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Barack Obama Speaks from the Middle East

Aired March 21, 2013 - 11:00   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But make no mistake. Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel's right to exist, they might as well reject the earth beneath them or the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere.

And today I want to tell you, particularly the young people, so that there's no mistake here, so long as there is a United States of America, (INAUDIBLE), you are not alone.

The question is, what kind of future Israel will look forward to. Israel's not going anywhere, but especially for the young people in this audience, the question is, what does its future hold?

And that brings me to the subject of peace. I know Israel has taken risks for peace. Brave leaders reached treaties with two of your neighbors. You made credible proposals to the Palestinians at Annapolis.

You withdrew from Gaza and Lebanon and then faced terror and rockets. Across the region, you've extended a hand of friendship and all too often, you've been confronted with rejection and in some cases, the ugly reality of anti-Semitism.

So, I believe that the Israeli people do want peace. And I also understand why too many Israelis, maybe an increasing number, maybe a lot of young people here today, are skeptical that it can be achieved.

But today Israel is at a crossroads. It can be tempting to put aside the frustrations and sacrifices that come with the pursuit of peace, particularly when Iron Dome repels rockets, barriers keep out suicide bombers.

There's so many other pressing issues that demand your attention. And I know that only Israelis can make the fundamental decisions about your country's future. I recognize that.

I also know, by the way, that not everyone in this hall will agree with what I have to say about peace. I recognize that there are those who are not simply skeptical about peace, but question its underlying premise, have a different vision for Israel's future. And that's part of a democracy. That's part of the discourse between our two countries. I recognize that.

But I also believe it's important to be open and honest, especially with your friends. I also believe that. You know, politically, given the strong bipartisan support for Israel in America, the easiest thing for me to do would be to put this issue aside. Just express unconditional support for whatever Israel decides to do. That would be the easiest political path.

But I want you to know that I speak to you as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future, and I ask you to consider three points. First, peace is necessary. I believe that. I believe that peace is the only path to true security.

You can be -- you have the opportunity to be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can chase a growing challenge to its future. Given the demographics west of the Jordan river, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and Democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine. That is true.

There are other factors involved. Given the frustration in the international community about this conflict, Israel needs to reverse an undertow of isolation, and given the march of technology, the only way to truly protect the Israeli people over the long-term is through the absence of war, because no wall is high enough and no Iron Dome is strong enough or perfect enough to stop every enemy that is intent on doing so from inflicting harm.

And this truth is more pronounced, given the changes sweeping the Arab world. I understand that with the uncertainty in the reign, people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rice of non non-secular parties and politics, it's tempting to turn inward because the situation outside of Israel seems so chaotic.

But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve and commitment for peace. Because as more governments respond to popular will, the days when Israel could seek peace simply with a handful of autocratic leaders, those days are over.

Peace will have to be made among peoples, not just governments. No one, no single step can change overnight what lies in the hearts and minds of millions. No single step is going to erase years of history and propaganda.

But progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin, while sidelines extremists who thrive on conflict and thrive on division. It would make a difference.

So, peace is necessary, but peace is also just. Peace is also just. There is no question that Israel has paced Palestinian factions who turned to terror. Leaders who missed historic opportunities. That is all true, and that's why security must be at the center of any agreement.

And there is no question that the only path to peace is through negotiations, which is why, despite the criticism that we've received, the United States will oppose unilateral efforts to bypass negotiations through the United States. It has to be done by the parties. But the Palestinian people's right to self-determination, their right to justice must also be recognized. And put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes.

It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own, living their entire lives within the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of their young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day.

It's not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It's not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands or restricting a student's ability to move around the west bank or displace Palestinian families from their homes.

Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land. You know, I'm going off script here for a second, but before I came here, I met with a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22.

And talking to them, they weren't that different from my daughters. They weren't that different from your daughters or sons. I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they'd say, I want these kids to succeed.

I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities, just like my kids do. I believe that's what Israeli parents would want for these kids, if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them. I believe that.

Now, only you can determine what kind of democracy you will have. But remember as you make these decisions, you will define not simply the future of your relationship with the Palestinians, you will define the future of Israel as well.

As Ariel Sharon said, I'm quoting him, it is impossible to have a Jewish Democratic state at the same time to control all of Israel. If we focus on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all.

Or from a different perspective, I think of what the novelist David Grossman said shortly after losing his son, as he described the necessity of peace. A peace of no choice, he said, must be approached with the same determination and creativity as one approaches a war of no choice.

