We must always try to shape our reality, but we have a responsibility never to ignore reality. The reality is not simple.
Note: By law, 40 Members of the Knesset are needed to summon the Prime Minister for a discussion in the plenum on a subject of their choice. This may be done once a month.
I would like to start by saying a few words about the late Eli Hurvitz [former Teva CEO]. The last time I met Eli was less than a month ago in Safed, at the inauguration of the medical school. He insisted on coming, despite his illness, because it was a dream of his that was coming true. Like you, I knew Eli for many years, and he was a role model as an entrepreneur and pioneer, a man who believed in the free market economy, who always cared about the welfare of his employees and his company.
He was a rare combination of a man of vision and a man of deeds. When I was Minister of Finance, my ties with the Histadrut were often not as good as I would have liked, and he always would urge me to find the golden mean and find a way to discuss things. After I left the government and was in the opposition, he talked to me again, several times, about his ideas for Israel for the next 20 years and he repeated the need for discussions. He was indeed one of people who encouraged me, and I’m sure you too, Minister of Finance, to reach those talks. He was extraordinary in so many ways and I think he will remain engraved in our collective mind, not only as a great industrialist, who established worldwide business, but as a true patriot and Zionist and a model citizen. We will always remember him fondly.
In the next few weeks we will bring the Trajtenberg committee’s recommendations for approval in the Knesset. We approved some of them in government, the chapter on taxes, and we will hold additional government meetings to approve other recommendations. These decisions touch on almost every aspect of life of the citizens of Israel: education, welfare, housing and costs of products and services.
If I had to summarize them in one sentence, they will reduce the cost of living for hundreds of thousands of families in Israel. I have to make one comment: A couple who are working parents, with the resolutions we made, will receive another three tax credit points for each child up to the age of three. I want to remind you that one of the things we’ve been discussing, and rightly so, is the need to alleviate the hardship of young working couples who have young children. With the amendment that I just mentioned, such a family will have an extra NIS 600 for each child every month. This is a significant change and a great incentive for working parents who pay taxes.
Later on, we will promote additional help for those who send their children to public kindergartens. We will build more of them because there is a shortage of thousands of public kindergartens, that has worsened over the years and we will fix it so that they become more accessible to more populations, people with fewer resources, which again, usually means young couples. This will significantly improve their standard of living. I think that this is one of the biggest social reforms that this house has ever seen, and we are making many other reforms.
I am proud that my government has improved salaries of teachers, police officers and doctors, including remedying a social injustice that has cried out to the heavens for decades: the salaries of doctors in the peripheral towns. This is an incredible correction of a social wrong, and I am certain that with the good will of all the concerned parties, we will find the way to reach a settlement with the interns.
Before the Law of the National Housing Committees is even implemented, and before the reform in the Israel Land Administration, we find ourselves in the midst of transformation. The government allocated an additional 50% to start building and for the first time in years, housing prices are going down. There is no doubt that the trend is changing due to increased availability and that is the most important change. There are other factors that influence it, but adding housing availability is something we have not had for a decade.
There is a tendency to look at Israel through very gloomy glasses. Data from the OECD on life expectancy was recently published revealing that life expectancy in Israel is the fifth highest of all the OECD countries, close to Japan and Switzerland, the highest, and before Australia, Iceland and Sweden. And what else is important is that these achievements, the economic, infrastructural, educational, are significant achievements that were attained while the entire world is in economic turmoil, the likes of which have not been witnessed in two generations.
It is important to say that all these changes are being done out of responsibility and not populism. We see what is happening today to the strongest markets in the world, and Israel is not there. We are making all these changes with economic responsibility, the market is prospering, there is some money for social purposes and we succeeded in avoiding the great unemployment wave that is hitting many Western countries which is the harshest, cruelest social damage. I am not saying that everything is OK, because we are going to go through a very rough period. We are not a separate continent or a resilient island. The global economic turmoil will take its toll on us.
We have acted responsibly before today and we will continue to be responsible. This accountability is not only in economic and social issues, education and infrastructure. It lies, first and foremost, in security. That is the primary responsibility of any government, to ensure the security of Israel’s citizens. And I want to tell you that the question of security is linked directly to reality and how we read the reality.
The Middle East is no place for the naïve. I stood on this podium last February, when millions of Egyptian citizens were pouring into the streets of Cairo. Commentators and quite a few members of the Opposition explained to me that we were on the verge of a new era of liberalism and progress that will wash away the old order. I said that we hope that will happen, but despite all our hopes, the chances are that an Islamist wave will wash over the Arab countries, an anti-West, anti-liberal, anti-Israel and ultimately an anti-democratic wave. They said I was trying to alarm the public and that I cannot see, we are on the wrong side of history, that I do not understand where things are headed. They are moving, but they are not moving forward towards progress, they are going backwards.
