Address by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Foreign Press Corps in Israel

January 11, 2004

Good evening to all of you,

On my own behalf and on behalf of the Government of Israel, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you all here in Jerusalem, the eternal, united and undivided capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, on the occasion of the New Year.

It is my sincere hope and prayer that this New Year, 2004, will enable us to make progress on the road to peace, security and prosperity with all our Arab neighbors as well as in the Middle East at large.

The past year was not an easy one for us and I am sure also for you in your efforts to cover the developments in Israel.

Despite the loss of innocent lives and damage to our economy, we did not break, and managed to stand firm and defend our citizens and our democracy.

In the past year our region has witnessed some major developments as a result of the successful campaign by the United States headed by President Bush in his courageous and determined stand against global terrorism and its supporters.

No doubt these developments created new opportunities to move the peace process forward. And we follow those developments closely.

I would like to stress once again to this distinguished forum: Israel and the government I lead, seeks real durable peace, and we are fully committed to opening negotiations without preconditions and without the use of violence, terrorism and incitement in order to achieve peace and security with all the Arab countries.

Thank you, if you do have questions, I will be glad to answer.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, a question about borders: If the Palestinians were to do everything that they’ve been asked, if they were to dismantle all the terror networks, if they were to give up the right of return would you consider withdrawing to the ’67 borders, or is that a red line? And another border-related question: if the Syrians were to do the same, if they were to rain on Hizbullah, to throw all the terror groups out of Syria, would you consider giving up the Golan or is that also a red line that you will not cross?

PM Sharon: As to he question about Samaria, Judea and Gaza: We adopted the Roadmap, with the 14 points our reservations, and that’s what the government approved. And we of course believe, and I believe, that the Roadmap is the only plan that can provide security and peace, and altogether, I don’t see any other plan that can provide us with security and peace as the Roadmap. In the Roadmap, as you know, there are three stages, and the Palestinians should accomplish several things, like the reforms that should be implemented by them. By now nothing happened in this direction. And they have to dismantle the terror organizations and there should be full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement. I believe that once the reforms will be implemented, and the security steps will be taken, Israel will be ready to negotiate the political side of the agreement.

Of course, I would like very much that there will be negotiations now. We invited the Palestinians and Prime Minister Abu Ala, whom I’ve known for years now and I have good relations with him. The problem is that by now they didn’t accept our invitation. They are not ready to come to negotiate. If they will be willing to come, the first stage will be discussed, and that is security. If it will be quiet, and life will be normal, then we will start the political side of the negotiations. In this political side of the negotiations, I suggested that in the second stage, if it is quiet of course, Israel will recognize a Palestinian state, with no final borders yet. If relations will develop and it will be quiet, then we will come to the third stage, where the final borders between Israel and the Palestinians will have to be discussed and agreed upon. So that is my answer to the question about the Palestinians.

I don’t think that we ever discussed or announced that Israel will withdraw to the ’67 borders. We never said that – to the contrary. But where the borders will be, that will be discussed when we reach this point.

About Syria: Israel, altogether, is a peace-seeking country. We would like to negotiate and reach peace with every Arab country. I would say altogether with every country in the world, but especially when you speak about Arab countries, those that have borders with us, those that are in the region. And of course we will be ready to negotiate with Syria.

Of course, we have one thing we have to understand: what really brought the Syrians to propose that proposal? Syria is under pressure, mostly after the war in Iraq; Syria is suspected to help and give cover to the terror in Iraq, and Syria is behind together with the Iranians the leading terror against Israel, and provides help and support to Iran, otherwise Iran could not have done what they are doing. Even now, after those announcements about the peace negotiations with Israel, they continue to help the Hizbullah that acts together with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards against Israel.

So I believe that what should be done is: Syria should stop its help and support to terror organizations, and if that happens, I believe that Israel will be very glad to negotiate. It should be without any pre-conditions. Their side should sit around the table, I believe that each side has terms, and the two sides should sit and well decide. Again, I would like to emphasize that Israel is ready and willing to negotiate, once Syria, of course, will stop the help to terror which mostly acts from an area which is under full occupation of the Syrians, since January 1976. I hope the day will come that they will take the steps and we will be able to start negotiations.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, when you were Minister of Agriculture, you created the first settlements in the occupied areas. And today you are ready to leave some of them. Tonight there is a big demonstration in Tel Aviv and a number of ministers from your own cabinet are taking part in it, which is in a way, unheard of. Are you going to take any steps against them?

