understand that we will deprive Iran of crude oil revenue that represents 50 to 75 percent of its budget, sanctions so overwhelming that former Secretary Clinton fittingly called these sanctions, that I and my dear friend Senator Mark Kirk authored, the most crippling in world history.

So we should not close the door to further discussions. And I'm hopeful that last week's negotiations between the P5+1 entities and Iran will bring some future progress. But let's be clear. We will not and cannot talk for talking's sake. We cannot allow the negotiations to become just a stalling tactic for Iran to buy time. The P5+1 and the broader international community must unite around a simple message, two simple points: We will never accept a nuclear Iran and you cannot outwait us in that goal.

In my view, these steps taken together will hopefully convince the Iranians that the only option is to give up their nuclear ambitions. Barring verifiable compliance with all security council resolutions and full cooperation with the IAEA, I see no reason, as some are suggesting, to relieve the pressure of any of the sanctions. I see the reason to continue to vigorously enforce them to achieve our goals.

Of course, sanctions are only a means to a clear end. In this case, Iran engaging in serious meaningful, fruitful negotiations that result in an end to its nuclear ambitions. Sanctions are our last peaceful diplomacy too. But we must also make clear, as President Obama has said, that all options are on the table. And I add that those options must be credible, which is why the Graham-Menendez resolution is so important at this time, standing behind Israel and its ability to protect itself and sending that message to the rest of the world.

We cannot know what the future will hold. We do not know what will bloom from the shifting sands of the Arab Spring. But what we do know, what we must understand, is that the United States must be the one to step up to help protect the Israeli people, to have their back, as the president has said. And finally, having Israel's back means fighting back on the efforts to delegitimize the Israeli state.

You know, clearly the Holocaust was the most sinister possible reminder that the Jewish population in exile was in constant jeopardy. It was a definitive argument that anti-Semitism could appear anywhere. And its horrors galvanized international support for the state of Israel. But let's be very clear. While the Shoah has a central role in Israel's identity, is not the reason behind its founding and it is not the main justification for its existence. That extreme characterization of that mistaken view is that Western powers established Israel in 1948 based on their own guilt, at the expense of Arab peoples who live there. Therefore, the current state is illegitimate and should be wiped off, off the face of the map.

This flawed argument is not only in defiance of basic human dignity, but in plain defiance of history. It is in defiance of ancient history, as told in Biblical texts and through archeological evidence. It ignores the history of millennia. Several thousand years of history leads to an undeniable conclusion. The establishment of the state of Israel in modern times is a political reality with roots going back to King David and the time of Abraham and Sarah.

The argument for Israel's legitimacy does not depend on what we say in any speech; it has been made by history. It has been made by the men and women who made the desert green, by Nobel prizes earned, by groundbreaking innovations and enviable institutions, by lives saved, by democracy defended, by peace made, by battle won. There can be no denying the Jewish people's legitimate right to live in peace and security in a homeland to which they have a connection for thousands of years.

We can and must we can and must move forward in our efforts to achieve peace and look for ways to reach agreement between all sides. But we cannot erase the moral distinctions between tyranny and freedom, and we must not edit history. Different people of vastly different backgrounds have peacefully thrived in the Middle East for generations upon generations, and it is our hope that this coexistence can happen once more. Let us pray that it can become so.

You have my hand in friendship and the power of my office to assure it. Shalom. Thank you very much.