Address by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the UJA-CJA General Assembly

Jerusalem
November 16, 1998

I want to welcome all of you to Jerusalem, our eternal and undivided capital. And I want to especially welcome your decision to hold the General Assembly in Jerusalem on our 50th anniversary.

I used to walk in this city in my childhood, and I wondered then, as I do now, if our kings and prophets walked the same paths, if they stepped where the sidewalks are today.

And I felt the kind of bond to this land and to this city, which all Jews must feel as they walk here. It’s a bond without parallel in the history of peoples. And your being here today confirms this bond.

It shows that we agree on one basic precept, the centrality of Israel in Jewish life.

Yesterday my wife and I attended an enormously moving ceremony for Max Fisher, on his 90th birthday. Max’s message was really this: to make Israel the central pillar of Jewish life, and to ensure that Jews everywhere devote themselves to this core of Jewish life.

We have all the same goals: Jewish survival, Israel’s security, and the attainment of peace with security with our neighbors.

These three goals unite us. I think they unite virtually all Jews, everywhere.

Now, we must preserve this unity; and we’re going to do it. This is my commitment and this is the commitment of our government.

But we can only do it if we remember, if we keep in mind one basic truth: We are all equal members of the same people. There is no such thing as a second class Jew!!

All Jews are equal before God. All Jews must be equal before man.

This does not mean that we should not have and cannot have diversity of opinions. I’m sure there’s no danger that we’ll have uniformity of opinions, I don’t think there’s any danger of that.

But it does mean that we must resolve our differences with patience, understanding, reason and mutual respect for one another.

It means that problems arising from differences from various trends in Judaism should be resolved through dialogue.

We should avoid as much as we can, as much as is possible, court decisions and legislation to solve these differences.

We need goodwill, we need loyalty to our common heritage, and we need a sense of responsibility. This is what we have been trying to do over the past two years, as we tackle theological issues of immense consequence for us. They may have objective consequence, more often than not they have subjective consequence, but it is consequence just the same. And what we have to do is understand how sensitive, delicate and important these issues are and how we must tread very, very carefully around them.

I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that what’s at stake is the survival of the Jewish people, because we cannot and we must not have internal strife and schisms among us. We have too many other problems to solve.

We are celebrating today half a century of Israel’s existence. In two years we’ll mark the end of this, the best and worst century in the history of man.

It is also the best and worst century in the history of the Jewish people. It is a century in which, in its mid-point, we had to wrest survival from the jaws of extinction, and we barely made it. We created a beachhead here for the Jewish people, and had we not created Israel I believe the Jewish people would have ultimately disappeared.

We all share an observation that had there been an Israel there might not have been a Holocaust. I would say: there would not have been a Holocaust.

But equally I can say that if Israel had not come to be after the Holocaust, I doubt if the Jewish people would have had a future.

The first goal that we had to achieve was to prevent the annihilation of this bridgehead of our new-found independence. And we have devoted, in the last half century, enormous resources – all of us; you in the Diaspora, and we here – to the State. To fortify the State, to repel invasion and aggression by those who would snuff out the life of the Jewish State.

We have succeeded in ensuring the wellbeing, the protection, the defenses and the security of the State of Israel. In most ways, we have pushed away and rolled back the threat of physical annihilation of the Jewish State, and that is an enormous achievement.

The first half-century of our life as a state was devoted to securing the life of the State. I believe that the next half century must be devoted to securing the life of the Jewish people.

Each of you, in your own lives, in your own families, in your children and grandchildren, know to be true: that the threat of annihilation is no longer physical but spiritual. That the greatest threat is the inexorable process of assimilation and the loss of identity in inter-marriage that threatens like a powerful centrifugal force to tear the Jewish people apart.

Half a century ago, at the end of World War II, at the end of the greatest calamity that our people sustained, we lost 6 million of our members. We numbered 12 million. By the slowest rate of population increase that we recognize in Western societies we should have been now at least 24 million Jews. But our numbers are still 12 million.

For the moment. Because there is an internal process which shows that those numbers would decline in the Diaspora. And we have to ask ourselves, here on this 50th General Assembly of the representative of North American Jewry, here in the Jewish State, what is it that we can do to arrest this decline, this terrible ravaging of our numbers, of our people?