PM Sharon: First, to make a small correction here. When I entered the office of Minster of Agriculture, there were already 25 Jewish communities. Those communities started immediatley after the Six Day War – 25 existed and two of them were under construction – and I think it was the right thing to do under the Labor Government then. So that’s about the facts.

We don’t know who is participating in that demonstration there. Israel is a democracy, and I believe that that’s what brought them. I don’t know who is there, maybe there are some ministers too. As I said, Israel is a democracy and there is a government in Israel and things are decided not by demonstrators, but by the government. The government adopted the Roadmap and I think that if there are members of the government there, they participated also in the government decision.

It is not an easy thing for people who were living in the territories for many years, they are already third generation there. But I believe that in order to achieve peace, Israel will not be able to hold all the Jewish communities. That has been said by me many many times in the past. I said that in times that maybe politicians would not have that during primaries, before elections, and I said exactly what I’m going to do, so that nobody would come later and say: we supported you because we thought you are going to do something different.

I said very clearly what I’m going to do, and I repeated that again and again, and that is my position. And when Israel – and I hope that we’ll be able to do it soon – has to follow the Roadmap, Israel will not be able to hold all the Jewish communities. It’s very clear, and even if we do not succeed – and I assure you that we will make every effort to implement the Roadmap – but if we do not succeed and we will have to take unilateral steps of disengagement, no doubt that there would be some relocation of Jewish communities, and redeployment of Israeli armed forces: all that in order to provide more security to the State of Israel.

That’s very clear, and I’m repeating it again: if it will be possible, and only if we have a partner. Now we do not have a partner, they are not coming to negotiate – we’ll implement the Roadmap. We regard that to be the best potential plan, and if not – if that does not work out, and it should be very clear to all the countries of the world that we tried and we made a real effort, then we will have to take unilateral steps in order to make this disengagement and redeployment of forces and relocation of some of the Jewish communities. I said it and repeated it now.

Q: How are you going to build peace with the Palestinians who see every day kids killed, many houses destroyed; and how are you going to build trust with these people who see the army destroy and kill without stop? We saw now two months without any kind of operation from Hamas, from Jihad, from Fatah, and without any step from the Israeli government. Even the Roadmap, you don’t implement anything even when you say yes. How are you going to convince the Palestinians, the Arabs, Syria, Libya, that you are really want to make peace with them?

PM Sharon: First of all, I’m glad that we have press here from Arab countries, Im sure there are also Palestinians here. That only emphasizes that Israel is a democracy, a stable democracy, and the only democracy that exists in this part of the world.

As for what you have mentioned, talking about those kids that are killed daily and the civilians that are killed, and so on. I think that the most important thing is, of course, to move forward in order really to develop those relations. We can see them already now: when all those that came from Arab countries can sit here and say whatever they want and we accept it, I see it as a good sign for future relations that I plan to develop with Arab countries.

But I believe that we brought here those figures about casualties, and you can see exactly, what was the rate of casualties that Israel had. I know as a soldier for many years that civilians are killed in wars, not because that is the intention – usually that’s not the intention, but sometimes they are killed, and every casualty is a tragedy. The problem is that the targets of the Palestinians are civilians, and when a suicide bomber enters a school bus with children, they know that there are children, and they decide to do it. If you take that terrible act of terror that took place in Haifa, when a lady, who was a suicide bomber, entered the restaurant, had her meal there, paid, then stood by a baby stroller – and she saw that there was a baby – and committed suicide – that’s an entirely different thing. And that’s not the only place.

As a matter of fact, what you have mentioned, sir, that it was completely quiet for two months, theres nothing true in that. Terror never stopped – maybe there was a certain reduction, and I would like to tell you that as you can see now, there is less terror than before. And that happened not because the Palestinians took any steps. That happened only because our security people, our soldiers, our policemen, manage to stop terror. Even today there was a suicide bomber on his way to the center of the country, until he saw soldiers around him – it was in a road accident somewhere – and he operated the explosives, but there were no casualties. Only he died. And it never stopped for one day; never stopped.

And the Palestinian Authority did not take, though I’ve been talking to them – to the former prime minister whom I’ve also known for years, Abu Mazen – I talked to them. I told them that they can move forward, they can solve their problems, they can make the lives of the Palestinians much easier, because then we can remove all the roadblocks, it would make it much easier. But nothing happened, they have not taken any step whatsoever. And that is the problem. And it should be very clear that I would like to move forward, I would like to solve the problem, I feel that it is my responsibility to make every effort. But if someone thinks for one minute that Israel will make any concession whatsoever when terror continues, that is a wrong assumption. It will not be. And the Palestinians now have an opportunity to start solving their problems.

