In the coming days, Israel will enter an election period. It is in your power to make these general elections a turning point.

Address by President Shimon Peres at the opening of the Knesset Winter Session

Mr. Prime Minister, Mr. Ehud Olmert
Speaker of the Knesset, Mrs. Dalia Itzik
President of the Supreme Court, Mrs. Dorit Beinisch
Head of the Opposition, Mr. Binyamin Netanyahu
Ministers and Knesset Members,
Dear Guests,
Honorable Ones,

This Knesset session is opened against a background of internal and external turmoil which has aroused great concern in the heart of every citizen. The difficult process that ultimately ended the days of this government raises question marks which trouble all of the people of Israel.

The confidence in the conduct of the governing agencies was weakened, and furthermore, the public trust in their leaders was damaged.

This unpleasant truth must not be hidden or neglected.

This is the hour in which the Israeli Knesset and the political establishment are obligated to do some deep soul-searching. It is never too late to make amends.

International developments and dynamic trends in our region will have complicated ramifications for Israel internally, and even existential ones. We cannot stand before these difficult challenges when our internal strength is fragile. There is no justification for that.

In the coming days, Israel will enter an election period. This is the first and most immediate test that stands before you, Israeli elected officials. It is in your power to make these general elections a turning point, which will signal that the face of the Israeli political establishment is resolved to move towards rehabilitation and healing.

It is up to you to conduct legitimate, honorable political battles that do not deteriorate to verbal violence, that do not turn towards baseless hatred, and in which you do not accede to the use of deviant and degrading propaganda. It is in your hands to highlight before the public the great dilemmas that are before us and to convince them that your path is the best of all the parties. The people will choose both based on a vision and the manner in which the vision is presented.

You should conduct a fair, clean, and substantive debate. Do not assume that superficial slogans will win the hearts of the public. One who disparages the intelligence of the public will find in the end that the public disparages him.

The Israeli media also has an esteemed role in the democratic process. In order to enable it to do its job successfully, we must ensure that the press enjoys freedom of speech. But the media must also refrain from taking part in narrowness and one-sidedness. We may demand from the media a contribution to the quality of the general elections, just as it is their job to demand from the candidates to present their platforms in truthful speech which should be reported fairly every day. It is not enough simply to criticize the ideas of your opponent. You must present an alternative idea grounded in tangible reasoning.

The uniqueness of Israel is found in the free political and democratic processes through which it manages itself. The further the reputation of Israeli politics deteriorates, the more the young generation will refrain from involving itself in politics, and this will create a vacuum in the quality of government in Israel. This is a danger to the core of the democratic system.

I call the young generation to view political engagement as an important challenge in the service of the country. Do not be deterred from political life. This is the framework in which decisions are made and through which you will be able to bring real changes to the lives of all citizens. Our best and brightest will be able to bring about the desired change if they join political life with the goal of improving it. We must encourage young people not to turn away from political life. We have to open all of the doors before them. As the quality of Israeli politics is improved, so the decisions that the government reaches will improve, as will the effectiveness of their execution.

Members of Knesset,
The general elections that are before us will demand from you serious and convincing answers to weighty questions.
In my judgment, there are five questions that should populate the agenda leading up to the election:
1. How will we ensure the security of Israel in the face of all the threats that are facing us?
2. How will we bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and bring peace to our people?
3. How will we bring about economic prosperity while safeguarding social justice?
4. How will we keep internal solidarity and the strength of the Israeli community: through the power of law, the integration of minorities, and proper governance?
5. How will we nurture the future of Israel – our young generation?

I believe that every political party in Israel should clearly present their stance on these five important questions. They comprise our national agenda.

The first question regards the security of Israel. The Middle East is bustling with dangerous developments, like Iran’s rush to develop nuclear weapons, the creation of long- and short-range rockets, the threat posed by radical Islam and the cruel terror that it encourages.

Israel must be strong and if we are forced to fight, Israel needs to be able to defeat any enemy who comes upon her. Israel’s abilities need to match the various challenges developing before us, symmetric and asymmetric.

We must also understand that national security is not measured solely by planes and tanks. It is also affected by the human dimension, the quality of the fighters, the strength and support of the community, and the ability to cooperate with friends and… even former enemies.

Peace is the most significant component in the equation of Israeli security.

Secondly, we must focus on achieving the peace for which we have yearned. Israel has progressed in the negotiations it has been conducting with the Palestinians and with Syria. The questions that are up for discussion are critical, and to all of us it is clear that the price of peace will be expensive and painful.

We must pay heed to the voices of all comers from Arab states and the Muslim world, calling to put an end to conflict in the Middle East and to arrive at peace.

The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 put an end to the unity of the Arab League states around the policy of Khartoum, that is to say, nay to recognition, nay to negotiations, nay to peace.

Now the answer of the Arabs is "yes!" Yes to peace with Israel! There is no ignoring the positive change even if we do not accept all of the phrasing in the Arab Initiative. It is fitting that we examine how we can include the whole Arab world in a comprehensive peace process that will be stronger and more credible.

The price of a comprehensive agreement, in its conclusion, will not exceed the price that Israel paid or agreed to pay in negotiations in separate negotiations with all the states individually. But the overall compensation will be of great value- the end of the conflict in all of the Middle East, and normal relations with all of the Arab states.

In meetings that I have held with Arab and Muslim leaders, I have discovered that most of them will not give in to Ahmadinejad’s imperialistic attempt, in the name of religion, to take over the entire Middle East and to subjugate their policies to instructions coming from the ayatollahs in Tehran. The vision of absolute power in the hands of a religious group, flaunting missiles and nuclear weapons and creating terror centers and rebellion, is a disaster for the entire Middle East and for all of its inhabitants, regardless of religion and nationality.

