The November meeting is not a conference which will replace bilateral, direct negotiations between us and the Palestinians.

 Address by PM Ehud Olmert to the opening of the Knesset winter session


Photo: GPO

Madam Speaker, Dalia Itzik,
Members of Knesset,
Dear Guests,

I wish to welcome you Madam Speaker; I wish to welcome you, our Honored President, that you have, according to tradition, come to speak at this celebrated opening session; I ask to welcome the Members of Knesset from all parties, government ministers, distinguished guests, and citizens of Israel, on this occasion of the opening of the Knesset winter session.

On this festive day, Israeli politics is awakening from the holiday respite.

The democratic life of the State of Israel is the secret of our strength – as a state, as a society, and as individuals. The Knesset, more than any other institution, embodies the Israeli democracy. It is here that we hear the representatives of the various sections of society; it is here that we reconcile our differences; and from this place emerges the vital decisions that shape our future.

Abba Eban z"l, one of our greatest statesmen, once wrote: "The parliamentary principle is an integral part of the Israeli essence."

Distinguished guests,

It is more than three decades that I serve as a Member of Knesset. As I gaze upon these walls, the echoes of the great and lively debates that shaped the modern history of the State of Israel resound in my memory.

Today, as we open the winter session and we are faced with important decisions, a central challenge for us is to increase the trust of the Israeli public in the Knesset. It is in times of trial, while arguments are at their climax, and the eyes of the public are upon us, that we must conduct our differences in a purposeful manner and out of mutual respect.

The message coming from this house must be clear: this is not a war between good and evil; it is not a conflict between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. What we have here is a necessary debate about the path, a debate that ends with decisions being made, and those decisions bind us all. This is the democratic logic that led Israel to its great achievements, and we must protect it at all costs.

Madam Speaker, Ladies and Gentlemen Members of Knesset,

Soon the Knesset will be asked to authorize the State budget for 2008. The budget embodies the government’s priorities that focus on three main areas – education, welfare, and security. These three areas will continue to be the central point for the government’s actions for the coming years, and will benefit from a budgetary increase.

These budgetary increases will not be given as an afterthought. We are rethinking these areas, acting to make the systems more efficient, updating administrational concepts and in some instances, changing long standing basic assumptions. This is true regarding security; it is true regarding education; and it is especially true in regard to the treatment of welfare problems.

Even now we are in the midst of important reforms, some of which are very far reaching, and at their center a socio-economic agenda. This is a three year plan to combat poverty, in which for the first time in Israel a government sets forth numerical goals in order to decrease poverty; the plan is already in motion and has already shown signs of working. We are making a special effort to improve the standing of the needy, especially in the periphery and the distress-stricken areas.

We are also dealing in an orderly and comprehensive manner, with children at risk, infants, the elderly, the poor and populations that demand special attention. The government is diligently working on important reforms in the education system, some of which are already implemented. In the security area there has been ongoing action, while investing vast resources. Thanks to these activities, the security system of today is better prepared than before to face challenges and threats.

One thing has to be clear. The government is not dealing in cosmetic changes; we have no interest in creating the illusion of a solution while leaving the problem intact. We are working to create a real difference in matters long left neglected. We are setting in motion processes that by and large will influence us only in the future.

On budgetary issues, my government will continue to exercise a policy of "economy with compassion", a wise and responsible policy, which will encourage growth without neglecting the weaker populations. In the framework of this policy, we will not capitulate to populist demands and will not spend beyond our means. This was the approach which guided me as Minister of Finance, and it is the one guiding current Finance Minister, Roni Bar-On.

This policy has played a crucial part in the fact that Israel, by all measurements, is currently in one of the best economic situations it has been since its inception. The statistics speak for themselves: during the first half of 2007, the growth in Israel was among the highest in the western world; unemployment rate is on a rapid decline, currently standing at 7.7%, in comparison with 8.8% during the first quarter of 2006; for the first time since 2000, there has been a decrease in the number of families living below the poverty line.

Israel’s national debt was dramatically reduced; the State of Israel was this year invited to join the OECD – the international organization of the developed countries of the world; the minimum wage rose by 15%, and the list is still long. These impressive statistics are not random. I have no doubt that a different, less responsible, policy would not have resulted in these impressive achievements – achievements felt and also appreciated by the vast majority of Israeli citizens.