The first solution is massive aliyah from every country of the Diaspora, including the United States, including Canada. I believe that such an aliyah is not an impossible dream. I believe that it also safeguards the remaining communities because it forms a human bridge between the members of the families who are here and those who are there. It forges meaning, it gives meaning, it gives content – a Jewish content – to their lives.

I said that I don’t think it’s an impossibility because the day is near when Jews will immigrate to Israel both to fulfill themselves as Jews and yes, to improve their quality of life.

This may sound strange to you. But it’s already happening from a number of Western countries. Soon, people will be able to live in this country in conditions similar to those of the United States.

Even today, our GDP per capita, our income levels are equal to the average Western European standards. Not Eastern European, Western European standards. And they are approaching those of the United Kingdom.

We have the brain power, the economic capability to significantly improve these standards. Israel today has over 3,000 hi-tech start-up companies. That’s more than any other country in the world, other than the United States, in absolute numbers – not in relative numbers.

This is a country of 6 million. This is not a billion point two Chinese, or a billion Indians, or France or Germany or Japan. Israel has more hi-tech start-up companies than any of them. We are perfectly suited for the information economy, for the economy that produces conceptual products and services, and there is wealth – human wealth and material wealth – that comes with that.

I don’t expect massive immigration from the Western countries in the immediate future. But I believe that it will happen, in greater numbers than we anticipate as we achieve our goals of prosperity and security and peace.

What we must do immediately is form a close partnership between the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora, and to make this partnership meaningful, to emphasize the importance we attach to it, this government has appointed a Ministerial committee for Diaspora Relations headed by my good friend Natan Sharansky.

It will oversee all aspects of cooperation between Israel and Jews who live abroad, and it will be a national priority at the highest governmental level.

I think that beyond Aliya, the main goal of our efforts, your efforts, our common efforts, should be Jewish education and Hebrew studies.

Jewish youngsters today, in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Latin America, or other countries, study a foreign language, usually French, Spanish, yet most of these Jewish youngsters, overwhelmingly, cannot speak a word of Hebrew. The People of the Book are becoming the People who can not even read the Book. That is why Charles [Bronfman], I so much appreciate your successful attempt at speaking, reading and writing Hebrew. "Hazak ve-amatz."

Jewish Day Schools are an antidote to assimilation. They promote participation in Jewish life, and more Jewish education means more Jewish consciousness. Such schools, I believe, should be affordable. They should be attractive. They are the surest means of ensuring Jewish continuity in the Diaspora.

We will continue to promote such programs as the "Israel Experience" and "Birth Right". And I want to take this opportunity and thank Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman for their tremendous contribution to this effort.

Bringing Jewish youngsters to Israel is like the weather – everyone talks about it but few do anything about it. Well, Charles and Michael are doing something about it, but they can do a great deal more if all of you pitch in, and I expect you will. Because what we have in mind right now is a concept, a partnership between the Jewish Diaspora and the Jewish State where we will put in money… You’re shocked. Yes, Israel is going to give money to the Diaspora to help promote Jewish education, Jewish identity, visits of Jewish youngsters to Israel. At the 50th anniversary of the Jewish State, it’s time we gave something back.

We will soon embark on a detailed program to bring many many more youngsters here. I know that nothing, nothing, makes such an indelible impression on them – they either stay here or they go back forever changed as Jews. And they will touch the hearts and minds of other Jews.

Now, there has been another area of successful cooperation.

With your indispensable help, this government has done a great deal to bring about the restitution of Jewish property robbed by the Nazis.

This is not only a matter of extending help to victims of the Holocaust and their families, and the actual victims, as you know, are dying out.

What we are seeking is not merely to retrieve a tiny fraction of the property that they lost, but to bring a modicum of justice for the greatest crime ever committed. But this is also a way to remind the world of what happened, and combat those who would deny history.

And I want to thank all of you here, and some who are not here, who have been involved in this sacred task. I must mention again the name Bronfman. This family is doing a great deal for the Jewish people, and I salute Edgar Bronfman and many of his colleagues who have done an enormously important job.

As Zionists we view all of these endeavors as a means to a common end, a prelude to the ultimate aim of Zionism: the ingathering of the exiles.

This is no longer a distant or prophetic dream.