Fanatic leadership in Iran poses a danger to the whole world.

President Mubarak, like other Arab leaders, including those with whom we do not have diplomatic relations, have told me they do not see any more reason or hope in war or terror, and that the time is ripe for a comprehensive agreement in the Middle East. "An agreement reached between you and the Palestinians will lay the foundation for an agreement with all of us," the President of Egypt told me.

Governments of Israel, as is customary in democratic regimes, may be switched, but the desire for peace is shared by all of us, and we must proceed. Never before, and certainly not during hundreds of years of conflict, have we been so close to peace as we are today. Not everything has been solved, but new possibilities have arisen.

The hour of truth for a national decision on these weighty matters is nearing.

The third question has to do with socio-economic issues. We have to choose a clear socioeconomic path, especially in light of the existing global economic crisis.

The Israeli economy has impressed the world with its exceptional technological abilities and its financial management, which was not permitted to run wild without regulations or norms.

Israel is not a "business." Israel was and must be a principled country. Accordingly, free economic initiative must also establish social solidarity.

As we prevail over our economic and social disparities, the economy will grow and the society will come together. We cannot allow considerations of the profits of a few to overshadow the needs and the welfare of the many.

Creative powers should be rewarded, and punishment should not fall on those who are hurt by the disparities that we created. In Israel, one third of the population does not have a well-paying job. Two thirds of the territory of the country is not properly developed. And half of the young generation does not receive a sufficient education.

I do not believe in the "average poverty." There are many that are very poor and a few that are very rich. Between them there is no average, only a gap. A third of the population that does not have an appropriate job, this is comprised of a majority of the religious population, and of the non-Jewish population. There is no reason why Bnei  Brak should be the poorest city in Israel’s center and Nazareth should be the poorest city in the North.

We need to make it possible for the religious population to join the labor force and to pray at the same time. For the Jewish people, not only the Sabbath is holy, but also the six days of the week which are for work. There is no reason that modern business should harm the way of life of religious men and women. Within that population, there is a great deal of spiritual and scientific potential in that can contribute much to the state and raise their quality of life so that they will not have to rely on welfare.

The fourth question relates to the internal solidarity and the strength of the institutions of law and leadership. The citizens of Israel felt deep revulsion from the threatening berating and the incitement of a small group of residents of Kiryat Arba towards IDF soldiers and their commanders. I am convinced that this entire house is united in denunciation of this difficult phenomenon, which threatens the rule of law and the strength of the society. The IDF, the police, and the General Security Services do sacred work while risking their lives to protect the security of the state and its citizens. We must be united in the appreciation of our security forces.

The mitzvah of "redeeming captives" is a basic principle that expresses the solidarity of our people. I am convinced that any government will do all that it can to bring back Gilad Schalit who is in captivity in Gaza and to resolving the problem of all of the missing IDF soldiers from Israel’s battles.

A society that wishes to keep its unity cannot make peace with economic discrimination that exists in the non-Jewish sector. It is possible to build industrial parks and technology parks in the Galilee, in the "Arab Triangle" and in the Negev for the Arab population, the Druse, and the Bedouins. The minority citizens of Israel have all the potential necessary to integrate equally into Israeli society to develop in keeping with all the guidelines of modernity without harming their rights to practice their religion.

Our strength as a united society, proud and embracing life, in my opinion demands leadership that presents an exciting vision built on great national objectives that can stimulate the imagination:

Developing the Negev and the Galilee is one such example. The development has begun but it needs to be executed at a faster pace. If the necessary resources are allocated we will know a Negev that will constitute a new addition to Israel for research and development on a global scale, that will be able to focus on two burning issues of our time: alternative energy and innovative water technologies.

The Galilee can be a medical center of the highest order while its green beauty and ancient sites draw tourists from all over the world. These developments will be for the benefit of all of the citizens without regard for religion or nationality.

Another example is the "Peace Valley vision." Along the entire African Rift from the Katzrin River in the North to Sharm el-Sheikh in the South it is possible to create a joint economic region, respecting national borders, and facilitating the movement of people, consumer goods, and ideas.

The ever-growing tourism along this route requires a war against terror to be undertaken by all invested parties.

The Valley of Peace will enable the creation of millions of jobs, draw investors from throughout the world, establish a solar energy industry and desalinate hundreds of millions of cubic meters of water for countries suffering both from a lack of water and a lack of peace.

The fifth question regards nurturing and cultivating the young generation of Israel.

I believe that the upcoming elections are an opportunity to allocate the necessary resources to education such that there is no child or youth who does not receive an adequate education. Israeli youth is the real treasure of Israel society. Investing in the young generation is the smartest investment for the future of Israel.

We must invest a great deal in the education of the youth and put a lot of thought into ways to build an exemplary Israeli society. Israeli youth have great potential. We must place fascinating challenges before them and ask them to join us in these exciting national tasks.

Esteemed Members of the Knesset,

I am fully aware of the prevailing disagreements affecting our society. We must not allow them to intensify. Democracy is built on freedom of expression as much as it is contingent upon the ability to accept the decision of the majority.

The upcoming elections are an opportunity to raise the foundation of Israel and to alleviate its various weaknesses.

Though competition will shape the coming months, it is my conviction that an overarching vision of unity should serve to keep the competition constructive. This vision is what the hour demands.