WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Barack Obama in his final speech on national security said diplomatic engagement is “required” to resolve Middle Eastern conflicts, including between Israel and the Palestinians.
The remarks came as top officials in the outgoing administration hope to influence President-elect Donald Trump to maintain its diplomatic initiatives, particularly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iran nuclear deal.
“Just think about what we’ve done these last eight years without firing a shot,” Obama said Tuesday, addressing troops at an Air Force base in Tampa. “We’ve rolled back Iran’s nuclear program. That’s not just my assessment, that’s the assessment of Israeli intelligence, even though they were opposed to the deal.”
Obama said diplomacy helps keep Americans safe. “Sustained diplomatic efforts, no matter how frustrating or difficult they sometimes appear, are going to be required to resolve the conflicts roiling in the Middle East, from Yemen, to Syria, to Israel and Palestine,” he said. “And if we don’t have strong efforts there, the more you will be called upon to clean up after the failure of diplomacy.”
Trump has delivered mixed messages on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: He has said he is eager to find a solution, but aides have also said they will defer to Israel on the matter, and would not press Israel hard to make concessions. Trump also has said the Iran deal is a bad one, and that he would reassess it, but has not said he would scrap it.
Obama’s remarks echoed those of his secretary of state, John Kerry, who over last weekend attended the Saban Forum, an annual colloquy organized by the Brookings Institution of Israeli and American leaders and influencers.
“If you care about Israel, you care about peace,” Kerry said. “And you cannot have peace – you cannot protect Israel, ultimately, folks, unless you can find a way to peace.”
He said Israel’s government must confront and stem settlement expansion.
“I’m not here to tell you that the settlements are the reason for the conflict. No, they’re not. No, they’re not,” he said. “But I also cannot accept the notion that they don’t affect the peace process, that they aren’t a barrier to the capacity to have peace.”
Kerry emphasized that he understood Israel’s need for security as a requirement underpinning any peace deal. He noted the work Gen. John Allen, heading a team of 150, completed during the failed 2013-2014 bid to revive peace talks. Allen worked with Israel’s security establishment to map out strategies to keep areas secure after Israel withdraws as part of a permanent peace deal.
Also citing Allen’s efforts was Dan Shapiro, the outgoing ambassador to Israel, speaking Tuesday evening at the annual dinner of the Israel Policy Forum, a group that advocates for a two-state solution.
“During these efforts, we learned that there are solutions to even the thorniest security questions,” he said. “And I am certain that when a two-state solution is achieved, the security arrangements will be heavily influenced by General Allen’s work. It is already influencing outside policy and academic work on the subject.”
Allen was honored at the IPF event, according to Jewish Insider, which covered the event. “At the end of my 45 years of service in the U.S., I have seen what I believe can be a workable security solution to support the forward movement of peace,” he said. “It will be hard, and it might even take decades to implement all of the pieces, but for the sake of Israel, there is no other viable option.”
Also delivering a message to the event was Vice President Joe Biden, who recorded a video. “The continued progress towards a two-state solution is absolutely essential for Israel’s security and its endurance as a Jewish and democratic state in the Middle East,” he said. “Our alliance with Israel is as essential to our security in the region as it is to Israel’s security.”