Transcript: Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ)

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Good morning, AIPAC, and thank you for that warm welcome. I'm honored to be here once again at the Policy Conference.

Let me take a moment of personal privilege to say that sometimes God puts a Goliath in your path to find the David within you. And I found that David within me, but we all know that even David had a slingshot, and many of you here today were part of my slingshot, so I am very grateful and thankful.

It's no secret that I have taken a lot of heat over the years for standing up for what I believe in. But when my children ask me if I knew what was going to happen, would I have taken those same stands and my answer is a resolute yes, absolutely.

Standing here I'm inspired by all of you, the thousands of AIPAC members who dedicate your time and energy to support America's everlasting bond with Israel, and I'm proud to see that once again we have hundreds of AIPAC members here from the great state of New Jersey.

And that includes my dear friend and AIPAC's newest president, Dr. Mort Fridman. As I'm sure many of you know, and if not you'll get to understand, Mort is a real mensch, a stalwart advocate for Israel and a tenacious leader who will continue to serve AIPAC well. Mort, congratulations.

As we celebrate his success, I also want to take a moment to celebrate the life and legacy of a New Jersian and who is no longer with us, Lonny Kaplan. He was a true friend, a champion for this community, and a fierce advocate for truth and justice. To all those here who feel his absence, may his memory, as they say, be a blessing.

I see Lonny's legacy as I look out into the ocean of people gathered here today, people of all ages, all faiths, and all political persuasions. Your commitment to our common cause, your presence, your visits, and your voices send a message across Washington to Jerusalem and throughout the world that the United States and Israel share an alliance that is unbreakable and ironclad.

I especially want to recognize the 3,600 students who made their way to Washington this year. It's important that you're here. In recent days, we have been reminded of the power that rests in the hands of America's youth. When young people stand up and speak out for what they believe in, the world cannot help but listen.

So, to the thousands of students who came to our nation's capital to participate in our democracy, I salute you, I thank you, and ask everyone here to join me in applauding you for participating.

Now, all of us come together clear-eyed and fully aware of the challenging times in which we live. We have seen anti-Semitism, white nationalism, and other insidious breeds of hatred on the rise from the streets of Charlottesville to the capitals of Europe. We have seen ever-increasing volatility in the Middle East and a refugee crisis unseen since World War II. And we have seen Iranian aggression throughout the region, propelling terrorist proxies ever closer to Israel's borders, and we confront these challenges together.

And as we do so, I continue to be guided by my belief that it is in the national interest and security of the United States to have a strong, unwavering alliance with the State of Israel, the one true democracy in a sea of autocracy, a steadfast ally of the United States, and a nation of incredible innovation and economic sway, and the country most likely to be voting with us in common cause in international forums.

Now, most of you know that I have resumed my role as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I want to commend my friend, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, a strong friend of Israel and AIPAC, for his steadfast leadership. And in my renewed capacity, I will be a continuing champion for the values that we share.

Much like the bond between the United States and Israel, I do not back away from my commitments; I do not waver in my beliefs. Even when political winds change, even when it may be tough for others to stand up for Israel, I will always stand up for three fundamental truths.

One, the security of the United States is strong when our bond with Israel is strong; two, the Jewish people have a right to live in peace, security, and prosperity in the indisputable homeland of their ancestors; and, three, Israel has a right to defend herself and the United States will always ensure she has the capabilities necessary to protect herself and her borders.

We know that Israel has always been surrounded by enemies, but today the stakes are higher, the risks are greater, the threats are more deadly and increasingly existential. For years we have been talking about the threats Iran poses to Israel. We have heard the anti-Israel vitriol echoing out of Tehran. We have seen its proxies pushing closer and closer to Israel's borders, and we know exactly why Iran continues to expand into Syria and invest so much in prolonging Bashar al-Assad's brutal dictatorship.

Iranian leaders, transferring weapons to Hezbollah, seek to build a land bridge from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut. Iran views the Syrian battlefield as a laboratory for training Iranian proxy forces devoted to a singular mission, Israel's destruction, and we know that Russia has helped enable Iran's expansion in Syria by prolonging Assad's grip on power.

