We will cooperate with all the non-government organizations and the United Nations in trying to restore a certain order, to the extent that it will not strengthen the Hamas organization.
Address by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to the
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations
Jerusalem, 15 February 2009
Chairman Alan Solow, the Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations,
Harold, the Former Chairman,
Distinguished Former Chairmen, who are present here and I’m privileged to say that I know each and everyone of them personally,
The eternal Executive Vice President, my dear friend, Malcolm Hoenlein,
Distinguished Members of the Conference,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am indeed privileged to have this opportunity at the beginning of my tenure, I’m sorry, at the end of my tenure as Prime Minister of the State of Israel and I’m very happy that you are here and I’m very happy that you came with a big force as you always did, even though this is quite an unusual time and I know that you’ve been here for the last week and probably you were here during the election day or you just came after the election day and you have seen the uniqueness of the Israeli political system. We have here the new American ambassador, Ambassador Cunningham, and I am sure that for him this was an extraordinary experience. He thought that elections in America are unusual, until he came to Israel and he had the privilege of seeing elections which produced no clear-cut outcome. You don’t know who is going to be Prime Minister. You don’t know which coalition you are going to have. You don’t know which opposition you are going to have and you know one thing – that it will be stormy, emotional, personal and indecisive, as it happens.
But quite frankly, I was the only person throughout the last few months who could watch the Israeli politics with an objective eye because I was not participating in this process this time after 35 years. The first time I was elected actually was almost 36 years ago when I was elected to the Knesset for the first time in 1973, so I can say that I had a certain perspective about the political system of Israel and I must say that I have seen them all. I remember that in 1973, when the late Golda Meir was Prime Minister of Israel and the late General Moshe Dayan was Minister of Defense and the late Abba Eban was the Minister of Foreign Affairs – that far. And I’ve seen them all since then and even before, and believe nothing has changed except the personalities. It’s the same old system with the difficulties and at the end of the day, I don’t know – I’m not that smart and I’m not that knowledgeable to say that I’m confident to know which is the best system of government that will fit Israeli needs. I don’t know. We have tried to change the system – electing directly the prime minister of Israel. We hoped that this would bring more unity into our system, but it polarized the system a lot more and it created more difficulties for any prime minister to govern than we thought there were. So we have re-changed the system into the old system…
We just now emerged from another military experience in fighting in Gaza and I must say that the original plan, the original purpose, the original goal of this fighting was to do something which is so natural for everyone, certainly you coming from your different cities in America, but which was entirely unnatural for the people living in the south part of Israel and this is to have the basic security for their lives, when they wake up in the morning, when they go to work, when children go to school, when they just try to live the normal pace of life. For years and years and years, thousands of Israelis, tens of thousands of Israelis living in the south part of the country, could not have the privilege of living a secure life because they were constantly and repeatedly attacked by the Palestinians with rockets and missiles.
And there was a time when we were blamed that we occupied parts of Gaza and therefore they were so ambitious and emotional and aggressive, but for more than three years, Israel is entirely out of Gaza. We don’t occupy one centimeter of land which is part of Gaza and they kept shooting at us as if nothing has changed and we have tolerated it and we have restrained ourselves and we have refrained from responding even when sometimes it became intolerable for the people and the government was accused by many of the citizens of our country. How dare you not respond defending your own people against the atrocities, the viciousness, and the brutality of these people?
And one thing we must remember, much as we don’t like to say it, but this is the reality. Those Palestinians, the organizations shooting into Israel, they are not aiming at the Israeli military, they are not aiming at security forces. You don’t justify doing it anyway, but this is not their purpose. They are shooting in order to kill civilians.
I don’t know of one society in the world which has been exposed to that degree to the attacks of terrorist organizations for such a long time that has responded with such restraint as we have manifested over so many years, until at some point, regrettably it was in the same week that I visited the Prime Minister of Turkey. The Prime Minister of Turkey was very unhappy and complaining how come I was visiting him Monday and I didn’t tell him that we are going to attack the Palestinians in Gaza on Saturday. So I subsequently sent a message to him.
