Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Address at the Opening of the Knesset Winter Session

Jerusalem October 20, 2003

Mr. Speaker,
Members of Knesset,

I am honored to stand before the Knesset at the opening of this winter session, in order to review recent events, and the government’s future policy.

Recently, the struggle against terror, violence and extremism in the Middle East reached its peak. Following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s insane and bloody regime in Iraq, the peoples of the Middle East must choose one of two paths: to continue on the path of useless violence, while subjecting their people to the dire consequences of that choice, or choosing a new path of condemning terror, violence and incitement, and choosing peace, coexistence and cooperation instead.

Israel’s position is clear: only with the absolute rejection of terror, violence and a culture of hate will a new era of quiet and peace for all peoples of the region be assured.

In order for this to happen, the Palestinians must uphold the steps they committed to: uprooting terror, implementing governmental reforms, establishing a new government consistently opposed to terror, a complete cessation in the media and schoolbooks of incitement to murder and acts of terror, dismantling terrorist organizations, stopping their sponsorship and funding, and beginning to act seriously on prior commitments.

Israel has accepted President Bush’s historic initiative – his vision and political stance. We adopted the political plan called the "Roadmap" in an official government resolution, in conjunction with Israel’s 14 reservations, which are an integral part of the plan.

In the past, Israel has proven that when there is an alternate leadership, which does not support terror, as with Abu Mazen’s government, we undertook far-reaching steps toward the Palestinians. We will do so with every Palestinian government which upholds the Palestinian commitments and combats terror.

Our plan is the only hope of achieving a real and genuine breakthrough to peace between the Palestinians and ourselves. It is a plan which has been accepted by the majority of the world. Any deviation from it will release the Palestinians from the commitments they took upon themselves, and from the international demands made on them to uproot terror. Any such deviation will only encourage terrorist organizations.

It is no wonder that they are trying to renounce these commitments – and it is a pity that there are those in the world, and in Israel, who assist them by creating a false impression of alternative plans, without the Palestinians’ making any effort to stop the terror directed at us. This is taking place in the face of bloody incidents, from the murder of families in Haifa, the murder of members of the American Embassy staff in Gaza, to the murders yesterday near Ofra, which prove that terror is trying to extinguish the spark of hope between the Palestinians and ourselves.

The withdrawal from the path of peace has a clear cause. Arafat is the man who has brought about the failure and continues to sabotage all progress. That is why he brought down the Abu Mazen government, as he continues to undermine Abu Ala’s attempt to establish a serious government.

This man is the greatest obstacle to peace. Therefore Israel has committed to removing him from the political arena. Our policy is becoming more and more conceivable to various international bodies.

I am convinced our policy will succeed. With patience, determination and forbearance, we will realize the hope embodied in this plan – to achieve a genuine political settlement which will ensure quiet and peace for the Palestinians and ourselves.

This path to peace is arduous, long and paved with difficulties and obstacles, but we must not lose hope.

I assess, on the basis of information we have, that in the coming months there will be a real chance of breaking the impasse imposed upon us, and renewing genuine progress towards an agreement.

This is a period of great upheaval in the world, and particularly in our region. Only a few days ago, we heard the slanderous statements by the Prime Minister of Malaysia at the Organization of the Islamic States Conference, and the reaction to them by countries which consider themselves "enlightened". It will take more time for the Arab world, and particularly Palestinian society, to understand that violence and extremism will only lead them to incalculable disaster. If we remain determined and patient, if we succeed in getting through the necessary period of waiting and ripening, if we are able to withstand the attempts to harm, murder and weaken us – then we will be able to reap the benefits of quiet and peace.

Meanwhile, we are not resting on our laurels. Israel is continuing its policy of distinguishing between the civilian Palestinian population which is not involved in terror, and the terrorists, their dispatchers and those who give them aid. We will continue to try and ease the burdens on the civilian population as much as possible while continuing to pursue the terrorists, and we will strike at them wherever we can.

And, Mr. Defense Minister who is heading this battle, I would like to, and I am sure that the Members of Knesset join me in conveying our good wishes to all security forces who stand guard to secure the citizens of Israel.

The IDF and security forces will continue to do everything in order to prevent acts of terror, capture murderers and eradicate terrorist organizations.

In addition to the continuation of these activities, the government has decided to accelerate and complete construction of the security fence, which will constitute and additional obstacle for terrorists attempting to reach the heart of the country. The security fence is not a political or security boundary, rather, an additional means of preventing terror and illegal penetration into Israel. The Government has decided on a clear path for completion of the fence, which will grant maximum security to Israel, while reducing as much as possible any adverse impact on the daily lives of the Palestinians.

The construction of the fence will be accelerated and every effort will be made to complete the next stage, including the area surrounding Jerusalem, within one year from today.

Members of Knesset,

Striving for peace and the struggle for security do not belong exclusively to one segment of the public. It is a national mission to which all segments of the population are partners.

Today there is no real reason to create false divisions between our positions. I have always believed, and continue to believe that a national consensus is an essential component of our strength. Our political plan is supported by a great majority of the Israeli public, and its principles were formulated during the National Unity Government, which I headed. There is no real reason why we cannot act in agreement toward its realization.

