Speech by Prime Minister Barak to the Knesset in Honor of Federal Republic of Germany President Rau

(Communicated by the Prime Minister’s Media Advisor)

Following is the text of the speech delivered by Prime Minister Ehud Barak yesterday (Wednesday) 16.2.2000, to the Knesset at a special plenum session in honor of Federal Republic of Germany President Dr. Johannes Rau:

We are very happy to host here today Dr. Johannes Rau, on his first official visit to Israel in his capacity as President of the Federal Republic of Germany. This is the first official visit by a President of Germany in 15 years, but the 33rd visit by Dr. Rau himself – and these are only his official visits to Israel.

These many visits are evidence not only of our personal relations with Dr. Rau, which began long before he became President of the Federal Republic. They are also evidence of the good relations that have developed between our nations and peoples.

These days we are investing great efforts to advance the peace process in the region, a process that is intended to give Israel a secure future, a future for the Middle East and an end to more than a century of hatred and violence between us and our neighbors.

These 100 years have seen both the founding and consolidation of our sovereignty in the Land of Israel along with continuous hatred and loss of life, pain and bitterness on both sides. Even at this time – our hearts are with the bereaved families who are mourning their dear ones, the soldiers who have fallen in Lebanon. Our thoughts accompany the families of the wounded and we are united in prayer for their full recovery.

At this moment of grief and introspection, it is sometimes hard to see how it may be possible to extend a hand to each other and bridge the chasm of hatred and pain that separates us from our neighbors. But these are the moments that test the national leadership which must rise above the immediate [issues] and see ahead to a different future and head there – with courage and determination. These are moments that test the entire nation.

David Ben-Gurion foresaw this. He believed, against all the doubters, that it was possible to overcome the threats of the past, while remembering the pain, and to march forward for the good of the State of Israel, for its strength and prosperity; the relationship developed between the State of Israel and the new Germany of Adenauer and his successors is proof of how right he was.

On 10 September 1952, when the first agreement was signed between representatives of the two countries, no-one could foresee how our relationship would develop. No- one then would have dared to expect that they would develop into genuine friendship – not only a wonderful friendship, but more than a little astonishing, given the terrible background upon which they are based.

Israeli-German relations – which we have always described as "special" – can be used as an example of the way to overcome the past while not forgetting for a moment what can never be forgotten.

The Germany of today is one of Israel’s most important friends in Europe, a country that has stood by us again and again in the diplomatic and international arena. It has helped us with the construction of the submarines and aided us during the Gulf crises. It also helped us in the formulation of the Essen Declaration regarding Israel’s place in the European area by granting us a special status.

The commitment to the security of Israel has been defined as the guiding principle of the government of Germany for all these years, with Germany considering it her moral responsibility to strengthen the State of Israel, its security and prosperity.

This concern for the security of the State of Israel – the Jewish state founded on the ruins of the Holocaust – is one of the ways Germany realizes its brave decision to confront its past and accept the responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis.

This is a complex process. Since its beginning in the early 1960s, Germany has been undergoing an unceasing and often stormy and always searing soul-searching. But there can be no doubt that this process has not only strengthened German democracy and returned Germany to the family of nations as a free society, open, pluralistic and humane.

Even though neo-Nazi incidents have not disappeared from the German scene, German society has shown how to deal with them these past years, to isolate them, to fight them and ultimately defeat them. This is proof that Germany is indeed not prepared to repeat the mistakes of the past and is not prepared to sweep the past under the rug.

This process continues today. Less than a month ago, on 27 January, Memorial Day for the Victims of the Nazi Regime in Germany, the cornerstone for the Holocaust Memorial was dedicated – a great enterprise of remembrance for European Jewry who died in the extermination camps of the Third Reich.

A day earlier, 26 January, the German government approved the draft legislation that will be the legal basis for the establishment of a restitution fund bearing the symbolic name "Remembrance, Responsibility, Future" and whose aims are to deepen the education of tolerance and to fight racism and anti-Semitism.

Israel will be pleased to cooperate with the government of Germany on the activities of this fund, in the hope of making it into an effective tool to isolate all expression of Holocaust denial in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

The establishment of a new coalition government in Austria with the participation of the party of Joerg Haider proves how much remains to be done even now. Israel considers the organizing of a worldwide effort to fight the phenomenon of neo-Nazism, racism and xenophobia to be of supreme importance. We are glad to see Germany – together with the countries of the European Union – openly and aggressively joining the fight against the embarrassing vision coming out of Vienna.

In Austria today, there are groups trying to calm the international community by saying that Haider will yet change. "There were slips-of-the-tongue," they say, "He will learn to restrain himself." These attempts to calm are very worrying because they are evidence that even in the other Austria, the sane Austria – too many refuse to understand what has so shocked world public opinion.

It is not Haider’s slips-of-the-tongue that shock us – but his opinions, his real opinions – racist, anti-democratic – which Joerg Haider may now try to restrain and not give them public expression. Haider and his cohorts – and maybe his coalition partners in Austria as well – hope that the wave of protest across the world will soon ebb and wane.

Israel, Germany and the other countries of the world that have so far stood together determinedly against this embarrassing vision must continue to coordinate their steps to convince the Austrians that Europe and the enlightened world do not intend to let the entrance of a neo-Nazi party into any government be dropped from the agenda.

The central lesson of the Holocaust was again raised at the International Forum held in Stockholm last month. It is that the Holocaust could recur even in the heart of what has been called, or is thought to be, a cultured world.

The inescapable conclusion is that enlightened society, a society that protects human rights because they are human, is not self-evident, but must be fought for, protected and guarded at all times.

In your welcome to the diplomatic staff in Germany on the eve of the millennium, you, Mr. President, interpreted your perspective on "the ideal of good-neighborliness as a model for future foreign relations." The mistake may be mine, but it seems that not only the politician and diplomat Rau wrote the this almost evangelical welcome – but so did the theologian Dr. Johannes Rau, a man of the church who wants to turn a world from a place where human beings are wolves to human beings into a place where neighbors live in peace with each other, where human beings are human beings to each other.

And neighbors – it is pointless to remind those who forget – are not people whom you chose to live beside, but people amongst whom you live, whether you like it or not. We are now trying to realize this idealization of good neighborliness here, in the Middle East, through the peace process.

Germany is one of the enthusiastic supporters of the Middle East peace process and we thank it for its willingness to help advance the peace process by all means possible.

Israel is committed to the peace process and is doing, and will do, everything necessary to advance it simultaneously on both tracks: On the Palestinian track, to determine the permanent settlement between us and the Palestinians; and on the Syrian track, which is supposed to bring about the signing of a peace treaty between us and Syria, as well as between us and Lebanon. We have no illusions. Both tracks are full of obstacles, sown with difficulties and crises, but we will make progress on them with determination and courage – while jealously guarding Israel’s vital interests and protecting the security of its residents – and we will do this for as long as we find partners for genuine dialogue on the other side of the table. The difficulties we are meeting today are, naturally, not surprising. Some of them are the fruit of an intentional effort by the enemies of peace – but the even greater part of them are the fruit of the bitter feelings which have accumulated in the hearts of both sides during the long decades of hatred that have existed between us and our neighbors.

It is not easy to overcome the traumas of the past, but if the President of Germany can be received by the Knesset in the year 2000 as an old and dear friend, as an ally, then there are no difficulties and obstacles in the present that can stand in the way of worthy intentions and the determination of leaders who know how to lead to a better, safer and freer future for the children of Israel and the children of the entire region. This is the primary moral responsibility of leadership, it is our obligation. And with the entire nation – we will do it.