Statement by H.E. Mr. Shlomo Ben-Ami
Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs
at the General Debate of the 55th General Assembly of the United Nations

18 September 2000
United Nations
New York

His Excellency the President of the General Assembly,
Mr. Secretary General,
My Colleagues, Foreign Ministers,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I stand here before you today as Israel’s messenger of peace.

The establishment of the State of Israel was the fulfillment of the dream of a people forced into exile two thousand years ago. The destruction of the Second Temple, and the dissolution of Jewish statehood were the result of our failure as a nation to assume the proper political course, to opt for accommodation with reality instead of engaging in messianic hallucinations. Our punishment was very severe indeed. But, maybe it can serve as a lesson to those nations and leaders who today may be tragically led to believe that the dangerous inertia of romantic mythology and unrealistic dreams is preferable to the banality of a wise and prudent political course.

Most revolts are uprisings against a system; Zionism was a revolt against destiny. It is this expression of our re- encounter with the world of political realities, which eventually led us to the restoration of Jewish statehood in 1948. Tragically, however, historical and geo-political circumstances have put us in a prolonged, bitter conflict with the Palestinian people.

It was thanks to the leadership of Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat that, seven years ago, Palestinians and Israelis were put on a track leading to peace and reconciliation. We have been engaged, in the last seven years, but more intensely in the last year, in a major effort, unprecedented in both scope and depth to resolve this one hundred year old conflict. This negotiating process, and it alone, should be the foundation of a peace agreement.

Ladies and Gentlemen, at this point, I would like to address my colleagues from the Arab and Muslim world. I hope that my words will convince you of the Israeli government’s sincere intentions to achieve a comprehensive peace based on respect, dignity, and fairness, which will end the Middle East conflict and best serve the vital interests of the entire region.

The Jewish people have no quarrel with Islam. On the contrary, we have the deepest respect for that great Islamic civilization under whose wings Jewish history – from Al-Andalus to Turkey, from Egypt to Iraq, from the Jewish quarters of Tangier to Aleppo in Syria – has known some of its finest hours and most glorious cultural achievements. But even at the height of "the Golden Age", in the midst of the delights and wonders of Moslem Spain, our people never abandoned their dream of, and yearning for Jerusalem, as this was expressed in the words of the poet Yehuda HaLevi more than eight hundred years ago:

"My heart is in the East, and I am in the furthest reaches of the West. To thee my soul yearns from the depth of the West."

We are a small nation decimated by holocaust and dispersion, but our heritage is rich. It was from our eternal capital Jerusalem which according to a Moslem source, "in the days of the people of Israel… it was an area larger than Cairo and Baghdad," that the message of Monotheism was projected to humanity. The Jewish holy sites and shrines in Jerusalem are the very heart of the Jewish faith, identity and history. For the past two thousand years, Jews have turned toward Temple Mount in prayer three times a day:

"If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I don’t recall thee" – they pledged in joy and in sorrow.

For the past thirty-three years, Israel has consistently demonstrated its commitment to freedom of religion and worship in Jerusalem. Heads of the various religious denominations in Jerusalem will attest to the fact that the city has never been so open to all believers. During the last month of Ramadan, a record number, unheard of in the Annals of Islam in Jerusalem, of more than four hundred thousand Muslim worshippers attended Friday prayers at the El-Aqsa Mosque.

I note this as an example of the deep respect which Israel has for Islam and its followers. Just as we do not question the sincerity of the sentiments of others toward their holy sites in Jerusalem, we expect that others will not question the Jewish people’s deep, awesome attachment to Jerusalem and its holy sites – from which we will never again be parted.

Politicians need not distort God’s intentions for the sake of negotiations. How refreshing it is that a great number of Moslem scholars should attest to the fact that, as the supreme Court Judge Mujir Aldin Alkhanbali wrote is his The History of Jerusalem and Hebron, "David reigned for forty years and before he died he passed the monarchy on to his son Solomon and told him to build the Temple (Beit Almikdas)". This expression, Beit Almikdas, that is the House of the Temple, became indeed in many Moslem sources a synonym to the word "Jerusalem".