Hand-in-hand criminal and terrorist, Putin and Assad have cleared a path for the Iranian regime to expand its military footprint. Make no mistake, Iran is building an advanced military presence in Syria and we risk willfully disregarding this reality if we cling to a failed policy of negotiating with Russia. That's precisely what we are doing if we continue to seek out agreements to de-escalate areas in Syria.

These agreements with Russia are dangerous. They are in fact paving the way for Iran to stay in Syria. That's why it's well past time for the president to recognize that in Syria, here at home, or around the world, Russia is not a partner for stability or peace at the end of the day. Russia has made its alliances clear with the slaughter of civilians, dropping bombs on hospitals, on homes, on humanitarian aid convoys working to care for people under siege.

And Putin continues to exploit the migration crisis to sow discord throughout Western Europe and continue his campaign to undermine the post-World War II international order. Links between Moscow and Tehran and Damascus are crystal-clear. Without American leadership, I fear there will be no international response to the Russian-backed Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

We saw it last month when Iran sent a drone into Israeli airspace and the Assad regime turned its Russian-provided air defense system on an Israeli fighter jet. Of course, Israel responded with necessary and appropriate force in defending herself and her redlines, and we applaud the bravery and the precision conduct of the Israel Defense Forces.

We must be unequivocal in our support for our allies. We must assert our global leadership driven by our principles, our values and security, and we cannot cede this leadership to our adversaries. We must stop wasting time testing Russia's resolve on Iran. Indeed, President Putin is happy to keep the administration wringing its hands while Iran moves in next door to Israel.

My friends, this situation is untenable and it's absolutely unacceptable. As Iran grows its footprint in Syria and battle-hardened fighters return to Lebanon – we know that Lebanese Hezbollah continues to build new missile-production facilities and advanced weapons it plans to direct at Israel.

In the face of this growing threat, it's no wonder why there's increasing talk in Israel of a next war. This is not a war that Israel wants, but she may nonetheless be forced to fight it. If that day should come, the world should understand this: There is absolutely no moral equivalency between Israel, a peace-loving vibrant democracy and innovative economy with so much to offer the world, and Hezbollah, a terrorist organization that spews hate, trains martyrs, holds the Lebanese state hostage, and receives support and direction from the Iranian regime. There is no moral equivalency.

We know that Israel would prefer to keep the sword of freedom sheathed, but if she is forced to take on this fight, we know where the United States will stand: We will stand on the side of our one true democratic ally in the Middle East, the State of Israel.

These growing threats demand that we do everything we can now to push back against Iran's continued aggression. I have spent the better part of my more than two-and-a-half decades in Congress working to support strategic diplomatic multilateral efforts to confront Iran. That's why last year I worked with a bipartisan group of my colleagues to author and pass the Countering America's Adversary Through Sanctions Act also known as CAATSA.

At a time when bipartisanship division is too often the norm in Washington, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate voted by a margin of 98 to 2 to give the Administration more tools to sanction Iran for its nefarious behaviors. That's a strong bipartisan vote. And I know that our success, in large part, is because of the AIPAC members in this room.

Yet, despite the bipartisan clarion call for action by Congress, the administration has yet to fully use the tools we provided, nor have they developed and implemented a comprehensive strategy, as called for in the law, for confronting Iranian aggression. So, I hope together we can send a loud, clear, unified message to the White House: impose the CAATSA sanctions, use the tools Congress gave you, and do it without delay.

Now, speaking of Iran and sanctions, let's turn to the nuclear accord. Everyone here knows where I stood on the Iran nuclear agreement. I had serious doubts about gifting the regime with sanctions relief in exchange for short-term limits on its nuclear program, and those concerns are evermore true to me today as they were then.

For now, Iran is complying with the limited terms of the deal, but no one should be surprised that the JCPOA did not suddenly transform Iran into a responsible member of the international community. The recent protests in Iran have reminded us that this regime continues to put funding for terrorist proxies ahead of the well-being of its own people.

