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Hearing of the Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee - "Safeguarding Israel's Security in a Volatile Region"

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U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), the top Democrat on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, this afternoon delivered the following opening statement during the panel's hearing entitled "Safeguarding Israel's Security in a Volatile Region." The hearing, which commenced at 1:30 p..m., is likely to be Ackerman's last foreign affairs hearing since he is retiring in January. The following are his comments as delivered.

"Today, the Middle East is a very different region than the one I first encountered as a new Member of Congress in 1983. Many of our longstanding relationships are now being recast, as democracy and Islam are being forced to engage each other as they have never before in the region. Instability and violence are now endemic in places that were once stable under the concrete blanket of repression. But the fundamentals of Israeli security have not significantly changed, even with these changes, as well as the transformations created by the Oslo peace process and the two Intifadas.

Israel's first and foundational security principle is that Israel must have the means to defend itself, by itself. This self-reliance has always been at the heart of Israel's national identity and the ethos of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and this sense of responsibility has not changed. America's primary contributions are financial and strategic. Our assistance enables Israel to procure the defense equipment it needs and, by ensuring that Israel's defense capabilities are qualitatively better than potential adversaries, we help make conflict less likely. Maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge, or QME, is not only an enduring American commitment, but a clear self-interest as well.

Today, the threat of an Iranian nuclear capability looms over the entire region and because of the ayatollah regime's unceasing animosity to Israel and to Jews, it poses a threat of special significance to the Jewish State. As Congress has wrestled with this issue over the years, and through the course of several administrations, two points have become very clear to me. First, anyone genuinely committed to both preventing Iran from crossing the threshold of nuclear weapons capability and avoiding war, must support the most crushing, crippling, strangulating sanctions possible. Only sanctions severe enough to jeopardize the mullahs' grip on power can bring the ayatollahs to even consider ending their military nuclear program. And that's just a maybe.

Secondly, we have to stop playing with euphemisms and magical thinking. The time for referring to metaphorical tables set with options has past. Likewise, the trivializing of the term "unacceptable' has to stop. When the President says, and he has, that "it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon' what we are talking about--provided he's not bluffing and the Iranians do not change course--is sending our armed forces into Iran to attack and destroy key facilities, materials and capabilities. There's a name for such a thing. It's called war and we need to honestly face up to what it could cost us in lives, chaos, and cash, because that's what averting the unacceptable may require.

As someone who truly believes that Iran must not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, I think anyone who supposes that a strike on Iran will be "surgical,' or a brief episode without severe consequences, is delusional. And while the Iranian threat is of particular salience to Israel, anyone who thinks it is just Israel's problem needs to explain why Iran has expended such tremendous efforts to develop ballistic missiles with ranges well beyond that needed to reach Israel. A private conversation with some of our friends in the Gulf might also be useful in dispelling the myth that a nuclear Iran would change very little in a region already wracked with suspicion, instability, and religious tension. This is deadly serious business and it needs to be treated as such.

At this point, both the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian peace processes are stagnant. I remain convinced, however, that for purely self-interested reasons, Israel still needs to separate itself from the Palestinians, and to normalize its relations with the Arab states. Common sense tells us that if you need to cut a deal, you do it when you're strong and the other party is relatively weak. Regardless of future leadership, I can not foresee a scenario where Israel's current comparative advantages--militarily, technologically, demographically, economically, or politically--would be as good or better than they are now. And I have not yet heard as yet of any alternative to two-states that will sustain both Israel's democracy as well as its Jewish identity. The time might not be exactly ripe today, but I know that if you wait long enough, anything that's ripe will get rotten.

Generations of Israeli leaders have recognized American support for Israel as a "vital national interest.' In addition to the many billions in military assistance, the United States provides a unique diplomatic shield and leadership in the international community. Moreover, while there is no formal mutual defense treaty--an Israeli preference it should be noted--American leaders have long let it be known that any threat to Israel's survival would be a matter of the gravest concern for the United States, which substantially enhances Israel's own deterrent capabilities.

For as long as Israeli leaders have recognized that their special relationship with the United States is truly a "vital national interest,' they have recognized that it is essential that American support be bipartisan. Israeli leaders, regardless of party, have recognized this need and have consistently restated this position.

Sadly, American politics has changed and Israel's American support is challenged by entities openly and aggressively seeking to make Israel a wedge-issue in American politics.

The most insidious of these efforts involve characterizing as "anti-Israel' some opinions that, while different from Israel's current government, easily fit within the spectrum of Israel's own Zionist parties. Agreeing with Ahmadinejad is anti-Israel. Agreeing with Kadima or Labor is banal. If unchecked, I fear these smear campaigns will not take long to poison the well of bipartisan support that Israel has justifiably and critically relied upon.

I am all in favor of Democrats and Republicans competing to highlight their support for Israel. And after more than 3 decades in politics, I'm well aware that neither campaigns nor public office are meant for the thin-skinned. But feckless Israeli appeals for restraint from those intent on making Israel an election-year football are insufficient. If the bipartisan nature of American support is, as they say, a truly "vital national interest,' then more needs to be done. Israel's leaders should carefully consider whether those responsible for these wedge campaigns need to be publicly condemned, and if they persist, isolated from Israel's decision-makers.

There are serious challenges facing the region and our two nations, most notably, Iran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons, which absolutely must be prevented. But unless we also look after the fundamentals of our relationship, this challenge as well many others, will be made much harder than necessary."

Witnesses for the hearing included: Elliott Abrams, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; James Phillips, a Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at The Heritage Foundation and Martin S. Indyk, the Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution.


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