Hundreds of National Jewish Leaders Gather in Washington in Solidarity with Israel; Rice, Boehner, Dermer and others address “National Leadership Assembly for Israel”

Washington, DC

National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and House Speaker John Boehner and other congressional leaders spoke Monday of friendship and unity between the United States and Israel, addressing 600 Jewish leaders from leading organizations in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations as well as fifty North American Jewish Federations and community relations councils.


The Jewish community leaders gathered at the National Press Club in Washington for a two-hour meeting — convened on short notice by the Conference of Presidents, with assistance from the Jewish Federations of North America and other organizations — also heard repeated assurances of solidarity and affirmation of the “special relationship” between Israel and the U.S. from other top congressional leaders. Canada’s deputy ambassador to the U.S. said his country stands “unequivocally with Israel and its struggle against Hamas.”


The speakers — including both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, leaders of their parties — described Hamas as a terrorist organization, said Israel had every right to defend itself, and that Gaza must be demilitarized.  “There is no moral equivalency” between Hamas and Israel, many of the speakers said.  Presidents Conference Executive Vice Chairman/CEO Malcolm Hoenlein said an attack on Israel is not just an attack on the Israeli people, but also an attack “on the Jewish people around the world.”


Dermer and Rice both defended U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry against Israeli media criticism of his failed ceasefire negotiations, with Dermer saying he was speaking directly for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and that “the criticism of Secretary Kerry for his good faith efforts to advance a sustainable ceasefire is unwarranted.” Said Rice: “We’ve been dismayed by some press reports in Israel mischaracterizing his efforts last week to achieve a ceasefire.” Kerry, she said, “has been working every step of the way with Israel, in support of our shared interests. Both in public and in private, we have strongly supported Israel’s right to defend itself against rockets and tunnel attacks, and we’ve engaged together in sensitive negotiations. “


The speakers agreed that Hamas had started the conflict with its unrelenting rocket attacks on Israel, and that Israel had accepted other ceasefire proposals when Hamas wouldn’t and that rocket fire continues from Gaza even now.  “There can be no true peace until Hamas is disarmed,” said Bob Cohen, national president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.


Rice assured her audience that the U.S. “commitment to protect Israel’s qualitative military edge remains absolute.”


Israel, she said, is “not alone — not in war, not in peace,” with daily and “highly constructive” contact, consultation and cooperation. “And because America staunchly supports Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state, we’ll also continue doing what we can to bring about a just, comprehensive, and secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians –two states for two peoples, living side by side in peace and security. We are committed to strengthening Israel’s security in achieving this goal — and cementing Israel’s rightful place among the community nations.”


President Barack Obama, she said, has asked for a supplemental request of an “additional $225 million to accelerate the production of Iron Dome components in Israel this year and maintain Israel’s stockpile of interceptor missiles.”


U.S. investment in the Iron Dome, she said, makes it clear that the U.S. “has Israel’s back.”


Robert Sugarman, who chairs the Conference of Presidents, called the Iron Dome “nothing short of a miracle.”


“We heard time and again from Israelis, whether members of the Knesset, taxi driver, the men and women on the street, how grateful they are to the government of this country for its significant role in funding the Iron Dome,” he said.


Dermer expressed his nation’s appreciation to both Obama and Congress for taking seriously its request for additional funding for the Iron Dome. Congress this week is considering that funding. Senate appropriators have inserted the funding into a $3.6 billion emergency supplemental bill, while Senate and House Republicans would prefer it be considered separately.


In funding the missile interceptor, “America’s leaders have helped save many Israeli lives,” Dermer said. “But they have also saved many Palestinian lives by giving the Israeli prime minister and the Israeli cabinet the time and space necessary to make prudent and judicious decisions.” 

If hundreds of rockets were landing on Israel’s cities and causing many casualties, “Israel would have to respond in a much more forceful and less restrained way than it is doing now,” he said.


Dermer also said there is “broad understanding between Israel and the United States about the principles for a sustainable ceasefire.” Those principles include putting in place mechanisms “to ensure that cement is not used to build terror tunnels, iron is not used to manufacture rockets, and chemicals are not used to fuel explosives.”


Monday’s speakers repeatedly cited Israel’s right to defend itself.  “Israel should be commended, not criticized for efforts in the face of an enemy that clearly” puts its own citizens at risk, said Canadian Deputy Chief of Mission Denis Stevens. “People living in Gaza deserve far better than the reckless acts” of Hamas.


House Speaker John Boehner, who said he backed additional funding for the Iron Dome, said that Congress will always support Israel’s right to defend itself. “We will not equate professional militaries with terrorist organizations that use human shields and seek to maximize civilian casualties,” he said. “And we insist that the demilitarization of Gaza be not just a House goal but a shared, uncompromising U.S. and international objective.”


Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., called on the Palestinian Authority, which has entered into a unity government with Hamas, to give up its relationship with the terrorist organization and said Israel has the “right and responsibility to protect its citizens.”


“Israel does not want missiles coming down on its people,” said Cardin, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We would not tolerate that and Israel will not tolerate that.”


“Innocent life loss is a terrible tragedy and in this case, there is no doubt who is responsible” for the loss of life, said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., citing Hamas and Iran. “Loss of life is perceived by Hamas to be another small victory,” he said. Hoyer was one of several speakers to point to Iran’s support of Hamas.

Some speakers told of their personal experiences in Israel. Recalling a bipartisan trip he had taken to Israel as a member of the California Assembly, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who this week becomes House majority leader, remembered meeting a family whose children were the same age as his. While his children played with Monopoly and Candy Land board games, “in their house, they played a board game to tell them where to go when a rocket came. No child should live like that,” the Republican said.

“We would never allow two-thirds of our country population to go to a bomb shelter, we would never allow tunnels to come into our country without being destroyed,” McCarthy said.


Some speakers noted that when Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, Hamas could have built up the Palestinian infrastructure. “Rather than helping the Palestinian people under its control, Hamas decided, ‘no we’re going to be an instrument of weapons,’” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who commended Israel for its restraint against Hamas. “The U.S. would not have shown the restraint that Israel has shown.”


Introducing the three rabbis who offered prayers for Israel, the United States and a memorial prayer for those killed, Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said the trio, representing Judaism’s three major denominations, reflect the “wall-to-wall unity of our people.” The three rabbis were William Gershon, president of the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative); Leonard Matanky, president of the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox); and Fred Reiner, who chairs the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis’ legal society.


Kenneth Bialkin, a former chair of the Conference of Presidents, noted that Israel and the U.S. are “fighting the same long war against terrorism,” while Hoenlein urged the Jewish leaders to become “ambassadors of truth” in fighting the “distortions and misrepresentations” about the conflict, why Israel was forced to act to protect their citizens, and the common stakes of America and Israel in the war against terror.


“Hamas exists to kill,” Hoenlein said. “Israel sometimes has to kill to exist.”


The Conference of Presidents is the central coordinating body representing 50 national Jewish organizations on issues of national and international concern

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