That's why I believe at this moment it is essential that the United States immediately develop a comprehensive, coherent strategy to address Iran's destabilizing behavior, including its nonnuclear asymmetrical activities, while simultaneously working to address our long-term concerns about its nuclear program.

If used correctly, this administration has potentially created leverage to address the concerns we all share about Iran. But I fear the lack of a comprehensive, coherent strategy ultimately leaves the United States with less leverage to work productively with our allies. We spent decades pursuing tough diplomacy and sanctions to bring our international partners together to address Iran's threats and we must continue engaging the international community in a meaningful conversation about Iran's long-term nuclear capacity in the years ahead after many JCPOA limitations expire.

And in Congress, we must push the administration to pursue effective diplomacy to hold Iran accountable each time it violates U.N. security resolutions and tests another missile or delivers another weapon into the hands of Houthi fighters in Yemen. That's why along with Senator Corker, I am leading a letter to Secretary Tillerson in support of these diplomatic efforts.

The United States has leverage right now and I want the administration to use it. Iran must understand that the United States and our partners will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran—not now, not ever.

We haven't forgotten Iran's nuclear history. The regime has lied about its nuclear ambitions before. That is why we must remain vigilant, we must be prepared, and we must make our expectations abundantly clear. Now, I know that many of you share my concerns about what comes after the JCPOA. Our European partners and the other parties to the deal have said that they agree there needs to be a successor agreement and I welcome the administration initiating these talks on a diplomatic track.

This challenge reminds us that fighting for Israel starts long before the battlefield. It means fighting in the halls of the United Nations and in the capitals of Europe and sometimes within one's own party to do what is right. If we want to hold Iran accountable each time it violates U.N. security resolutions, by testing missiles or delivering weapons to Hezbollah, we need a fully funded, skilled and experienced diplomatic corps to get the job done.

That's why I reject the administration's efforts to recklessly slash funding for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. How else can we expect to combat biased, one-sided, and hateful acts of the United Nations that not only unfairly target Israel, but seek to delegitimize the ties of Jewish people to their ancestral homeland?

It's disgraceful to see organizations and missions to the United Nations fail to take action on war crimes in Syria and the gross human rights violations of the Iranian regime or the Venezuelan regime or the Cuban regime, but always find time to condemn and target and isolate Israel.

Of course, these insidious efforts to isolate Israel from the global community extend far beyond the United Nations. Now, I dream of the day when we will not have to fight these fights. I pray for the day when we will not have to fight boycott, divestment, and sanction policies by governments and businesses or at the United Nations or here at home on college campuses. So, to the 3,600 students attending the AIPAC Policy Conference, you are the front line standing up for Israel on those college campuses and we applaud you.

We know that you face a rising tide of grossly misguided voices on your campuses and among your peers. Now, I have never shied away from calling the BDS movement for exactly what it is: a thinly veiled anti-Semitic, politically motivated, discriminatory and reminiscent of a history we spent over half a century working to ensure is never repeated again.

So, mark my words, at every forum where I have a voice and a vote, I will ensure that the letters "BDS" are told exactly for what they are: "biased directed solely" at one people and one country by those who should know better. It's up to all of us. It's up to all of us to stand up, to stand together, speak out against anti-Semitic hatred and bigotry in all of its forms, and that includes right here at home.

Last year, the United States saw the number of anti-Semitic incidents increase by 57 percent. Even in my home state of New Jersey, we saw anti-Semitic incidents rose by nearly a third in 2017. That's right, even in New Jersey, the Anti-Defamation League reported that there were more than 200 anti-Semitic incidents in the Garden State, up 30 percent, including bomb threats against Jewish institutions and assaults and vandalism. This is 2018. This is horrifying. We've seen anti-Semitism creep into political discourse across the world, on display in squares and streets we could never have imagined we would find it again.

Last month we watched with horror as Poland passed a law criminalizing the active acknowledgment that Poles had a role in collaborating with the German Third Reich. This is a gross attempt to rewrite history, one that risked denying the past, the suffering of millions, and stoking anti-Semitic hatred. That's why in advance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day my Republican colleague, Senator Marco Rubio, and I sent a letter to the president urging him to publicly memorialize the 6 million Jews brutally murdered in the Holocaust, to forcefully and unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms, and to nominate an appropriately qualified person to serve as the State Department's special envoy to combat anti-Semitism throughout the world.