I think that within a decade, at most a decade and a half, for the first time since the days of the Second Temple, 2000 years ago, the majority of the Jewish people will live here in the Jewish land.

But this is not enough. I want you to think how different, how powerful, how invincible this nation will be if the overwhelming number of Jews decided to make their home here.

And I am sure this day will come, the day of the full realization of the Zionist dream.

To bring it about we must achieve the other two of the three goals on which we agree.

In the 50 years of the State of Israel we have gathered and integrated Jews here from 100 countries, revived the Hebrew Language, created a unique culture, established a place in the forefront of world art and literature, made immense strides in science and technology and built a solid economy.

Yesterday I gave prizes to outstanding policemen. There were 12 of them. And I looked at them. And you just hear their names – Leonid, Jamil (a Druze), Berkovitch, Shriki, Mandler and Gatate, Gatate is from Ethiopia. From Ethiopia, from Russia, from Morocco, a Druze, there was also an Arab, a volunteer there who did wonderful work.

And I thought this represents what Israel is becoming – the home of the Jewish people with room for others in a very, very unusual new tapestry that is emerging here. I think that this job of integration, of living together, is perhaps our greatest success.

The only other major goal of Zionism not yet accomplished is the conclusion of peace agreements with all of our neighbors. And we are committed to achieving this goal. This is a number one priority, for us, for this government, for every citizen of Israel.

We have achieved peace with Egypt, with Jordan, a preliminary peace agreement with the Palestinians, another peace agreement that I believe will be approved by the Knesset tomorrow, after some debate.

But we are committed also to achieving peace with Syria and peace with Lebanon. We are aware, we have been made aware today of the tremendous cost to us in protecting our security in the Northern border. We lost today several more brave soldiers in Lebanon.

We have no desire to be there, but we shall stay there as long as we are needed to protect the North of Israel. We would like to see the Lebanese government fan the Lebanese army to the South, right up to the fence.

We have no conditions for departing from Lebanon, not even a peace treaty, which we believe we’ll achieve. But what we want to see is someone to take up the slack and that someone must be the Lebanese who will make Lebanon a responsible country that does not afford a safe haven and a launching ground for the Hizballah terrorists against us. As soon as we are convinced of that we will leave Lebanon immediately.

No people have suffered more from the agonies of war than the Jewish people in this century, including the Jewish people in this land. We don’t have a family that has not been touched and wounded and grieved by the ravages of war, or the war between wars, known as terrorism.

And this is why no one is more sensitive and more aware of the suffering of the Palestinians caused by the wars that were launched against us.

We want to alleviate and end this suffering for all of us. We want to achieve a just and secure and durable peace with the Palestinians and with all our neighbors.

But peace is meaningless without security. And if the experience of the Middle East has taught us anything, it is that peace cannot be achieved unless we see things as they are.

This is difficult, mighty difficult. Because it is far more tempting to receive praise, and you’ll always be patted on the back for giving more and conceding more and more, giving more and more without receiving any security in return.

We know that taking the easy route invites disaster. We could do it in Lebanon today. If I gave you a proposition that said – we shall sign a peace treaty with Lebanon and exit Lebanon forthwith, and we’ll continue to have Hizballah terrorists after we sign the peace treaty, you’ll say – well, that’s ridiculous. Peace and terrorism cannot coexist. It’s either one or the other, but not both.

And therefore we demand an end to terror, the achievement of peace, an end to violence. The demands that we make on our partners for peace: that they stop the violence, or at least make a whole-hearted, full, unabridged effort to quell the violence in their midst. This is not just a necessary complement to peace, it is the essence of peace. You cannot separate peace and security. They are intertwined.

I think that only a realistic approach, only this sober insistence, unclouded by illusions, will bring peace.

This realism that I am talking about includes our recognition of the fact of the Palestinian entity.

And this is why we insisted that the agreement we signed at Wye River is based both on this recognition and on linkage and reciprocity.

I want to tell you that it is personally painful for me. I think it’s painful for every member of this government, to give up any part of Eretz Yisrael.

If we do so it is because we remain faithful to an agreement that was signed by the previous government, and responsible governments honor the agreements signed by their predecessors.

If we want other agreements to be honored, and this I say to some of my colleagues who criticize us, you cannot expect that to happen if we do not keep the commitments made by previous governments.