I call upon the responsible elements in the Labor Party to do some soul-searching and join in the support of the Roadmap – with the reservations approved by the Government – in the hope of removing the obstacles on the way to an agreement which will guarantee peace and tranquility.

We all want peace.
We all accept the Roadmap and aspire to its implementation.
We all agree that it is incumbent upon the Palestinians to combat terrorism, and that they must not be relieved of this commitment. We all agree that we must not, at this time, reward terrorism by making far-reaching concessions, without an agreement.
We all certainly do not wish to bring Arafat back to the center of the political arena. And we all agree on the need for a new and different Palestinian leadership with which we can advance the political process.

Therefore, a truly serious attempt to advance the State of Israel toward the fulfillment of our mutual goals, can be carried out through consensus, while promoting the real interests of the State of Israel.

Knesset members,

Great things are being done in our socio-economic policy – the likes of which have not been done for many years.

In the next few days, a proposed budget for 2004 will be presented before the Knesset, and will include a series of proposals which constitute a revolution in the structure of the Israeli economy and a continuation of the steps which we have begun taking in the economic plan approved by the Knesset in its previous session. Our primary goals are a determined preservation of stability, while reducing the scope of the public, unproductive and monopolistic sector – in order to enable real growth by the private sector.

We began cutbacks in government offices, with the closure or combining of superfluous offices. We have closed the Ministry of Regional Cooperation, are currently closing the Ministry of Religious Affairs and during the course of the year, will also close the Ministry of Communications. Concurrently, we are closing and combining numerous government units.

I would like to reiterate to the Members of the Knesset something I said during the government discussion on the Ministry of Religions. I said one sentence: "I am a Jew" – for me being a Jew is of greatest importance. I said one thing, "As a Jew, I will not allow any harm to anything related to Judaism" – I stated this clearly to the members of the government.

We have encouraged competition in various markets and will continue the liquidation of government monopolies in the fields of ports, transportation, water and real estate, and the privatization of government companies, as we began doing with El Al.

In this framework, we have transformed the Israel Railway into an independent government company, capable of raising funds for the development of railway tracks and the improvement of customer service. What has been done in the past few years with the railway is practically a revolution – "the railway revolution". During the past month we inaugurated four new railway stations – at Rosh Ha’ayin, Rishon Le Zion, Ashdod and Beit-Shemesh. The transformation of the railway into a company will enable it to implement – over the next 5 years – plans in the scope of some 20 billion NIS, thereby enabling the train to reach numerous additional places in Israel, including Dimona, Sderot, Netivot, Ofakim, Jerusalem – in two lines, Modi’in, Afula, Beit Shean and Karmiel.

In addition, I would like to mention the train station at the Be’er Sheva University, which will ease the arrival of thousands of students.

We have – for the first time in the history of the state – reduced the transfer payments which have inflated disproportionally in the past few decades. The percentage of working people in Israel is merely 40% of the overall population – in comparison with an average of over 50% in the western world. It is clear to all that one cannot work the same as in third world countries and demand allowances provided by western countries! Those who work and produce, those who pay taxes, cannot forever carry the full burden by themselves.

I believe that allowances should only be granted to those who really need them – those who cannot work. Those who can should go to work, instead of living at the expense of the state.

In order to create employment we commenced a regular policy of removing foreign workers, and we intend to continue doing so. Over 60,000 foreign workers already left the country during the past year.

Simultaneously, we will proceed with the tax reform – the gist of which is to reduce tax payments for the working, productive sector and to enable the working man to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

An additional matter to which we have attended is the pension funds. I admit that there were many who advised us – the Finance Minister and me – to avoid this subject. After all, it is a very sensitive subject, and if we had not addressed it, it would have been left to a future government. However, a responsible government must rise above political and other considerations. I take pride in the fact that thanks to the steps which we have taken – and still intend to take – Israeli citizens who own pension funds know that their money is secure. That was not the situation six months ago.

I am aware that the heavy recession and the adjustments which the national economy must undergo further exacerbate the acute plight suffered by a portion of the Israeli population. To them I say – there is no choice! If we do not carry out these cutbacks now, the entire national economy will deteriorate and the underprivileged sectors of society will be the ones to suffer the most.

The attempts to sabotage the reforms through threats, sanctions and strikes must be particularly condemned. They will not deter the government from carrying out its plans. We seek dialogue with the workers, and I – as someone who has vast experience in negotiations – believe that we can reach agreement. But we must not paralyze the economy, harm the weaker sectors or endanger the livelihood of production workers, just to protect the excess perks of the powerful and privileged unions.

Israeli society is on the path to becoming a positive, working and productive society. Today, despite all the difficulties, our GDP level already equals that of European nations. Instead of arguing over the allocation of the diminishing "public pie", we must join forces to increase the overall resources of the market, through hard work, production and growth.

The means to overcoming the slump and returning to the path of growth and prosperity are in our hands, and we must all work together to get back on track.

Knesset members,

There is still much work to be done, but we have the hope that through the means which I have described, we can enjoy a truly good year – a year in which all our hopes for the beginning of prosperity, peace and tranquility, will be realized.

I wish all the members of Knesset a successful, fruitful and productive session.

Thank you.