With hatred and bigotry on the rise worldwide, with refugee numbers not seen since World War II, with actual Nazis running for Congress in Illinois, it is hard not to hearken back to the darkest period of the last century. Indeed, the Holocaust is a lasting reminder of the perils faced by the Jewish people in exile, a reminder of the miracle of the reestablishment of the modern State of Israel, but it is a political reality backed by thousands of years dating to the time of Abraham and Sarah.

And so it is a written history by the courage of pioneers who turned the desert sands green, the woe, wary, and oppressed to return to their ancestral home with nothing but a dream and their collective historical memories; a dream the people of Israel have realized today with a vibrant democracy and the rise of Israeli institutions that continue to win Nobel prizes, save lives, shape the world with game-changing innovations in health care, in agriculture, technology, and so much more.

Both the United States and Israel are nations built by dreamers and immigrants, by innovators and inventors, by peace-loving people who seek to build a brighter world. That is why we are not bound together just by mutual security interests but also by shared values that transcend partisan divides that outlast the daily grind of American politics.

Too often as I travel the country I hear concerns that support for Israel is no longer a bipartisan cause. I hear people citing recent opinion polling. But I encourage you to dig deeper. No recent surveys have presented a binary question of whether or not one supports Israel; and while political opinions sway over time, there is continuing overwhelming bipartisan support for Israel in the United States Congress. You saw that overwhelming bipartisan support in the passage of CAATSA by a margin of 98-2. We don't often get 98-2 votes in the United States Congress.

You saw that bipartisan support in the introduction of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act—legislation that will confront the misguided and bigoted BDS movement; you saw it in a bipartisan letter urging Israel's inclusion into the global entry program signed by all 100 members of the United States Senate; you saw it when the House of Representatives passed the Taylor Force Act, which says no to funding the Palestinian Authority's continuing incitement of violence and financial support for convicted terrorists, an effort I urged the Senate to take up in short order.

And you saw that bipartisan support in the historic $38 billion memorandum of understanding we fought to secure in 2016, an agreement that ensures Israel's defenses remain unmatched in the region and that the United States and Israel continue developing defense technologies of outstanding sophistication like Iron Dome, David's Sling, and the Arrow-3 missile defense systems.

These technologies have not only saved the lives of Israeli civilians threatened by Hamas rockets, they have enhanced the security of America's own forces. Above all, we remain united in our support for a two-state solution with Israel's capital in Jerusalem which will ultimately be the best guarantor for a secure, peaceful, and democratic Jewish state.

I won't deny that in times like these with anti-Semitism on the rise, with Iran emboldened, with instability surrounding Israel at every turn, the path to a Jewish democratic state of Israel secure at home and that peace with its neighbors may seem elusive; at times maybe even impossible. We must in these trying times cling to the values and hopes that have always driven our two countries: that justice will prevail over evil, that truth will triumph over bigotry; that we can unite in common cause in advance of democracy of human dignity of peace.

As Theodor Herzl said, "If you will it, it is no dream." And nearly 70 years later, his words ring true. The will that drove those first pioneers to the desert, who turned sand into thriving fields, who translated their dreams into a modern-day Israel, recalls the past while embracing the future. These are the values we cling to today.

As we prepare to celebrate Israel's 70th anniversary, it is you who have kept the shared values, hopes, and dreams of the American and Israeli people forever aligned and I am proud to stand with you, knowing full well that no matter what challenges come our way, we will stand strong.

We will not shrink in the face of growing threats against our cherished ally; we will not be silent in the face of rising tide of anti-Semitism here at home or abroad; and we will not be deterred by those who try to drive a partisan wedge between us. We will stand united against those foreign adversaries who seek the destruction of Israel, and together we will show the world that the United States stands by the right of the Israeli people to live peacefully and securely in their homeland.

David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, once said that in Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles. Well, my friends, I believe in miracles and I believe in the State of Israel.

Thank you and shalom.