Jeremy Ben-Ami Remarks to Democratic Steering & Outreach Committee

July 23, 2014

This morning, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami spoke to more than 20 Democratic Senators at a session with Jewish leaders hosted by the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee (DSOC) in the United States Capitol. His remarks are below.

Thank you Majority Leader Reid, Chairperson Begich and the other Senators for this opportunity and of course thank you for your support of Israel, its right to self-defense and for the extraordinary funding for Iron Dome at this perilous moment.

As others have noted, this is a difficult time for friends of Israel.  I was in Israel when the rockets began falling, and J Street’s thoughts are with our staff, family and friends who are there and the IDF forces suffering terrible casualties and making tremendous sacrifices.

We also note with great sadness the tremendous toll being taken on Gaza’s civilian population by this present violence – over 600 dead, many of them non-combatants and children, and over 100,000 of Gaza’s 1.8 million people living in shelters.

Just a few words on Gaza and then on Iran:

J Street supports Secretary of State John Kerry’s current efforts to reach an immediate ceasefire.

With Israel’s security forces saying they are accomplishing many of their objectives – from disabling Hamas rockets to destroying its tunnel infrastructure – the time is right for a negotiated end to the terrible violence that looks for opportunities to go beyond simply restoring quiet to take positive steps in the political, security and humanitarian arenas.

On the political front, former Israeli Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin is among many suggesting that cease-fire negotiations can lead to a Palestinian unity government committed to early elections and demilitarization in Gaza.  Allowing the previously-signed reconciliation agreement between Palestinian factions to move forward as part of the cease-fire deal could capitalize on Hamas’ weakness and provide for a Palestinian government with a genuine mandate and committed to a long-term cease fire.

J Street asks that Senators maintain an open mind to the notion of political reconciliation and avoid taking steps that could frustrate such opportunities, such as defunding the Palestinian Authority.

On the security front, US-trained and equipped Palestinian Authority security forces may well have a role in providing security and stability at one or more of Gaza’s external crossings.  Senators should be proud of America’s commitment to professionalizing the PA security forces that has proven so successful on the West Bank, and we should be ready to consider additional support to such an effort on Gaza’s borders as part of a negotiated effort to bring longer-term stability.

Finally, the humanitarian needs of Palestinians in Gaza cannot be overstated.  From the loss of housing and infrastructure to projections that there may be no drinkable water in Gaza by the end of the decade, the humanitarian needs of the people should be addressed by the international community if political and security arrangements can be put in place. The US has already pledged $47 million to such an effort, and more may be needed.

Turning to the issue of Iran, we appreciate the work of many in this caucus to support negotiations to ensure that Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon, and urge you to stand firm against any effort to use the extension of talks as an opportunity to frustrate this critical diplomacy.

Legislating new sanctions at this time or unworkable terms for a final deal could kill the talks and likely lead to the collapse of international sanctions, while Iran unfreezes its nuclear program and kicks out inspectors.

Such action would vastly increase the chances of another war in the Middle East—a war that military and security experts say would not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program and could spur the regime to dash for a nuclear weapon, all while putting US troops and allies in harm’s way.