Now, Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with anyone who's dedicated to its destruction, but while I know you have had differences with the Palestinian authority, I genuinely believe that you do have a true partner in President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. I believe that. And they have a track record to prove it.

Over the last few years, they have built institutions and maintained security on the west bank, in ways that few could have imagined just a few years ago. So many Palestinians, including young people, have rejected violence, as a means of achieving their aspirations. There is an opportunity there. There's a window.

Which brings me to my third point. Peace is possible. It is possible. I'm not saying it's guaranteed. I can't even say that it is more likely than not, but it is possible.

I know it doesn't seem that way. There are always going to be reasons to avoid risk. There are costs for failure. There will always be extremists who provide an excuse, not to act.

I know there must be something exhausting about endless talks about talks and daily controversies and just the grinding status quo and -- I'm sure there's a temptation just to say, ah, enough. Let me focus on my small corner of the world and my family and my job and what I can control.

But it's possible. Negotiations will be necessary but there's a little secret about where they must lead. Two states for two peoples. Two states for two peoples.


There will be differences about how to get there. There are going to be hard choices along the way. Arab states must adapt to a world that has changed. The days when they could condemn Israel to distract their people from a lack of opportunity or government corruption or mismanagement, those days need to be over. Now's the time for the Arab world to take steps towards normalizing relations with Israel.


Meanwhile, Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security.


Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace and that an independent Palestine must be viable with real borders that have to be drawn.


I've suggested principles on territory and security that I believe can be the basis for these talks. But for the moment, put aside the plans and the process. I ask you, instead, to think about what can be done to build trust between people.

Now four years ago I stood in Cairo in front of an audience of young people. Politically, religiously, they must seem a world away. But the things they want, they're not so different from what the young people here want. They want the ability to make their own decisions and to get an education and to get a good job, to worship god in their own way. To get married, to raise a family.

The same is true of those young Palestinians that I met with this morning. The same is true for the young Palestinians who yearn for a better life in Gaza. That's where peace begins. Not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people. Not just in some carefully designed process, but in the daily connections, that sense of empathy that takes place among those who live together in this land and in this sacred city of Jerusalem.


And let me say this as a politician. I can promise you this. Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see.


Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things. I know this is possible. Look to the bridges being built in businesses in civil society by some of you here today. Look at the young people who have not yet learned a reason to mistrust. Or those young people who have learned to overcome a legacy of mistrust that they inherited from their parents because they simply recognize that we hold more hopes in common than fears that drive us apart.

Your voices must be louder than those who would drown out hope. Your hopes must light the way forward. Look to a future in which Jews and Muslims and Christians can all live in peace and greater prosperity in this holy land. Believe in that.


And most of all, look to the future that you want for your own children. A future in which a Jewish, democratic vibrant state is protected and accepted for this time and for all time.


There will be many who say this is not possible. But remember -- remember this. Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakable support of the most powerful country in the world.


Israel is not going anywhere. Israel has the wisdom to see the world as it is, but this is -- this is in your nature. Israel also has the courage to see the world as it should be. You know --


Ben Gurion was once said, in Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles. Sometimes the greatest miracle is recognizing that the world can change. That's a lesson that the world has learned from the Jewish people. And that brings me to the final area that I'll focus on.

Prosperity and Israel's broader role in the world. I know that all the talk about security and peace can sometimes seem to dominate the headlines, but that's not where people live. And every day, even amidst the threats that you face, Israelis are defining themselves by the opportunities that you're creating. Through talent and hard work, Israelis have put this small country at the forefront of the global economy.

Israelis understand the value of education and have produced 10 Nobel Laureates.


Israeli's understand the power of invention and your universities educate engineers and inventors. And that spirit has led to economic growth and human progress. Solar power and electric cars and bandages and prosthetic limbs that save lives. Stem cell research and new drugs that treat disease. Cell phones and computer technology that change the way people around the world live.

So if people want to see the future of the world economy, they should look at Tel Aviv, home to hundreds of start-ups and research centers.


Israelis are so active on social media that every day seemed to bring a different Facebook campaign about where I should give this speech.



That innovation is just as important to the relationship between the United States and Israel as our security cooperation. Our first free trade agreement in the world was reached with Israel nearly three decades ago.


Today the trade between our two countries is at $40 billion every year.


More importantly that partnership is creating new products and medical treatments. It's pushing new frontiers of science and exploration. That's the kind of relationship that Israel should have and could have with every country in the world.

