During the past four years, we have suffered an acute economic crisis, which threatened to collapse the foundations of the economy. My Government had to take severe and extreme steps.
I am pleased we were able to withstand this crisis and get past it. Last year, we were witness to a renewal of growth and an increase in export, while maintaining price and exchange rate stability, as well as the lowest interest rates ever. Through a viable growth of 4-5% per annum, we can, and must, close the gap between developed countries and ourselves within a decade and raise the gross domestic product to a European level, which is more than $25,000 per capita.
This is the way to take our rightful place in the economy of the developed world, to ensure every citizen in Israel a good quality of life and to finance social safety nets appropriate to the essence of the Jewish State.
The renewed economic chances are assisted, first and foremost, by political developments, primarily the Government’s determination to implement the Disengagement Plan. I am determined to take advantage of the new window of opportunity to normalize our relations with the Palestinians, stop terror and create a new environment of tranquility and peace, which will usher along new economic opportunities for both sides.
That is why I have acted with all my strength to preserve the political stability and prevent our slipping into [unwanted] early elections. It is important to note that our agreement with the [to establish a new government] Labor Party and United Torah Judaism specifically states that this Government will rule until the end of its tenure in November 2006, and so it will be.
The new Government will act quickly to pass the state budget in the Knesset. I inform you that the budget will be approved, and there will be no deviation from the budget targets as we presented them in the Knesset.
The most important goal of the Government’s policy, beyond maintaining stability, will be the immediate reduction of unemployment and the return of hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the job market. Indeed, the unemployment rate has certainly decreased slightly this year, and the economy gained nearly 100,000 new jobs, but this is not enough.
It is an essential national mission to erase the disgrace of the unemployment of those who can, and want, to work, and the disgrace of the unemployment of those who can but do not want to work. This is the only way we can give more to those who are unable to work due to age or disability.
I expect you to rally to this cause of creating new jobs and encouraging foreign investments in Israel with your full strength. I know that in the past you have always joined in fulfilling national goals. Today, this is a goal we must all achieve. I would like to emphasize, you are all charged with the special task of bringing more foreign investment to Israel. You have already done much in this field, but today, this should become the central goal for all of us.
The role of the government is not to create jobs, but to create the conditions in which you can create more, earn more and hire more employees. Therefore, we will continue the far-reaching structural reforms, some on topics which have not been dealt with since the establishment of the state, such as the job market, the ports, the capital market, etc.
All these reforms may be implemented while barely harming employees and their rights. However, this requires understanding and dialogue: understanding by the employees that the reforms will take place no matter what, and understanding by the representatives of the Government as to the deep and understandable concern and sensitivity of the employees.
I instructed all Government representatives to try and reach understandings regarding the issues on the agenda. Only recently, we succeeded with this approach when representatives of the Ministry of Finance and employees headed by the Secretary of the Histadrut (or is it the Chairman of the Histadrut?) signed an agreement reached through understanding and compromise, and with which both sides are satisfied.
I know that you are the ones standing at the forefront of the strikes. I am well aware of the huge difficulties you face, and greatly appreciate the way you handled these strikes. We do not want to return to those days, and therefore I personally intend to do whatever is necessary to prevent a further strike in the ports, and to instruct both sides to hold dialogue and reach an agreement.
I can tell you that during the port strikes we, my staff and I, were in almost daily contact with the president of the Association, Oded Tyrah. He succeeded in presenting relevant positions, offered solutions for compromise and created trust between representatives of the Ministry of Finance and the employees. Thanks largely to him, a solution was reached.
I believe that this is the place to thank Oded, to whom we are saying goodbye today, following nearly 6 years as president of the Manufacturer’s Association. I have known Oded since he served the country as a fighter and commander. I appointed him commander of the sensitive and complex operation to evacuate Yamit because I knew he had the leadership skills and responsible discretion necessary to carry out that mission. You said that you would always be willing to help, and in this regard I do not plan to turn to you, because I believe that an effort like this, which is so arduous, should only be undertaken once in a lifetime. But I remember those difficult days and thank you for them.
He also displayed these qualities in his role as the manufacturer who rehabilitated a factory in a development area, and which was transformed into an engine for production and export, as well as in his role as president of the Manufacturer’s Association. I can tell you from my many contacts with him that Oded did not act as a lobbyist for industry, but rather as a leader of the productive sector bearing the general responsibility for the state of the economy and Israeli society. He always suggested productive ideas, and the great majority of them were adopted by the Government. This serves as an example of the way in which the Manufacturer’s Association should act, with a wide view of the economy’s needs and while taking responsibility in a practical and serious manner.
Oded, I thank you for all your activities on all fronts. I enjoyed working with you, and I wish you success in all your future endeavors. Of course, I look forward to continuing that same fruitful cooperation with your successor. I am pleased you announced this today, and I know him well too, of course, and assure you that you will enjoy our full cooperation, as did Oded.
Thank you and good luck.