Members of Knesset,

During the winter session we will again address the improvement of the system of government in Israel. This is a national interest, and I intend to focus special efforts on this issue. Two central principles will guide us in formulating a proposal for the improvement of the system – increasing government stability and enhancing the government’s ability to govern. These two principles will allow us to address the chronic instability which characterizes the political system in Israel, and provide the government with the platform needed to maintain an effective and functioning system of government.

I am convinced that the vast majority of those sitting here, from both the coalition and opposition, fully grasp the importance of changing the system. I cannot downplay the significance of these constitutional changes. This is not an easy task, and it compels us to find the correct balance between the need to represent the various sectors of society and the necessity to enable the government to make decisions and carry them out.

Members of Knesset,

Since the establishment of the state, we legislators, elected public officials, have been building the constitutional infrastructure of Israeli democracy patch by patch. This is what our constitutional infrastructure looks like – a fabric comprised entirely of patches, which does not fit the complex reality in which we live.

After sixty years, it is time for the State of Israel to have a constitution.

During recent years, the Knesset Constitution, Law & Justice Committee – previously chaired by MK Michael Eitan and currently chaired by MK Prof. Menachem Ben-Sasson – has been engaged, with care and diligence which deserve full praise, in preparing a proposal for a full constitution. I call to enlist to this mission. I hope that with the approach of the 60th anniversary celebrations of the State of Israel, an agreed upon proposal for a constitution – and I emphasize agreed upon – will be tabled at the Knesset for first reading. I know that this is not a simple task, but I believe that it is in the power of this Knesset to rise above other considerations and be part of this historic process. It will, in my view, be the greatest gift the Knesset can bestow upon the State of Israel at the dawn of its seventh decade.

The constitutional process we are leading is slated to regulate civilian life in the State of Israel, including the ongoing conflict between religious and secular. I long for the day when we will reach an agreed upon and accepted solution on the issue of the Sabbath, in order for the law book of the State of the Jewish people to provide this holy day with the special status it deserves.

Madam Speaker, Honored President, Members of Knesset,

When the government was first formed, and during the election campaign which preceded it, I made a commitment to place on the public agenda a political process which would generate a deep and fundamental change in the pattern of relations between us and the Palestinians. I said then – and I reiterated it on different occasions – that the first stage in such a process would be a serious and bold effort to conduct negotiations with the authorized representatives of the Palestinian Authority, on condition – and I emphasize on condition – that they would not include any elements involved in terrorist activity.

The Palestinian leadership today is not a leadership of terror. President Abu-Mazen and Prime Minister Salem Fayyad are committed to all the agreements signed with Israel, and I believe they want to move forward with us on a track which will change the reality between them and us.

I am familiar with all the dangers and am aware of the complex and sensitive situation under which the Palestinian Authority is operating. I know as well as any Knesset member from the right or the left that the proof on the ground is the essential precondition for any possibility for progress in the relations between us and the Palestinian Authority. I also know that the gap between the honest and fair will of Abu Mazen and Salem Fayyad, and their ability at this time to translate it into a reality, is troubling and alarming.

I know that Israel has excellent excuses with which to justify a stalemate between us and the Palestinians. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s murderous attacks from the Gaza border are intolerable, and we have no intention of acquiescing to them. The firing of rockets on the southern communities cannot continue indefinitely, and the Political-Security Cabinet will soon discuss the proposals by the Minister of Defense and the military system to put an end to these attacks.

The terror elements, headed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, continue to be active in Judea and Samaria, and had it not been for the vigilance of our security forces, the IDF, the security service and the Israel Police, which foil terror attempts on a daily basis, the situation in this sector as well would have been entirely different from what it looks like today.

Radical external forces, such as Iran, are making every effort to add fuel to the conflict and threaten the State of Israel with annihilation. It was with the backing of these forces that fundamentalist terrorist organizations last year kidnapped our soldiers Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. They have since been demonstrating cruelty, repeatedly employing manipulation to hurt the families. We will continue to conduct ourselves with determination and responsibility in order to bring them home.

Knowing all these facts, I still wish to announce here, in the most explicit terms – I have no intention of seeking excuses to avoid a political process. I am firm and determined in my desire to create a momentum and provide a chance for the success of a substantive political process, in partnership with the President of the Palestinian Authority Abu Mazen. Any other options means a demographic battle, drowned in blood and tears, which does not serve the State of Israel in any way.