Already we see how that innovation could reshape this region. There's a program here in Jerusalem that brings together young Israelis and Palestinians to learn vital skills and technology in business. An Israeli and Palestinian have started a venture capital fund to finance Palestinian start-ups.

Over 100 high-tech companies have found home on the West Bank, which speaks to the talent and entrepreneurial spirit of the Palestinian people. Yet one of the great ironies of what's happening in the broader region is that so much of what people are yearning for -- education, entrepreneurship, the ability to start a business without paying a bribe, the ability to connect to the global economy. Those are things that can be found here in Israel. This should be a hub for thriving regional trade and an engine for opportunity.


Israel is already a center for innovation that helps power the global economy. And I believe that all of that potential for prosperity can be enhanced with greater security, enhanced with lasting peace.


Here, in this small strip of land that has been the center of so much of the world's history, so much triumph and so much tragedy, Israelis have built something that few could have imagined 65 years ago.

Tomorrow I will pay tribute to that history, at the grave of Herzl, a man who had the foresight to see the future of the Jewish people, had to be reconnected to their past. At the grave of Rabin, who understood that Israel's victories in war had to be followed by the battles for peace. Ayad Nusha (ph), where the world is reminded of the cloud of evil that can descend on the Jewish people and all of humanity if we ever fail to be vigilant.

We bear all that history on our shoulders. We carry all that history in our hearts. Today as we face the twilight of Israel's founding generation, you, the young people of Israel, must now claim its future. It falls to you to write the next chapter in the great story of this great nation. And as the president of a country that you can count on, as your greatest friend, I am confident that you can help us find the promise in the days that lie ahead.

And as a man who's been inspired in my own life by that timeless calling within the Jewish experience, I am hopeful that we can draw upon what's best in ourselves to meet the challenges that will come to win the battles for peace in the wake of so much war and to do the work of repairing this world.

That's your job.


That's my job. That's the task of all of us.

May God bless you. May God bless Israel. May God bless the United States of America. Thank you.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The president of the United States says in Hebrew, thank you very much, to young people at the Jerusalem Convention Center, where he delivered a very powerful, a very bold speech on the peace process. Very pro-Israel, very pro-Palestine, a very, very pro-peace speech.

John King was catching together with our entire team what's going on. The president warmly received, John. He got heckled a little bit, made fun of it, but in response, most of the people there, the young people stood up and gave him a standing ovation.

A very well-received speech, even though he spoke very directly, very bluntly to the people of Israel about the peace process.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Some trademark Obama political campaigning, if you will, Wolf. What we've seen in the United States on display here in Israel. Number one, choosing to speak in this big speech to the Israeli people, not to the older political leadership, but to younger people.

The president, as you said, is saying the challenge of peace is for the younger generations. Both Israelis and Palestinians, to demand that their leaders take risks. To demand that their leaders abandon the old positions that we know over the last 20, 30, 40 years, have prevented a peace agreement on this sacred land.

An interesting position from the president here because he knows if you look down into the weeds, the obstacles to peace are too many. So he's trying to get people to look up, and look at the finish line and try to get back to the bargaining table without getting hung up, whether it's from the Palestinian side, hung up on Israeli settlement construction, whether from the Israeli side, hung up that the Palestinian leadership at the moment in Gaza includes a terrorist group, Hamas.

So the president tried to create some new climate for peace without resolving the many obstacles to peace.

And one other thing in the speech, Wolf, the big -- one of the big questions during this whole visit has been, is he shoulder to shoulder with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Iran? You can be sure, as the prime minister sees the president later today, he will be very happy with what the president said in the speech about Iran, saying that he has the sense of urgency that is required and that Iran should know its time for diplomacy is not unlimited.

BLITZER: The president making the case that the U.S./Israeli military relationship, the security cooperation has never been better.

Our Jerusalem correspondent, Sara Sidner, who watches and lives this story every single day, let me get your thoughts on what we just heard, Sara?

SARA SIDNER, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I thought one of the poignant moments is when the audience reacted to something he said about the Palestinians, that occupation nor expulsion is the answer. You saw a very huge round of applause. And it gives you some idea of how Israelis think. A lot of people think that there's all these very negative thoughts toward the Palestinians, but the majority of Israelis actually do want the Palestinians to be able to form their own state.

They do recognize that peace between these two neighbors, who live so close together, so tightly interwoven in so many ways, has to happen in order tort people here in Israel, in order for the Jewish people to be able to live peaceful lives. So that was an interesting and poignant moment there.