ASG Chair Samuel Berger addresses the 2014 Herzliya Conference

Herzliya Conference

Samuel Berger

It’s a pleasure and privilege for me to participate in this year’s Herzliya Conference, with so many people I admire and respect, situated in a magnificent setting named for the Zionist leader who endowed the national movement with faith in the sheer force of will.

An audience such as this needs no reminding about what is happening in the Middle East – a region at times contradictory, often dangerous, and always challenging. You in Israel live those perils day-to-day and those who view them from a distance can never quite capture what it means to experience them up close.

Still, I think it is useful for me to describe briefly how the region is seen from the United States and how that affects our thinking and molds our choices.

Over the past several years, the Middle East has been undergoing unprecedented turmoil, marked by several overlapping conflicts.

There is of course the defiance shown by large portions of the Arab public against autocratic, corrupt, sclerotic regimes – a series of uprisings we first viewed as an “Arab Spring”. But it soon became clear that among those vying for a different future, there is fierce competition over what that future might hold. Whether it will be more Islamist or less so. Islamists themselves are in the throes of often brutal, bloody battles – along sectarian, tribal and ethnic lines. There is a generational clash fueled by youth unemployment and social media, and an urban-vs rural divide fed by the marginalization of some groups and the concentration of power in the hands of a few elites.

At the national level, borders drawn a century ago are being diluted, as supra-national loyalties gain precedence over national ones and large portions of countries become ungoverned. Overlaid upon this shifting mosaic, a regional tug of war between Iran and Saudi Arabia plays out in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain.

The alliances of convenience that have emerged in the midst of this are enough to give you geostrategic vertigo. Iran fights alongside the Alawite regime in Syria, while backing Hamas that was born of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis vow to crush the Moslem Brotherhood but back Islamic Salafis in Syria and elsewhere. The US works with Maliki to defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq while Maliki gives support to the Assad regime we believe has lost legitimacy to lead.

I draw this portrait for two reasons. First, at an elemental level, it dictates a dose of humility. If the battles are as complex and interwoven – if what is at play is not a mere debate between democracy and autocracy as some thought in those early days of 2011 – but a debate at least in part about the political meaning of nationhood and of Islam – those issues will not be decided in Washington or elsewhere outside the region. They will be decided by the peoples of the region and for the region.

But at the same time, these complexities should not be used in my country to throw up our hands in bewilderment and to fail to define, in the midst of these messy cross-currents, our national interests and to pursue them – together with others – with as much commitment and clarity as we can. Because we have clear and compelling interests in the outcomes:

-  It matters to us whether the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has a safe haven in Syria from which it can launch attacks on us and our friends and prepare a new generation of jihadists;

-  it matters to us if Iran is so emboldened as to project its power across the region, even more so with a nuclear weapon;

-  it matters to us whether Arab societies move, however cautiously and gradually, toward more representative and inclusive forms of government – or whether, conversely, they remain mired in unrepresentative, exclusionary rule that provides fertile ground for extremists to prosper;

-  It matters to us if instability in the region triggers a spike in oil prices. Yes, we are striving toward energy independence and that is a good thing because it will make us morecompetitiveandimproveourbalanceoftradeandourfiscalposition. Butitwill notdiminishourinterestinthefreeflowofoilfromthisregion. Oilandgasareglobal commodities whose prices are fixed in a world market. Even if we did not import a drop of oil from the Gulf, any disruption of supply would hurt our trading partners in Europe and Japan, and damage the global economy.

-  And it matters deeply to us whether Israel is threatened or secure, caught up in conflict or in peace. For our interest in this nation’s welfare is deeply rooted with the American people – across the political spectrum. It is not paranoia for Israelis to feel threatened in this environment; it is a combination of realism and history.

So the challenge facing America’s Middle East policy, certainly, is to know our limits in a treacherous landscape. But it is also not to be paralyzed by them. We need to find that strategic space between necessary humility and indispensable activism. We cannot be masters of the Middle East’s destiny. But just as surely, we must know that turning our back on this region, allowing its problems to fester is a sure-fire way of allowing them to grow and come back to haunt us.

Finding that balance is best explained and done on a case-by-case basis and that’s what I propose to do next.