This November, an international meeting is expected to be held in the United States, with the aim of providing a backing to the process of dialogue between us and the Palestinians. I wish to clarify in the most explicit terms: the November meeting is not a conference which will replace bilateral, direct negotiations between us and the Palestinians. This meeting is intended to provide backing and encouragement and create a comprehensive umbrella of support for the direct process between us and them.

The expected attendance of many countries, including, hopefully, Muslim and Arab countries, which in the past were not partners to the efforts to advance peace in the Middle East, on the basis of recognition of the State of Israel and its right to exist as a Jewish state, can assist in creating a more conducive atmosphere for the existence of direct negotiations.

With the approach of this meeting, and as part of my determination to seize every shred of political opportunity, I held a series of meetings with the Palestinian President, most of them personal, to explore some of the essential issues which are at the core of the conflict between us, and to find patterns which will enable us to reach understandings on the basis of mutual compromise.

We do not have an agreement. Nothing was given and nothing was taken. Nothing was promised, but we created an atmosphere of personal trust, willingness to listen, mutual willingness to hear the distress, pain, suspicions and needs that both sides have carried with them in their national package for so many generations. I feel that there are things to talk about, and that we should talk. The road to an agreement is still far and it is rife with pitfalls and difficulties. Terror from Gaza continues to run rampant, and as I said, we have no intention of accepting it. The terror organizations remain active in Judea and Samaria, and there will be no Israeli withdrawal whatsoever before it is eradicated there as well.

The memories of the near and distant past burden us, and from their viewpoint, also burden the Palestinians. The attempts made during different times by different leaders under different political circumstances often frustrate the will to move forward. The sense of failure, experienced by many of those who tried to take large, courageous steps forward, often places constraints on their ability to maneuver today, and this poses another difficulty.

However, the responsibility which rests on our shoulders does not relieve us of our duty to move forward, with patience, taking into consideration all the risks and uncertainties, but also knowing that the road to peace will always be strewn with risks, and bearing in mind the possibility of deterioration, God forbid, into additional confrontations. Like Menachem Begin z"l, our great leader, who set a marvelous example which will forever illuminate our historic horizon, I prefer the risks of peace over the agonies of war.

We can, of course, prolong the process, explaining why all this is not possible, to maneuver, to move in circles, and to use many good arguments that justify hesitation, to recheck and even to wait. And what will happen if we lose the chance? What will we say if we miss the opportunity? How many times in the past have we tortured ourselves because we did not do in time what we then had to do later?

For forty years we have been flagellating ourselves with a sense of guilt that we competently understood too late, that which we should have understood from the beginning. We must, once and for all, stop this circle; so that sometime in the future we will not say to ourselves that we lacked the vision to take advantage of this slight opportunity that might have been.

The coming weeks will be dedicated to this effort. This is not a one-man process, but rather one of an entire government, with all its components, involving the viewpoints and special sensitivities of its members, and everyone’s will to find the correct balance which will enable us to preserve security, curb terrorism, terminate the attacks against us, but also create a solid, sound and reliable basis of dialogue for peace.

I hope that during the winter session which opens today, we will find the inner strength to work together in order to take steps forward in this direction. This nation knows how to come together in times of joy and fulfillment, and to forget the rivalries and inner conflicts which leave bleeding rifts in the most sensitive fabric of our lives.

The peace process is a process that demands mutual tolerance, a willingness to listen to all sectors of society, an openness to understand the fears and suspicions that are so embedded in our common experiences – but also determination to accept brave unavoidable decisions, which involve relinquishing the full realization of the dreams that fed our national ethos for many years. Nothing is easier than to cling on to these dreams, and the price of awakening from them can be heavy for all of us.

So too will the other side have to act. We understand the hardship of the Palestinians and feel a deep empathy to the distress that many of them experienced as a result of our conflict. We have never estranged ourselves from their suffering and have never scorned their hardship. They too will have to confront the need to relinquish the fulfillment of some of their dreams in order to create with us a reality, that might not be ideal, and might not be perfect, but one that will give us all stability, security, happiness and peace.

I extend my hand to all corners of this house, and ask you to be partners to the hope, the effort, the determination, the prayers that come from deep in the heart – and perhaps also to an opportunity.

Thank you.