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Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns
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Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns

I appreciate very much the warm introduction, especially at this early hour of the morning. I'd like to thank Harold Tanner and David Harris, who continue to provide this organization with the exceptional leadership it is so well known for.

I see many other friendly and familiar faces here today. I enjoy these annual meetings, and my work with AJC throughout the year. AJC is an organization of true global reach and vision - really one of the premier NGO's on the international stage. To be honest, Harold and David's annual diplomatic contacts are the envy of many foreign ministries around the world - not only for their volume but also for their extraordinary effectiveness.

AJC has, of course, an inspiring and remarkable record over more than a century of strengthening Jewish life in America and elsewhere. But more than this, AJC has been and continues to be one of the most eloquent, effective advocates of freedom, tolerance, and pluralism worldwide. While these have long been central notions in American political discourse, more than ever before we see other peoples and societies trying to work out what these concepts mean for them. This is especially true of the region I deal with in my current job.

The sudden transformation of Iraq has profoundly altered the political landscape of the Middle East. Iraq's liberation has freed the region, and the world, from the threat posed by the frightening combination of a rogue regime with weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. And it freed the Iraqi people from Saddam's horrific oppression. We and our coalition partners are committed to helping the Iraqi people achieve a stable and united country under a representative government that will use Iraq's great reserves of human talent, and its abundant natural resources, to benefit its citizens.

We should have no illusions that this will be easy. There will be setbacks and disappointments along the way. But the most exciting part of the events of the past two months has been the palpable hunger for freedom shown by the Iraqi people: the freedom to topple statues of a hated dictator, to practice long-forbidden religious rituals, and to teach their children without fear. Those freedoms will not easily be put aside again, and the energy they have unleashed will help Iraqis as they face the difficult task of rebuilding a country.

Saddam's fall has dominated headlines, and will have broad and deep effects on the region for some time to come. But it is not the whole story of change in the region. Economic weakness, unemployment, and political stagnation have also contributed to a region-wide sense of disappointment and anger. The 2002 Arab Human Development Report, prepared by some of the region's brightest thinkers, laid out in very candid terms the gaps in economic openness, political freedoms, educational opportunity, and women's empowerment that obstruct the realization of the vast human potential of the Middle East. More than ever before, there is sense throughout the region that internal reform is the key to a better future.

As the Arab Human Development report made clear, these changes can only be sustained if they are the product of drive and initiative from within, not dictated from outside. But there is a lot the United States can do to help peoples and leaderships determined to modernize their economies and open up educational and political opportunities.

President Bush and Secretary Powell have made support for these kinds of home-grown reforms a key element of our regional approach. We have begun to look at creative ways to support and fund local efforts to improve education, especially for women and girls; to accelerate critical economic reforms, that can provide jobs to a new generation of Arab graduates, and to foster political openness and democratization, in ways that match local conditions. We are doing this across the region, with projects ranging from educational reforms in Morocco, micro-enterprise funds in Egypt, and political campaign training in Yemen and Bahrain. At the same time, we have intensified our dialogue with all states in the region to emphasize preparing for a future which demands constructive change. None of us can afford to see stability as a static phenomenon; societies need to adapt to keep pace with the demands of the global economy and the deepest human aspirations of their people.

Reform has also been a central element of President Bush's efforts to end the violence and terror that have frustrated efforts to achieve a secure and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. On June 24, 2002, President Bush laid out a vision for peace based upon the notion of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace, security, and dignity. Such a peace must be based on a clear rejection of the use of terror and violence as a political tool, and, importantly, on the emergence of new leadership not compromised by terror and the building of reformed, democratic Palestinian institutions in preparation for statehood. We are now beginning to see the first fruits of that reform, with a new Palestinian Prime Minister, a Finance Minister who has made important strides in bringing accountability and transparency to Palestinian public finances, and a Palestinian Legislative Council that has embraced the concept of reform and vigorously challenged the old order of the PLO. These are important developments, that have been applauded by a Palestinian public that wants change.

We also expect a new approach in the region. I just returned from a visit to Syria with Secretary Powell marked by some tough, frank discussions about the changed circumstances and distinct choices Syria now faces. The Secretary made very clear our expectation that Syria end its support for terror, and reaffirm its commitment to peaceful negotiations with Israel.

We have some hard work ahead of us. Secretary Powell is heading back to Jerusalem tonight to begin working directly with the parties on concrete steps regarding security, humanitarian issues, and the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian contacts. The President has emphasized his determination to lead in a new and vigorous effort to help Israelis and Palestinians take advantage of the opportunity that is emerging. The President has also made clear his personal commitment to using the Quartet roadmap as a starting point for pursuing the two state vision which he has laid out, and which can only be realized by bringing an end to terror and violence. There is simply no other way.

The roadmap is a broad outline for action, not a treaty or an edict. It offers a pathway that is strictly performance-based, where all sides must fulfill their obligations. That means that the new Palestinian government and rebuilt Palestinian security services will have to take decisive action against the terror that has done so much to undermine Palestinian aspirations. Israel will have an interest in supporting serious efforts on the Palestinian side, resuming security cooperation and easing the very severe economic and humanitarian problems that Palestinians face every day.

As the President has said, this is a moment of opportunity. There are encouraging signs that Palestinians are seeking change. The challenge will be to restore a sense of hope on both sides: for Palestinians, that rejection of terror, democratic reform and political engagement are the true path to the state they seek and better lives for themselves and their children; and for Israelis, that they can make hard choices confident that a real partner for peace is emerging, and that Israel will be accepted in the region as a secure, democratic, vibrant Jewish state.

None of this will come easily, especially after the pain and mistrust of the past two and a half years. It will only come with strong American leadership, for which international efforts can be a very useful complement, but not a substitute. It will only come, as I stressed before, through performance and actions, not simply through statements or rhetorical commitments. And it will only come, it seems to me, when leaders understand that changes on the ground and changes in the way people think reinforce one another. Leaders in the region must speak out and act against incitement and hate language, and speak out and act for tolerance and acceptance. These ideas are new to none of you; they have always been central to AJC's message. This kind of courage and vision can both stimulate and be reinforced by practical changes that show people that progress toward a durable two state solution is possible. That's the real prescription for the renewed hope that Israelis and Palestinians need and deserve, and that the United States is determined to do all it can to achieve.

Thank you again for your time and attention. I wish you all the very best in the rest of your meeting.

Date: 5/8/2003 12:00:00 AM