Let me start with Syria. It has not been at the top of your agenda but as former UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said yesterday, it poses a grave threat to the future of the Middle East. Syria is a microcosm of the currents I described earlier – the fight against an indescribably brutal ruler, fought along sectarian lines, between more mainstream Islamists and jihadists – all in the context of struggle for regional influence between Iran and Saudi. The argument in the US that Syria is too complicated, too messy, too muddled for us to get involved has, over the past three years, held the US back from energetic engagement. All slopes have seemed to be slippery ones.

Certainly we have learned over the past decade that Americans should not fight wars in lands we only dimly comprehend and whose destinies we only marginally can shape.

But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done at all. We cannot afford to be spectators in this unfolding tragedy whose effects are felt across the region. In Syria, moral imperative and strategic interests converge:

-  The continuing hemorrhage of refugees that strains Jordon, Lebanon and Turkey;

-  A jihadi safe haven in eastern Syria with growing numbers of western fighters--

many of whom will return home with the worst of intentions;

-  The risk that Iran and Hizbollah emerge empowered and emboldened, ready to set their sights on higher goals;

-  And a human tragedy of unimaginable proportions – where killing innocent civilians – with bombs and rockets and chemical weapons – is not an unfortunate consequence of war; it is the deliberate strategy of Assad’s war. In addition to the millions that have been killed and displaced, an entire generation of Syria’s youth may be lost.

So what can be done? Let me suggest a few things.

-  We can increase our support for vetted opposition fighters, with equipment and training that will help them protect their own people – like weapons to shoot down helicopters dropping barrel bombs on their children’s schools – that can help them challenge the jihadists and that can help put Assad back on the defensive. And we should consider other ways, including military options, to degrade Assad’s airpower – a decisive advantage against a civilian opposition.

-  In the so-called liberated areas, the international community can pay police to maintain order and teachers to go back to school and administrators to maintain a semblance of stability.

-  And on the humanitarian front – while the UN agencies do heroic work – they are dependent on approval from the Assad government of where they go, leaving hundreds of thousands of people – many starving – out of reach. We need to push more aid across Syria’s borders, even if that means going around the UN.

As many of us have argued for some time, the potential for influencing events in Syria was greater three years, two years ... even one year ago. But it will not be greater one year from now. The strategic situation in the region will be worse and the human costs will be higher. The risks of action always are easier to imagine than the risks of inaction.


If Syria is messy, America’s interests in Iran could not be clearer: we have an enormous interest in ensuring that the Islamic Republic will not be in a position to threaten our allies, Israel first among them, either directly or through proxies.

And we must be clear-eyed about the threats that would be posed– to Israel, to the region and to overall stability – by a nuclear Iran and by our failure to take adequate measures to prevent it. A nuclear Iran will lead to a nuclear region.

We should harbor no illusions about the nature of the Iranian government. Certainly, the election of Hassan Rouhani is a promising development. But it was not the political equivalent of a heart transplant. Thereisnoevidencethatthefundamentalambitionsofthegovernmenthavechanged. The Supreme Leader remains at the helm. The face of Iran to the region is not Rouhani but the Commander of the Revolutionary Guards Qassan Soleimani, who drives Iran’s efforts to prop up Assad, stir up unrest in the Gulf and foster unremitting hostility to Israel.

Even If we can resolve the nuclear issue in a satisfactory way, none of these other issues go away. The United States and our friends and allies will need to be vigilant and prepared to oppose Iran’s aggressive behavior. But Iran’s ability to intimidate and coerce will be diminished.

Here, I think the Obama Administration has acted strategically and prudently. First, it assembled and maintained an unprecedented international sanctions coalition – not just of countries that felt threatened by an Iranian nuclear program, but of those who didn’t. I talked to many government officials from Japan, South Korea, India and China as they were being pressured to cut back on their purchases of Iranian oil. For some, more than 30% of their oil came from Iran. I can tell you, they were not pleased. President Obama, Secretaries Clinton and Kerry were relentless. They made this a fundamental matter of our bilateral relationships.

Second, the P5+1 negotiations have been extraordinarily detailed and painstaking --very specific and reflective of the concerns of our allies. By keeping Russia and China engaged, despite our strains on other issues, we have keep them on board the sanctions regime. I know the chief American negotiator well. She was my business partner. Let me assure you of one thing: she’s one tough negotiator. She’s not giving anything away. And she will not sign up to an agreement for the sake of “getting to yes”.

