Kerry Defends Peace Process at AIPAC: 'This Isn't About Me; This Is About the Dreams of Israelis'

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John Kerry tried to assure the country's largest pro-Israel lobby that the Iran nuclear deal was the last, best hope of stopping Tehran while proclaiming Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a willing partner for peace.

Kerry showed up 45 minutes late for his Monday evening address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington as both Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and an AIPAC board member tried to assure the crowd that Kerry was a longtime friend of Israel.

And one of Kerry's first messages to the massive crowd -- more than 14,000 registered for the conference -- was that Israel had no better friend than President Obama.

While extolling how Obama is "unrivaled" on Israel policy, the secretary of State challenged anyone to say otherwise: "You can look it up, you can measure it, it's not exaggeration, it's a matter of fact."

"I know there are many questions" about the Iran nuclear deal, Kerry acknowledged. "There's been a healthy debate about the approach."

Then he laid out administration policy in 10 words: "We will not permit Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, period." He then corrected himself -- it was 11 words, "just for punctuation."

Kerry received a standing ovation for that line and for a condemnation of the boycott movement directed at Israel, yet received slight or polite applause at other points in the speech.

"But I want you to understand, there are no if, ands or buts. This is not a political policy. This is a real foreign policy, and we mean every word of what we say. You have the word of the president of the United States that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon," said Kerry. "…And we also know something else: This is not some favor that we do for Israel. This is something that is also in the interests of the United States of America."

"Now to do that, to achieve this all-important goal, important for America's security and for Israel's security, it is crucial that we seize what might be the last best chance to be able to have diplomacy work, and maybe the last chance for quite some time. Because the reality is only strong diplomacy can fully and permanently achieve the goal. Those who say 'strike' and 'hit' need to go look at exactly what happens after you've done that… only strong diplomacy can guarantee that a nuclear weapons program actually goes away."

Still, he acknowledged, there's no guarantee that Iran will play ball.

"I'm not coming here to stand up in front of you and tell you that I know that Iran is going to reach an agreement. I don't know. I don't know what they'll do. I don't know if they are able to make some of the tough decisions they're going to have to make in the months ahead, but I know that if the United States is going to be able to look the world in the eye and say we have to do something, we have to have exhausted the possibilities available to us for that diplomatic, peaceful resolution," Kerry said. "Let me make it clear: Our approach is not Ronald Reagan's and the Soviets. We're not looking at this and saying trust, 'Trust, but verify.' Our approach, in a much more complex and dangerous world, is, 'Verify, and verify.' And that's what we intend to do."

Despite relaxed sanctions that coaxed Iran into a six-month interim agreement, he told the crowed "we have not changed one piece of the sanctions architecture, and yet we are able to negotiate."

"Our eyes, my friends, are wide open. This is not a process that is open-ended. This is not a process that is about trusting Tehran. This is about testing Tehran. And you can be sure that, if Iran fails this test, America will not fail Israel," he said. "Now, we have taken no options off of the table, but so far, there is no question but that tough sanctions and strong diplomacy are already making Israel and America safer."

The Iran deal has been a key point of criticism around this year's conference, and Kerry appeared to acknowledge that by quipping, "Like I tell my staff, there aren't any exit polls in foreign policy."

"If it turns out that Iran cannot address the world's concerns," then the administration will support sanctions bills in Congress. "…Iran is not open for business until Iran is closed for nuclear bombs."

Turning his attention to trying to sell the Mideast peace negotiations, Kerry claimed, "This isn't about me. This is about the dreams of Israelis and the dignity of Palestinians."

"It's about reconciling two peoples who want, at long last, to live normal, secure lives in the land that they have fought over for so long. It's about answering King David's timeless call that we seek peace and pursue it. It's about fulfilling the fervent prayer for peace that Jews around the world recite to welcome Shabbat," he said. "…I also believe that we are at a point in history that requires the United States, as Israel's closest friend and the world's preeminent power, to do everything we can to help end this conflict once and for all."

"I have sat with Bibi Netanyahu for hours and hours and days and days… In fact, he ought to be charging me rent."

After praising the Israeli prime minister's "grit and guts," Kerry turned his praise to Abbas.

"I know there are many doubters here. I've heard the arguments for 30-plus years, 40 years, that there's no partner for peace, that Abbas won't be there, that -- you know, both sides, by the way, say the same thing about each other," he said. "…Thus far, President Abbas, I will tell you, has demonstrated he wants to be a partner for peace. He's committed to trying to end the conflict and all of its claims. But he obviously has a point of view about what's fair and how he can do that."

"As Israeli security officials will attest, President Abbas has been genuinely committed against violence." He later claimed Abbas has sought Washington's help in getting rid of the "germ" of incitement.

Kerry argued that "there is a distinction between a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon or from Gaza, where nothing is resolved, and a phased withdrawal that is negotiated where everything is at least in an agreement resolved…. We're not doing this on a whim and a prayer. We will never let the West Bank turn into another Gaza."

He also suggested that a peace deal would "transform Israel's standing in the region" and open up relations with Muslim countries. "Peace demands that Israel fulfill its destiny not just as a nation, but also as a neighbor. And that begins with the Palestinians, and it extends to the entire Arab League, whose Arab peace initiative can open the door to peace and normalized relations with 20 additional Arab countries and a total of 55 Muslim countries."

The Arab peace plan, which Netanyahu has previously rejected but Abbas has asked Obama to make his official foreign policy, calls for a return to 1967 borders, a "just solution" on the right of return, and divides Jerusalem to make a capital for a Palestinian state.

"It is really no mystery what the end game really looks like. I think you know that in your hearts. We understand what the end game is. I know what peace looks like," Kerry continued, defining this as: "security arrangements that leave Israelis more secure, not less; mutual recognition of the nation-state of the Jewish people and the nation-state of the Palestinian people; an end to the conflict and to all claims; a just and agreed solution for Palestinian refugees, one that does not diminish the Jewish character in the state of Israel; and a resolution that finally allows Jerusalem to live up to its name, as the city of peace."

Kerry, who has set April 29 as a goal for a Mideast agreement framework, said forging a deal would mean "tough choices on both sides, especially over the coming days."

"I guarantee you that America, that President Obama and this administration will be there every day of the week, every step of the way," he said. "And we will stand with Israel's leaders today and with the leaders of the future. And we will ensure that our light shines not just throughout the nations, but throughout the generations."