The reason I didn’t tell him was twofold. One, is that on Monday I didn’t know that we will attack on Saturday. How could I know? On Tuesday, Wednesday, they were shooting 50, 70 rockets and missiles a day against all our cities in the south, and we just decided that enough is enough and we have to respond. But I also said, quite frankly, I didn’t call the President of the United States, my good friend, George W. Bush, at that time, and say to him, I’m going to attack Gaza. I didn’t call my good friend, Gordon Brown or Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel. Why should I say to any prime minister what the military plans of the State of Israel are for defending its citizens? I don’t think that it was the right thing to do. I don’t think that I had to do it and I was quite unhappy with the feelings that were expressed by the Turkish Prime Minister.
We have good relations with Turkey. We want to continue the good relations with Turkey and we hope to continue the good relations with Turkey and we hope that the Prime Minister of Turkey will understand that there are certain constraints sometimes which forbid leaders of some nations of sharing the most sensitive secrets when there are secrets. Certainly not at that time when as I said I wasn’t even aware that I will order the Israeli army on Saturday morning to attack the Hamas terrorist organization because of the continuous attacks against innocent Israelis.
The purpose was to restore security to the south of Israel. There was no other purpose, no further purpose, no broader purpose. Now I know that some people particularly in the United States, but not only there, but in some other places, were very concerned and they particularly were concerned that the outcome of the Israeli attack against these brutal terrorists in Gaza will upset the balance in some of the moderate Arab countries, but I can tell you one thing with confidence, and don’t ask me how I know it. I’m sure, I’m sure that all these moderate Arab countries were anxious that Hamas will be defeated and I’m confident that all these moderate Arab leaders are threatened by the extremity of these organizations as they are threatened by the extremity of Iran.
Therefore we had to calculate our moves not according to the expectations quite frankly of other countries but first and foremost by the expectations of our citizens. For the last two years I kept asking many of my colleagues with whom I built up good friendly personal relations, leaders of Europe, leaders of other countries, I asked them, tell me, had your country been exposed to a similar situation, had one city in your country been exposed to a similar situation as Sderot or Netivot, or Ashkelon or Be’er Sheva, what would be your reaction? Would you wait a year, two years, three years, four years, or five minutes before you would immediately respond with strength and with brutality and without any consideration other than to protect the lives and the security of your people. So finally we arrived at that point where we said, "no more" and for 23 days our soldiers, our courageous soldiers and pilots and our military and our secret service were operating in a most effective manner in order to stop the shooting, in order to bring security to the south part of Israel.
We have no intention of demolishing Gaza, we had no intention of destroying the city, and we had no intention of harming uninvolved people. And I said before and I said through this operation and I say it now, I regret and apologize for every uninvolved person that was hit as a result of the Israeli operation in Gaza.
But let’s not forget that when a terrorist organization is focusing inside the urban centers of a city, and shoots from there to kill the Israelis, then what option do you have other than to try and reach out for those people where they are, and where they are sometimes there are also uninvolved people, particularly when they have forced uninvolved people to be with them in those places where they were shooting from so that if they would be hit, they could show the whole world how brutal the Israelis were. So there was a purpose, there was a plan here that was prearranged by the Palestinians. And yet, everyone knows, it has never been, and it will never be the policy of Israel, the strategy of the army of Israel, to hit uninvolved people. We are genuinely sad for their suffering. We are unhappy with the fact that there were uninvolved people hit by the Israeli army. We blame these terrorist organizations for creating a reality where it became inevitable and unavoidable.