Serious concerns were expressed, both here and in Washington, that the six month interim agreement was unwise because Tehran would cheat and the sanctions would begin to unravel. But Iran’s nuclear program today is less advanced than it was when the Joint Plan of Action was signed – certainly less than it would have been absent the agreement – and, while many business executives flew to Tehran to find a crack in the sanctions door, the Obama Administration continued to vigorously enforce the sanctions and no one has dared step in. The limited sanctions relief offered by the interim agreement has not led to an unraveling of the sanctions and the economic pressure on Iran remains intense.

Third, I have no idea whether we will reach an agreement. I know there are concerns here that President Obama is too eager to reach one and will cut corners or that he would never use military force against Iran if it acted to develop a nuclear weapon. I disagree with both of those concerns. I do not believe the President would accept a nuclear Iran without acting. And any agreement will be intensely scrutinized -- by the Congress, certainly here – and ultimately by the American people. I don’t think an inadequate agreement will pass any of those tests.

But there is one, other important dimension I want to emphasize. There are those who would prefer that we wait before seeking to negotiate a deal – who are persuaded that by maintaining sanctions a while longer, or even tightening them further – Iran will surrender. But, think about this: how long will the sanctions regime survive if the United States rather than Iran were seen as the reason for the enduring crisis? If Iran was able to persuade the international community that it was being reasonable about its nuclear program and we were not? Yes, time is on our side because each day the sanctions bind the Iranian economy. But time can be a double-edged sword if the sanctions regime begins to erode.


Let me turn finally the tangled web of issues involving Israel and the Palestinians – issues I have worked on since the beginning of the Clinton Administration but which you live with every day. Let me start with the lapsed negotiations and then turn to the new PA government.

Suspension, pause, collapse—there are lots of words being used to describe where we are right now. Frustration on all sides is understandable, especially after ten months, countless hours, and an extraordinary effort by Secretary Kerry—whom I’ve known well for 20 years and know for certain is a true friend of Israel, acting out of a genuine desire to see a better, secure future for it.

There are many ideas about how we should move forward. As we consider them, we need to start by being clear about our larger strategic goals—both for Israel and the United States. From that vantage point, differences are smaller than they seem. Both have made clear that ultimately they are committed to a two-state solution—not out of some idealistic fantasy, but from a very realistic judgment that it is the only way to preserve Israel’s nature as a Jewish-democratic state. As PM Netanyahu has said, “We don’t want a binational state...I don’t find the status quo desirable.” I believe the Prime Minister is right in both these sentiments. And it is also a strategic imperative for the United States, which is why we have maintained such a sustained focus on Arab-Israeli peacemaking since the 1970’s.

But if that is the larger strategic goal, then anything Israel does in the short and medium term should be consistent with that long-term strategic objective. Medium-term steps—whether unilateral or otherwise—could change mid-term realities, for better or for worse. But they do not fundamentally change the long-term calculus underlying Prime Minister Netanyahu’s judgment. And being consistent to that strategic goal is more than saying “I am for it”. It’s not just lip service. It means not closing the door -- with annexation of parts of the West Bank; the kind of settlement construction that clouds the prospects for a two-state solution; or steps that preclude the possibility of working with – or even imagining – a Palestinian partner –now or in the future. That does not mean a two-state solution will be easy to achieve in the near term. But if it has to wait, all the more reason to make sure that interim policies do not harm its viability.

Let me consider briefly the recent Fatah/Hamas agreement through precisely the same lens – what is in Israel’s long term strategic interest?

The starting point is to call Hamas for what it is – a despicable terrorist organization, committed to Israel’s destruction, whose values are antithetical to our own. It is also a movement at its weakest point in 30 years, and the question, it seems to me, is how best to deal with it.

In the broader sense, in all the years since Hamas took over Gaza by force, there have only been three potential paths for Israel in dealing with this relentlessly hostile movement. First, Israel could seek to destroy Hamas through an Israeli incursion into Gaza, with great costs to Israel. Second, Israel could keep Hamas caged up in Gaza, continue to squeeze it, with the ongoing uncertainty of missile strikes, retaliation and international reprobation. The third path is to use our leverage to try to move Hamas truly under the umbrella of Ramallah – with one authority and one gun --- with the support of the international community. This path is neither easy nor assured, but I think our focus should be on what we can do that is more likely to contribute to it.