I decided to determine our policy according to reality and not to wishful thinking. I ask you today, who was it that did not read reality right? Who did not understand history? I remember that many of you called upon me to seize the opportunity and make hasty concessions, to rush into an agreement, that the time was right. It is the opportunity, the right time, you said. Don’t miss the opportunity. But I do not base Israel’s policy on illusion.
The earth is shaking. We do not know who will take over any land that we give up, not tomorrow, not this very afternoon. We see this reality everywhere. Whoever does not see it is burying their head in the sand. But that did not stand in the way of people suggesting that I give in. I said that we want to reach an agreement with the Palestinians because we do not want a bi-national state, but we must insist on having stable and secure foundations, we have always wanted that but now we need it more than ever.
I will not ignore reality, I will not ignore the dangers, I will not ignore history, I will not ignore the present or give up on any of our security requirements that have increased because of the recent crises and not diminished. This is not the time to yield them, it is not the time to rush into things, it is the time to be cautious in our connections with the Palestinians. Today it is clear that the careful approach I chose was the right approach, the smart approach, the responsible approach.
Israel is facing a period of regional instability and uncertainty. This is certainly not the time to listen to those who said then and now, time and time again, to act according to our wishes and desires. There were those who promised at the time of the disengagement that the residents of the South would get peace and quiet, but we got terrorism and rockets, just like my friends and I warned. In this difficult and sensitive time, our policy is clear. We want to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians that will withstand the test of time and will not buckle as soon as it is signed; that we will not get, like we did in Gaza, Iranian presence, and now we have the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as well as Hamas.
We must always try to shape our reality, but we have a responsibility never to ignore reality. The reality is not simple. Iran is developing nuclear weapons. If there is anyone who doubted that, the recent IAEA report should have removed those doubts. It is imperative that sanctions be imposed on this regime, severe sanctions, even more severe than the sanctions imposed over the last few days. Israel will continue to work to stabilize and strengthen the peace with Egypt, which is a strategic interest of both countries. Israel will continue to work towards stabilizing and strengthening the peace with Jordan. We have a clear interest in our neighbor to our East, the Hashemite kingdom, remaining strong and independent.
Israel will continue to look for ways to advance peace with the Palestinians and our statements remain open and valid. There are those who say that we claim that we do not have a partner for peace talks. That is not true. Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi spoke the truth, that it is unfortunately Abu-Mazen who is saying that there is no partner. As Ahmad Tibi honestly quoted Abu-Mazen saying that he is only willing to talk if we accept his terms in advance, terms that no prime minister has ever accepted. But that is not the way to advance peace. Not to set the result as a condition, but to enter negotiations, as we have been offering for two and a half years. Negotiations are the path to peace. There is no other way.
We have made it clear to the Palestinians that we will not sit idly by if they move ahead with their plans to bypass peace negotiations with unilateral steps. I hope that they regain their senses and that we find a way to resume negotiations. I think it is their interest as well as ours. I think that negotiations should lead to a stable agreement, one that is based on security, that provides us with security, to us, Israel, but I am not sure that it is only for us. Maybe also for the Palestinian Authority which faces the tumult of the times and the huge threats that we all face when the earth is shaking in the whole region.
I want to say a few words to those who say that free speech is ostensibly being undermined in Israel. Ostensibly, because they are talking about the libel law. It might be called the libel law, but I call it the law for publishing truth. The law does not refer to those who write facts, but to those who distort facts, as determined by a court of law. This law aims at dealing with people who say things about others that are not true which harm them. Anyone has the right to report, to write, to investigate, but no one has the right to libel. Anyone who is harmed through no fault of his own, deserves to be protected and compensated, but again, as determined by the court. It is not arbitrarily determined by the Knesset.
Most Israelis support this amendment, because everybody understands that there is not much protection today and they want to fix this, and I say it must be amended. But here too, we must not get carried away. Here too, it should be done in measure. I spoke with Member of Knesset Sheetrit and with Member of Knesset Levin. They all understand and they want to make certain measured adjustments.
Proper representation of many Israeli citizens in the media is not a blow to democracy, it is the essence of democracy. We have been lacking this for many years and the citizens of Israel are in distress and so what we must do is repair it moderately, responsibly. All of Israel’s citizens or the vast majority of them understand that this is critical and it is high time to do so. When we do it, Israeli democracy will be more resilient, stronger, and ultimately more just.