Jerusalem, Israel - Feb. 18, 2024  - The opening dinner event for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Leadership Mission was held at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, Jerusalem on Sunday night February 18, 2024. The Conference is held annually during the US President's Week with the US leaders gathering in Jerusalem, Israel. 

Ambassador Jack Lew’s Full Remarks to the Conference of President's Israel Mission Delegates follows:

"Good evening, Erev tov to everyone.  Harriet Schleifer, Chair of the Conference of Presidents, William Daroff, Executive Director, Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman Emeritus, it is an honor to address this distinguished group of leaders representing a broad spectrum of major American Jewish organizations.

The Conference of Presidents has long played an important role in civic life in the United States, advocating for the values of American Jews at the highest levels.

From my years at the White House and Treasury, and before that at the Congress, I know that Malcolm, and now William, are welcome and frequent visitors, whose views are heard and valued by policymakers.  

The Conference of Presidents has long been an effective advocate on behalf of the American Jewish community, advancing core policies that are in the strategic interest of the United States, and of deep concern to American Jews.  This includes robust support for Israel’s security and right to self-defense, and also crucial specific policies like Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program, and the first-ever National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism.

Since the horrific attacks of October 7, the American Jewish community has responded.  The close bonds between American Jewish organizations and the State of Israel and its people have played an important role in meeting the urgent needs of a traumatized nation.

After October 7 the government of the United States responded with diplomatic support and war materiel.  At the same time, major American Jewish organizations responded with generosity and compassion by supporting Israeli society, especially communities and individuals directly affected by the October 7 massacre.

American Jewish organizations also demonstrated badly needed moral clarity in the face of despicable expressions of antisemitism after Israel responded to October 7 by defending itself in a war to defeat Hamas as a political or military threat to Israel and its people.  

I was still in the United States on October 7 –  a Shabbat and Simchat Torah of dread and anguish, that only got worse after learning the full scale of Hamas’s brutality.  

Not since Yom Kippur in 1973 was there a similar feeling of existential threat, and this time with horrific details that shocked to the core in terms of brutal violence that made you sick to your stomach.  And as the scale became clear, the numbers were shocking as well — with over 1200 killed and more than 250 hostages, including children, women, and the elderly, forcibly taken to Gaza.

But just as we recall those feelings of hopelessness, there were also acts of heroism – at kibbutzim, at the Nova music festival, and in battles on the streets of Ofakim and Sderot.  Parents, police officers, soldiers, and friends, rushed to the scene of a massacre, ready to do all they could to save innocent people.

And fellow citizens did not miss a beat to step in and meet the urgent needs, demonstrating a unity that transcends political and religious differences, whether showing up for military service, in record time collecting and distributing vital supplies, volunteering to help on farms, or by housing and caring for so many in Israel who left their homes to find safety away from the Gaza perimeter or the border with Lebanon.

In my first days here as Ambassador, it was uplifting to travel around the country and meet these heroes, to see their good work – and to play a small part in joining them in their many acts of hesed.

Memories of the shock, anger, and grief remain strong in the United States, but here in Israel, the trauma is still ongoing.

American commitment and support have helped this country and its people retain hope that the hostages will come home and confidence in the future.

Immediately following October 7, the United States was the first and only nation to offer its full support to Israel, and we have not wavered.

In the first days after the attack, at Israel’s lowest moment, President Biden demonstrated forcefully and unequivocally that the United States has Israel’s back.

Almost immediately, the United States deployed two carrier groups to the region and began a sustained airlift to provide Israel with the tools to strike Hamas terrorists, defend against Hamas rockets, take out Hamas tunnels and infrastructure, and eliminate their stores of weapons.  At the same time, the President—in no uncertain terms—also warned malign actors in the region to stand down.

On October 18, President Biden became our first President to travel to Israel during wartime.  He met with Israelis who survived the massacres, who acted heroically to save their fellow citizens, and with those whose family members were killed or taken hostage.

Indeed, since October 7, the President has consistently put himself out front, working closely with Israeli officials, with Qatar and Egypt, and anyone we could talk to, to secure the return of the hostages.  No less important, the President has acted with political courage in providing support for Israel’s security.  That’s leadership, and it comes from the heart.  

President Biden was instrumental in brokering a humanitarian pause that led to the release of many hostages – and as of today, 112 people who were brutally kidnapped are once again free.

The United States stood steadfast with Israel at the U.N. Security Council in December when we vetoed an imbalanced resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire.

And back in Washington, the Administration has twice made emergency determinations to proceed with the sale of weapons that Israel needs to prosecute its war against Hamas.

U.S. and Israeli officials are conferring nonstop – on large policy matters but also on the crucial details to execute policy effectively — mostly quietly and out of sight, at the highest levels of government, which is a testament to the deep, deep bonds between our countries.  

Since October 7, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been to Israel seven times, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has been here twice, and many other senior officials have been to the region multiple times.  Just this past week the Directors of the FBI and CIA were here to meet with their counterparts.

In a complex and volatile arena, we are fortunate to have so many seasoned officials in the region addressing a range of security and humanitarian challenges.

And yet, despite this extraordinary support, I hear occasional doubts about the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security and concerns that the United States may prevent Israel from achieving its war aims.  

Let me address that for a moment.

As the President has said, Israel has the right, and indeed the responsibility to defend its nation and people.  We have supported Israel’s needs as they arise and have been studious in not interfering in how Israel prosecutes this very difficult war.

And as close friends must, we have made our views known, both on the need to uphold shared values on the conduct of war, and the urgency of meeting humanitarian needs.

Israel had just started to allow humanitarian assistance into Gaza when I arrived here.  Many held the view that not a drop of water, not a drop of milk, and certainly not a drop of fuel should be allowed to enter.