We will cooperate with the international community to try and provide all the humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza. We will cooperate with all the non-government organizations and the United Nations in trying to restore a certain order, to the extent that it will not strengthen the Hamas organization. Israel will not cooperate with anyone who creates the circumstances that will allow Hamas to be strengthened as a result of the operation which was aimed at weakening the Hamas. Hamas has been weakened. Hamas is now weaker, much more than it was before and we will not allow under the false pretense of trying to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza for Hamas to benefit. Hamas is not going to benefit from this operation. Hamas is going to pay the price, they are paying the price, and they will continue to pay the price.
And therefore let it be clear, we will not allow the opening of the crossings to Gaza and outside of Gaza to the extent that it will help them bring back life into a completely normal pace. Certainly not before Gilad Shilat is back home. I read about it, I hear about it, I see the headlines in the Israeli papers, in the international communications, I’m the only one who has the authority to bring this matter to the cabinet, to the security cabinet of Israel and I promise you, I will not bring any proposition other than to free Gilad Shalit before anything else. Therefore, we allow humanitarian support; we don’t want anyone in Gaza to be hungry. I don’t want one child in Gaza to suffer or not to be treated in a hospital because there is a lack of medication, but we will not allow any of the essential materials that the Hamas may want in order to strengthen its position in Gaza, certainly not as I said before, this issue has been resolved satisfactorily, completely, and Gilad Shalit will be back with his family, with his friends in his home where he lives.
Is it possible, is it soon? I don’t know. Sometimes I read the papers, I watch the news, I learn a lot about things that I didn’t know that I was doing. But in any event, this is the priority of Israel. First Gilad Shalit, second, the end of smuggling of arms across from the Egyptian border through the Philadelphi line into Gaza and third, complete, total, ceasefire and any hostile activity by the Hamas from Gaza.
We certainly depend a lot on the cooperation with Egypt to achieve this goal and I want to commend the Egyptians for their good will. President Mubarak is a friend. That doesn’t mean that we always agree on everything. That doesn’t mean that as an Arab leader, he can say publicly words of support for a military confrontation between Israel and Arab or Palestinian community. But he has been a responsible leader who fought against terrorists, who didn’t hesitate to try and stop them and now he is making efforts, assisted by the famous General Omar Suleiman in order to bring about an order that will stop the smuggling of arms across from the border into Gaza, and we appreciate this and we will continue to cooperate. We will also cooperate with the Egyptians in the endless attempts to bring back Gilad Shalit.
We know that we will have to make an exchange and we know this exchange will be painful for Israel because we will have to return many Hamas prisoners who are kept for brutal actions against innocent Israelis for many years, but this is the nature of the State of Israel. We all know it; we are prepared to pay so much for the lives of our people. Maybe it’s a point of weakness; maybe it’s a point of great strength that the life of one individual is so important to us. But if Hamas believes that by getting Gilad Shalit, we will open up the crossings in order to strengthen them, then I’d suggest that they think twice. First we want to see Gilad Shalit safe, healthy, strong and happy back home. The rest will be examined afterwards.
So, I can’t say today that all the problems that caused the beginning of the military operations are already resolved. The fact is that they are still shooting and the fact is that we still have to respond sometimes with aerial operations as we did in the last few days, in order to spot the targets from where they’re shooting or where they build up the military weapons that they are using against us. But I hope and I don’t see any particular reason for making arrangements with a terrorist organization. For me, it’s enough that they will not shoot and it’s enough that the Egyptians together with us and with the United States of America which is very helpful and very active and very supportive and very concerned, both the former administration, and immediately after the changeover, the new administration.
I already had a few talks with Secretary Clinton about the situation. I had a long meeting with the special emissary, George Mitchell, all are interested in how to support the process that will bring an end to hostilities from Gaza, which means the total end of shooting by the Hamas on the one hand and a complete control over smuggling across from the border and in other areas where the arms come from, on the other hand. So these are the two main objectives if we will achieve them and of course if Gilad Shalit comes back home, then I think we will have done our job. Until then, we have to be careful, we have to be cautious, and we have to be determined not to hesitate to respond against the shooting of any missiles or rockets coming from Gaza. If they think that we have finished our operation, that we are resting now, then they are mistaken. We are prepared to respond any minute, any second, any time; to anyone who violates this basic demand from Israel that there be a total end to the shooting against the southern part of the State of Israel.