But if the Palestinians are to be our partners for peace, they must live up to their agreements and to their commitments. We cannot give up territory and get terrorism in return. We are not making any new demands. The late Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel who signed the Oslo accords, made essentially the same demands more than five years ago.

He signed the Oslo agreement only after he got assurances from Yasser Arafat that the Palestinians would annul or abolish their Charter which calls for Israel’s destruction, that they wage all-out war against terrorism, that they’ll cease the endless antisemitic and anti-Israeli propaganda in their official pronouncements, in their official media. And other commitments.

We are still waiting for them to fulfill these commitments.

And the Wye Agreement was structured to create a timetable for mutual commitments to be fulfilled. Over a period of three months, the Palestinians would carry out some of their commitments and we would withdraw from some of the land. Over the next period they would carry out more commitments and we would withdraw from still more land, and so on into the third phase.

This is the essential logic of Wye and it is sound.

But to say, as Chairman Arafat did yesterday, that they would make the Eastern part of Jerusalem their capital by raising rifles against us is not a declaration of peace. It runs contrary to Wye, it runs contrary to Hebron, it runs contrary to the Oslo Agreements. It is unacceptable.

Nor are those antisemitic pronouncements delivered every day by Palestinian leaders, or the statements which deny their obligation to vote down the charter articles which calls for Israel’s destruction at the PNC meeting that will be attended by President Clinton. All of those are contrary to the agreement we concluded in Wye, verbally and in written form.

I announced today in the Knesset that I will implement the first phase of our withdrawal only after the Palestinians retract the most obnoxious of these pronouncements. Especially those that say that there will be no negotiations and that the decision will be dictated to us and dictated by violence.

I want to tell you that I believe we can reach an agreement. Essentially, the agreement must balance the Palestinians’ desire to run their own lives with our desire to protect our life and our vital interests. That can only be done through negotiations.

There’s no other way. Any attempt to force a decision by them on us or for that matter by us on them, will remain in the realm of protracted conflict with tragic, even catastrophic consequences. So the commitment to the peace process means a commitment to a negotiating process. And we must be prepared to negotiate continuously, tirelessly until we achieve a resolution.

We want to conclude this agreement and move on to the permanent status talks. We want to reach a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.

But we are not prepared to give up land only to bolster hostility, encourage terrorism and endanger Israel’s security.

I’m often asked if I’m optimistic about the prospects for peace. I believe that a realistic assessment is not incompatible with optimism.

If we stay united in the search for peace. If we know how to make compromises but refuse to give up on what we consider our vital security needs. And if we can separate reality from wishful thinking, we will achieve peace. I’m absolutely confident of that.

In this 50th anniversary year we recognize that the Zionist movement and the State of Israel are a spectacular success story.

But I’m sure that as future generations will view our successes, they will say "They did not realize that this was just the beginning. They did not realize that the best was yet to come".

I believe all of you realize this. The significance of this achievement was brought home to me in a recent visit that my wife and I made to Beijing. We met the President of China, Jiang Zemin, a very impressive personality.

He said that he very much admired the Jewish people who made an unusual contribution in history. He said, you know, the Jewish people and the Chinese people are two of the oldest peoples in the world.

I said you’re right Mr. President, there’s a third, the Indians. The Indians, the Chinese and the Jews, are five thousand years and four thousand years old, respectively.

I said, Mr. President, how many Chinese are there? He said, a billion two, we’re counting. How many Indians? About a billion. How many Jews? Well, he wasn’t sure.

He was quite surprised when I told him that our numbers, that we number only 12 million. I said, this is strange, because two thousand years ago, at the height of the Roman Empire, we numbered about 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire, and by any fair extrapolation today, we should number about two hundred, two hundred fifty million people, but we’re only 12 million.

He said why is that. I said for many reasons, but one main reason. The Chinese kept China, the Indians kept India, but the children of Israel lost the land of Israel and that is why we’ve come back, and having come back, we’ll protect our state and our land and our security and build an economy and bring in the exiles, and refurbish our national lives and above all, protect our city, our united city of Jerusalem.

This, I think is what we can all unite about, and I want to thank all of you for coming here to make that point once again.

Thank you very much.