At a moment of national trauma in the midst of a war with a ruthless enemy, this was understandable.  But it was not a policy that added to Israel’s strategic strength, and it was not a policy that reflected Israel’s core values.

We understood that we were calling on Israel to recognize the need to distinguish between civilians and combatants in an environment where the enemy hides behind children and hospital patients.  At the same time, basic food, health care, and sanitation should not be denied to non-combatants, especially not children.

We made the case as both a moral and a strategic imperative.  As a strategic matter, we persuaded leaders that in order to have the time and space to meet their military objectives, it was crucial to address the humanitarian needs arising from a difficult war.  And when history is written, I believe that our Israeli friends will be grateful for the nudge to adhere to the moral compass that we share.

With respect to achieving war aims, 112 hostages are now free because of tireless efforts by the United States.  Starting with the President, our national security team engaged in a very difficult process, together with counterparts in Israel, Qatar, and Egypt, and we kept pressing until an agreement could be reached, in spite of many obstacles implemented.

Today we are again in difficult negotiations, with many differences still to resolve — but a very real hope that the remaining 134 hostages will soon begin to return.  We continue to press on behalf of the six Americans who remain in captivity for whom we have a special duty, along with all of the Israeli hostages, calling on all parties to stay engaged and find a pathway for their return from captivity.  I think we all know that this nation can only begin to heal with their return.

These have been dark months in Israel, but the spirit of the Israeli people has shed light through resilience and shared purpose.

With ongoing negotiations on multiple fronts, there is also a pathway to a better future that could emerge from the horrors of October 7 and the ensuing war.

The United States remains determined to pursue a diplomatic path to a just and lasting peace, with security for Israel and for all in the region.

That future of peace and security is part of a vision we believe is within reach.  

It includes an Israel that is fully integrated into the region, with normal relations with key countries, including Saudi Arabia, and firm guarantees for its long-term security.

That diplomatic path must include steps by the Palestinian Authority to reform, revamp and revitalize itself.

We remain engaged in discussions aimed at finding a diplomatic path to avoid a wider war in the north.

It will take a lot of hard work, and hard decisions, for these pieces to come together, and any solution must ensure the safety and security of Israel, along with the dignity and a life of hope for all people who share this extraordinary and holy land – Jewish, Moslem and Christian.

Arab countries who joined the Abraham Accords, and those who wish to establish normal relations with Israel, will be key both to reforming the Palestinian Authority and to the economic revitalization that will need to follow this war.  Their involvement also depends on addressing the aspirations of Palestinians for a better future.

Underscoring everything is that Israel must be secure.  This means that Israel must be responsible for defending itself, and there cannot be a militarized Palestinian state.

At the same time, if the normalization conversation with Saudi Arabia is to be achieved, there must be an over-the-horizon process that includes a vision for a demilitarized Palestinian state.

Discussing this is a huge challenge for a nation still in a state of trauma, and it is important to remember that Hamas aimed to derail this very conversation on October 7 – and normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be a major defeat for Hamas.  

Of course, not all actors in the region are lining up to move down the path that I described.  Indeed, some are actively trying to sabotage that path.  If Iran and its proxies continue to escalate and expand the cycle of violence that we all want to break, the United States will continue to defend our people, our allies, and our interests.  But that is another reason to press forward for normalization between Israel and its neighbors who see a better future where they can work together.

None of this will be easy.  It will require tough choices, courage, patience, and a steady commitment to shared values.

From the ashes of October 7, there is a chance to build a better future – a future in which Israel is more secure, and generations of conflict can give way to the long-elusive dream of true peace and true security for Israel and this region – a future where Hamas is no longer a threat and the Palestinian people can raise their children to have hopes and dreams that are more powerful than extremist ideologies.

Any decisions on the future will be made by the people of Israel and its elected leaders.  We have shown our commitment to Israel prevailing on the battlefield.

We offer our vision of a better future, and our efforts to achieve it, as another expression of the deep bonds between our two nations and people.

Before I take some of your questions, I’d like to squarely address a matter where there is perceived to be some friction between the United States and Israel.  Frankly, I believe the gaps in our positions are overstated, and I’ll explain why.

On February 1, the President issued an Executive Order that addresses actions that undermine peace, stability, and security in the West Bank.

Coming on the heels of five rounds of financial sanctions since October 7 targeting Hamas, this E.O. gives the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury the authority to sanction foreign nationals who direct or participate in acts of extremist violence and terrorism in the West Bank.  This E.O. is non-discriminatory and applies equally to Israelis and Palestinians.

The problem of violent extremism by a small number of settlers in the West Bank is not new.  We have been documenting it for years, and Israel has itself tried and convicted violent extremist settlers, including individuals recently designated under the new E.O.

This executive order is not about all Israelis and not even about all settlers – just that small minority who pursue violent extremism, and we have consistently shared these concerns, along with the commitment to do what we can to stop it, along with importuning the Government of Israel to take effective action.

To conclude on a positive note, with all that’s transpired in the past four months, it’s hard to remember that on September 26, 2023, Israel was designated into the Visa Waiver Program.

But it is worth remembering.  This was an important achievement by the governments of Israel and the United States, for which my predecessor Ambassador Tom Nides, pushed hard, and for which the Conference of Presidents strongly advocated.

Since October 7, the visa waiver program has made possible visits to the United States by many Israelis, including family members of Israeli hostages.  The humanitarian pleas of those relatives have made a profound impression on American opinion leaders and on U.S. constituencies.

I have met with the families of hostages on many occasions, and the conversations are very hard.  But amid the pain, you also see unbounded resilience and endless resolve to bring their loved ones home.  They have played an unparalleled role in raising awareness of the plight of the hostages and demanding their release.  I pray that they will all be reunited with their loved ones soon.

Thank you for the invitation to speak with you today.