Finally, my dear friends, as I said, you came at a very special time. We just had elections. I don’t want to talk about the outcome of these elections. You know what my political affiliation is. I am not hiding it. I am a member of Kadima and I’m very proud of the achievements of Kadima, and of the achievements of Tzipi Livni, the leader of Kadima, and I’m not going to try even to step into the shoes of the President. Thank God, for once, he has a more difficult job than I have, which is to decide who to appoint as the first candidate to form a new cabinet for Israel. I trust his judgment and his wisdom and his experience. He’s even more experienced than I am in Israeli politics. And so I believe he will do the right thing.
I know one thing, whichever government we will have in Israel, and I don’t know which government it will be, there will be a government that will continue to fight the terrorists surrounding us, there will be a government that will continue to strengthen the deterrents of Israel in the south and in the north and I think that against the initial impressions of some people for the last two years, we proved that the operation of Israel in Lebanon in 2006 was very successful in deterring the Hizbullah from again starting any operation against Israel. The fact is that while we were fighting in the south, no one dared shoot even one bullet against the State of Israel in the north. And that’s because they knew exactly what the reaction of Israel may be.
Every government of Israel will continue to strengthen the Israeli economy which is very important for all of us, particularly at this time. And I think, I don’t have to explain to you as to how important it is and thank God for the time being, the Israeli economy has been stable, it has been managed with care, with sensitivity, with responsibility, which was not universal. This time for a change, we were responsible and careful and restrained and disciplined and thank God we still don’t feel the impact of the economic crisis, as is felt in some other places.
Of course, there is one thing that any government of Israel and all of the political system, the coalition as well as the opposition will be united on – our effort to encourage the comprehensive efforts of many countries to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear country. If there is one threat which really is on top of all our priorities, it is the Iranian threat. This is not an Israeli problem only. You know so well that this is a problem for so many countries and I know how much it concerns the United States, and I know how much it concerned the United States in the past because I used to talk with the president, with the vice president and the secretary of state about it many, many times. I have no doubt that President Obama will stick to the position that he has spelled out on so many different occasions in the past, before he became president, and after he became president – that America will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. America is against Iran becoming a nuclear power and I’m sure that America will do everything that it can in order to make sure that it will not happen.
Israel will be part of this effort – not a leader – Israel is not a leader, America is the leader, Great Britain is the leader, France is the leader, Germany is the leader, Russia is the leader, China is the leader. All these forces ought to operate together and Israel will join with all these forces in order to make sure that Iran not become nuclear, because if Iran becomes nuclear there will be a major threat to the life of the State of Israel, a threat we can’t tolerate, and we will not tolerate this threat and we will not allow it to happen – that I can promise you.
My dear friends, I don’t know when I’ll again have the chance and the privilege to speak to you, certainly I don’t know in which capacity I’ll have the privilege to speak to you. I can say to you that in the last 25 years or more, 30 years, I have spoken to you many times. Maybe I’m one of the most frequent speakers to the Conference of Presidents in the history of this organization. And I’m very proud of it. I’ve seen some faces change over the years, not too many. No, that shows stability, that shows stamina, that shows dedication, that shows perseverance and that shows that Malcolm is very effective.
And I want to thank you for your continuous support to the people of Israel, to the State of Israel. I know that at the end of the day what really motivates you is this dedication to the Jewish security and to the well-being of the Jewish people and this country, the State of Israel. You are always very powerful, very persuasive, very influential and very friendly, and very sensitive, and very emotional. This is what you are, this is what you will be, and on behalf of the people of Israel, and the State of Israel, I thank you very much.