Seen in this light, I don’t think the fundamental issue is the composition of this particular PA government. This is the PA government that there is; it has an interest in maintaining access to international funds that comes with adhering to the Quartet principles; and Israel can’t truly cut off ties entirely given its need for security cooperation. I think our focus now should be on what happens to Hamas’ military capability in Gaza and to the PLO. Specifically, we should make clear to President Abbas now– and persuade the EU and Arab states to do likewise – that we will oppose elections in the Palestinian territories that include Hamas as long as it remains an armed terrorist organization committed to Israel’s destruction. And we should be clear to President Abbas that we will oppose Hamas’ integration into the PLO unless and until it signs up to the Quartet principles. Ultimately, Palestinians will make their choices. But we can make sure they are clear about the consequences in advance.

For those who see the complications born of the new Palestinian government or the impasse in the negotiations as reasons to ignore the conflict or give up on the two-state solution, let me ask those people on all three sides some basic questions:

To the Palestinians: One can understand your impatience after twenty years of a peace process that, long ago, was supposed to deliver them a sovereign, independent state. Your frustration with having to deal with the humiliations of occupation. Your temptation to seek recourse at the United Nations and elsewhere. But do you really believe there is a short-cut to a state that circumvents negotiations and dispenses with the need to assure Israelis that their security needs will be fully protected? Like it or not, without Israeli acquiescence, there can be no promising future for the Palestinian people.

To the Israelis: With rockets flying from Gaza, incitement from the West Bank, a refusal to accept Israel’s Jewish nature, one can understand the attraction of throwing in the towel and managing the status quo. But how long can that situation persist? What will the situation be in the West Bank five, ten, twenty years from now? Will the Palestinian people quietly accept reality as it is? Will they insist on the right to vote? Again, like it or not, without Palestinian acquiescence, there ultimately can be no stable, secure future for the people of Israel.

And to the Americans: True, neither party to the conflict seems prepared to take the necessary risks. And true, no third party can make up for the political will that may be lacking on both sides. But then what? I will not venture to say what the best posture is for the United States now – to step back or to explore other routes. But I don’t believe it is in anyone’s interest for the United States to disengage.

I hear some say that peacemaking in the Middle East only happens after a new, violent crisis. History teaches us that, sometimes this can be the case – that things need to get worse and the pain more unbearable for parties in conflict to exit their comfort zones and finally accept the necessity of compromise. But history teaches us something else as well: that violent crises in the Middle East can easily veer out of control, that they have enduring costs throughout the region and that they can endanger vital US interests. It’s a gamble I would not be prepared to take, not with the Middle East in the throes of such enormous instability and uncertainty, not with the risk of inflaming public opinion, not with Israel’s safety in the balance.

All of which brings me back to where I began – to the line the US must walk in a rapidly shifting Middle East – the line between the humility that comes from painful experience and the activism that is indispensable to preserving and protecting our interests and those of our friends and allies. I know there are some in this country – in this region – who watch our politics and read our polls, who hear the arguments in the United States that we need to focus less abroad and more at home and who conclude we have entered a period of American retrenchment – from this region and the world.

Yes, it is true that Americans are “weary of war”. We are tired of sending our armies around the world into costly wars with uncertain missions and unclear results. But our friends, our adversaries – and our leaders – should not confuse American’s “war weariness” with an unwillingness to lead – to engage with others around common goals – where our interests are clearly drawn and the stakes are real. Americans understand that what happens in the world matters to us, and that what happens to us matters to the world.

America is still the “indispensable nation” that President Clinton spoke of. When we lead, we are able to convene the world to do big things, as President Obama did in assembling the coalition against Iran. And when we don’t, as has been the case on Syria, there is often chaos.

Every one of the issues I have raised has a direct and immediate impact on Israel, and its impact on Israel is a compelling interest of the United States. Every positive adjective devised by man has been applied to our relationship – with good reason because it is unique. One I can think of is “resilient”. It has been through one crisis after another since the beginning – in ’56 and ’73 and ’82 and on other occasions – and not only has it endured, it has grown stronger. That is because it is based on the same view of the world, the same basic interests and the same values. That shared future is even truer today as we face the challenges of this turbulent region.