Mr. President, it is a travesty of historical truth to present the Palestinian refugee problem as the result of mass expulsion. There is no denying, however, that once the Jews, who for thousands of years waited with humility for their redemption, made their re-encounter with history as a sovereign nation, they had to assume the inherent immorality of war. The suffering of the civilian population will always be a burden on the conscience of any nation at war. The Arab-Israeli conflict has no monopoly on this maxim. Clearly, the Palestinian refugees were victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel, however, can assume neither political nor moral responsibility for this tragedy that was the direct result of the all-out onslaught against reborn Israel launched by the Arab armies in 1948. The Palestinian refugee problem was born as the land was bisected by the sword, not by design, Jewish or Arab. It was largely the inevitable by-product of Arab and Jewish fears and the protracted bitter fighting.

We believe that, once established, it is the Palestinian State that should provide for the vindication of the Palestinian claim for the Right of Return. The notion is preposterous that a nation should create a State only in order to gather its exiles in a neighboring State. Israel, however, has expressed its willingness to actively participate in any international effort and fund aimed at providing the financial foundations for the resolution of the refugee problem. Out of humanitarian considerations, Israel may also accept a small and limited number of refugees within a scheme of family reunification.

Mr. President, let there be no doubt. The peace process is not the objective, we need not sanctify the process. Peace, not the process – is the objective. Peace is not about more conventions, summits and resolutions, it is about the future of our children, and about the seemingly unattractive banalities of building the mechanisms of cohabitation.

To the Palestinians we say: we need to disentangle ourselves from this seemingly insoluble conundrum. We know that unless your and our wounds are healed, peace – not only the political peace but also that of the mind and the conscience – would not be complete. Yet, at the same time we realize that the total satisfaction of our respective dreams or presumed rights will lead us to perdition. Hence, it is incumbent upon us to devise realistic ways that would heal without opening new wounds, that would dignify our existence as free peoples without putting into jeopardy the collective existence of each other. Peace is not about twisting each other’s arms, it is about defining a common interest. I believe that such an ideal compromise is not impossible to achieve, while banishing the sword from this Land of God.

Peace has not materialized in full yet, but I believe that we are in the right direction. In the last year, the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak has made bold, courageous and unprecedented moves towards peace. At Camp David, we have contemplated ideas and explored concepts relating to the most sensitive and supposedly intractable issues. Our sense is that breakthrough is possible, just as failure may lead to breakdown. We have turned the sea that separated us into a river. But, do we have the courage and the determination to cross it? I know I may not sound too objective by vouching for Prime Minister Barak. But, I have come here with the power of conviction that no Prime Minister before him, and let no illusions be harbored, no Prime Minister after him, will touch the way he did the outer limits of his options as an Israeli and a Jew.

I do not underestimate the dilemmas of Chairman Arafat, and I know the decision is not easy for him either. But, this is the destiny of leaders, to always be prophets without honor. They should no expect the applause of their constituents. What really matters is the judgement of future generations.

I call upon our Palestinian partners to realize that history has brought us to the moment of truth and decision from which we are not allowed to escape empty handed without inflicting severe punishments on our own peoples.

Israel aspires to achieve a comprehensive peace in the region and help move it into the future. Twenty one years ago we signed a cornerstone peace treaty with Egypt, followed by a peace treaty with Jordan and an incipient but promising process of normalization with the Maghreb and Gulf States. Eighteen years of Israeli military presence in Lebanon have been terminated by the Barak government, in close cooperation with the UN, and thanks especially to the efforts and dedication of Secretary General Kofi Annan. We have also delved into the possibilities of reaching peace with Syria. We hope that talks with Syria will resume as soon as possible, and a fair and equitable agreement can be achieved.

Israel is determined to pursue peace and take the calculated risks attached to it. But Israel will not compromise, not now and not ever, on those security and national interests that we deem vital. While building our peace with the Palestinians we cannot ignore security concerns inherent in the fact that peace with the Palestinians is not our last peace. We still have a dispute pending with Syria, and we are still exposed to the most serious regional threats emanating from revolutionary powers in the area.

