White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel pushed back Tuesday against those who had raised questions about the US commitment to Israel and its focus on Israeli settlements, arguing that the issue shouldn't keep the parties from working toward peace.
"It is only through dialogue that we can achieve the lasting peace that Israel seeks," Emmanuel said.
"No one should allow the issue of settlements to distract from the goal of a lasting peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world," he told participants at the Jewish Federations of North America's General Assembly.
He also called for peace negotiations without unilateral actions by either side and "without preconditions," the latter of which was seen as pushing against Palestinians who are demanding that the US pressure Israel on a total settlement freeze before talks begin. Israel has apparently agreed to a partial freeze, short of what the US would like to see but still seen as a positive step by the White House.
In his address, Emanuel stressed that the engagement US President Barack Obama had conducted throughout the Arab and Muslim world should not be seen as Washington turning its back on Israel.
"As this administration has sought to engage the region, there are some who suggest this implies a diminished level of support for Israel," noted Emmanuel, who substituted for Obama when the latter canceled in order to attend the Fort Hood memorial service. "That is not the intent and that is not the case and never will be."
He described Obama's motives as "just the opposite" - to create peace in the region that will strengthen Israel. He also referred to the repeated statements Obama had made on the "unbreakable" bond between the United States and Israel.
Emanuel declared that a two-state solution was essential for Israel's position and called for the parties to sit down to address the key issues of security, borders, refugees and Jerusalem.
Beginning his speech by referring to his long-standing ties to Israel, Emanuel warned about the dangers of abandoning the effort to make a deal with the Palestinians.
"Demographics cannot be denied," he declared, referring to a situation whereby Israel would have to "attempt to preserve a democratic state, a Jewish state when Jews will soon be a minority west of the Jordan River."
At the same time, he lashed out at Palestinians who advocated a one-state solution, which he described as "the false hope that this measure will eventually overwhelm Israel and lead to its demise."
He acknowledged that the process was a difficult one, and pledged that the US would be supporting Israel along the way.
"Make no mistake, the path toward peace is not one Israel should be asked to walk alone. The US will remain actively engaged" and "stand by Israel as one true friend as it takes steps toward peace."
Emanuel, in his warmly received remarks, which also addressed domestic issues including health care, stem cell research and the economy, briefly referred to the threat of Iran.
He said that the Obama administration had overseen a period in which the efforts to stop Teheran from going nuclear had been strengthened.
"A year ago, Iran was united in its nuclear ambitions and the world was divided in its response. Today, thanks to the work of the president, there is strong and international consensus against a nuclear-armed Iran," he said. "That is the goal of America."
Emanuel began his address by emphasizing his family background and connections with Israel, as his father is an Israeli citizen and he has spent a significant amount of time in the country.
Upon taking the podium before some 3,000 people, he joked that the last time he'd been in front of such a big crowd was at his bar mitzva. He concluded by informing the audience that he would soon be taking his son and nephew to Israel for their own bar mitzvas.
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