Peace requires the active involvement of the international community. The critical role played by the United States, and especially the relentless dedication and unequivocal commitment of President Bill Clinton, has been massive and constructive. Once again the United States has proven to be "The Indispensable Nation." We have also seen the European Union rising to the task, and we commend the role of the French Presidency and that of other key European governments. Peace needs your advice and it will need your support to cement it once it is achieved. We expect also to work with the Egyptian government for the cause of regional peace.

I believe that it is also important that Russia, Asia and the Arab world express their opinion that now is the time to make historical decisions. Time is an elusive and perishable commodity. We are all running out of it.

Mr. President,

We are open to developing wide spaces of cooperation with our Palestinian neighbors and indeed with all the countries of the Middle East. But, we do not intend to impose our experience on anybody, nor is it our intention to assert our economic or technological presence amidst those of our neighbors who do not want it. The leaders and the elites throughout the Middle East do not need our advice to know what are the real challenges ahead of us all: modernizing the economy, combating disease, hunger, poverty and illiteracy. Indeed, small islands of excellence notwithstanding, the Middle East is in grave danger of being on the wrong side of the digital divide.

In his inaugural speech in 1961, the late President Kennedy invited his generation to join him in a struggle:

"Now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need, not as a call to battle though embattled we are, but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle… a struggle against the common enemies of man: Tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself".

Nothing will make us happier than joining hands with all of the countries of the Middle East, with dignity and mutuality, in this most noble of struggles.

Mr. President,

The Middle East is not tranquil yet. It is still replete with armed conflicts, political hostilities and animosities. Israel believes that regional arrangements are crucial for arms control. A step-by-step approach, commensurate with progress towards comprehensive peace, is the right approach.

We are concerned by the expanding stockpiles of conventional weapons in the region. That is complemented by attempts made by Iran and Iraq to acquire and develop non-conventional weapons, and by an increasing missile threat.

Israel attaches great importance to the eventual establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the region. In order to reach that goal, direct negotiations between all States of the region must be held.

Dear Colleagues, last year saw a turnaround in Israel’s relations with the United Nations. After years of anomaly, Israel was temporarily admitted to the West European and Other Group (WEOG) in New York. We hope that Israel’s admission in the Western Group in the International Organizations based outside of New York will be secured soon.

The UN, and indeed most of its member States, played a major role in demanding that Iran treat fairly the thirteen (13) Jews falsely accused, convicted and sentenced for ludicrous charges of espionage. It is in such instances that the international community has the opportunity to express its discontent and exert pressure on countries that break from the norms of behavior.

On the issue of the reform, it is our opinion that the Security Council should faithfully reflect the present geopolitical picture, a picture that has changed beyond recognition since the last enlargement of the Security Council in 1965. We subscribe to the view that the right of veto – a safety net against the possible arbitrariness of the General Assembly – remains in the hands of a limited number of States.

Mr. President, allow me a final reflection on the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma.

The tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stemmed from discrepant historical rhythms. The history of our modern national movement has been characterized by realistic responses to objective historical conditions; the Palestinians have consistently fought for the solutions of yesterday, those they had rejected a generation or two earlier. This persistent attempt to turn back the clock of history lies at the root of many of the misfortunes that have befallen the peoples of the region.

Now it is time for all of us to overcome dire memories and look forward. Neither the physical nor the rhetorical war of images will bring us any closer to peace and reconciliation. No one has a monopoly on the mythology of suffering and atrocities. In this tragic dispute, we have all committed acts of violence that we ought not to be proud of. To the Palestinians we say: we are excited with the prospects to overcome the troubled history of our relations in order to shape our dreams of peace.

Let us then join hands in asking the world which has been watching, perplexed at, and sometimes even fuelling, our wars to mobilize its resources for the benefit of our peoples. And, let us be full partners in this international effort to lay down the foundations of the Middle East of the future. The creative energies of our peoples should be at long last put to work in the service of peace, for as the wisest of kings, king Solomon, the builder of the Temple in Jerusalem, wrote thousands of years ago, there is "a time for slaying and a time for healing… a time for war and a time for peace."  

 Statement by Acting FM Ben-Ami at the 55th General Assembly of the United Nations-18-Sep-2000
 Statement by Acting FM Ben-Ami at the 55th General Assembly of the United Nations-18-Sep-2000
The Temples of Jerusalem in Islam