Therefore, I think that all that information that might come on the one hand, Im very glad that you are sitting here together with us. On the other hand, if you were not a guest here, I would say: lies and lies and lies. And that one must understand. If it will be quiet and I have said it many many times: for genuine, durable, real peace, Israel is ready to make painful concessions. Why painful? Because these concessions are in areas which are the cradle of the Jewish people. The Jewish people was born as a people 4,000 years ago, and as a matter of fact, never left. There were Jews that never left this country. And that one must understand.

For genuine, durable, real peace, there will be concessions. If you ask me: Will there be any concessions or compromise with terror? The answer is no! There will not be any compromise with terror. Maybe for some people its hard to understand that its our right, and we have to exercise our right of self-defense. Therefore, when it comes to security, no pressure by anyone not now and not in the future there will not be any compromises. We have the right to live peacefully.

I know people are talking about the fence. Do you know who built the fence? The terror built the fence. If not for terror, we would not have done its very hard for us economically the fence was built by the terror. If not for the terror, maybe we would not have done it at all. But I think it’s very important to know that when it comes to security, there will be no compromises: not now, not in the future. Never! And I feel that it is my historic responsibility to defend the lives of Israeli citizens, and that’s what I’m going to do.

As for other things, I believe that we could have done tremendous things together with our neighbors.

Q: [Hebrew] Last year 12,000 immigrants from former Soviet Union countries arrived in the State of Israel, while at the same time, 24,000 Jews immigrated from former Soviet Union countries to Germany. Are you concerned about that and what do you and the government you head intend to do in order to change that and make the State of Israel a more viable place for Jews to immigrate to, since you said often in the past that you believe that what is needed for the vitality, for the survival of the Jewish people, is immigration to the State of Israel.

PM Sharon: The main target of the government I lead is Jewish immigration to Israel. And we believe that the answer to our problems here is first of all immigration. And we put a target that within 12-15 years, we will have to absorb here another million Jews, according to the Law of Return. We believe that the potential immigration from what used to be the Soviet Union is still about one million, according to the Law of Return. But we are making efforts everywhere, in the United States, in Latin America, in Europe – mostly when we see the growing spread of anti-Semitism. We already managed to absorb 1.2 million within 12 years or 13 years in the past, and with all the problems, we don’t have any people without roofs over their heads. It was a tremendous effort, but we have done it.

We see the situation. Of course, it depends upon many things, including a change in the economic situation. In Russia Jews are making efforts to send more children over here to study here, and usually when they come to study here, later they come and serve in the military and become part of sharing the lives of Israeli citizens here.

You mentioned Germany. The conditions that are provided, or the help that is provided by the German government is much higher than here, and no doubt there are difficulties here. The security doesn’t bother them as much as the economic situation, and the fact is that not everyone who comes here can work in their profession. Of course, those one million that came here made a tremendous contribution to the State of Israel in every field. We don’t think that we could have achieved our achievements in hi-tech, in science, without that immigration. So it is worrisome, we are studying this problem now and we will decide what to do in order to have more of them coming over here.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, one of the most important questions for the future of Israel is the demographic development. In five or maybe two years, the Arabs will be the majority in the territories between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea. What in your opinion Israel must do so that the Jewish people remain the majority in its own land?

PM Sharon: I don’t see any danger that the Jews will not be the majority in their own land. First, you mentioned the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean: we never sought to annex areas in Samaria and Judea, as you call it the West Bank, or in Gaza. We never thought about that. We never wanted to annex those areas, and we never had any plan whatsoever to provide the Palestinian population there with Israeli citizenship. And it’s not going to happen. So once that’s not going to happen, there is no reason to worry about that.

According to the Roadmap – as I myself suggested to the White House more than two years ago to adopt the plan which later came out as the Roadmap – the areas which are heavily populated by Palestinians would be part, according to the plan, of the Palestinian Authority. Therefore, I don’t see any danger here. Besides that, I believe there should be a major effort to have more ‘olim’, newcomers to Israel. Thats what we have to do and that will be one of our major efforts. I dont see any demographic danger. You live here, so every day there are some news and some announcements and some professionals and people from the academic circles or journalists that write about this demographic problem. When somebody wants to frighten or to impose plans which are not always plans that can provide peace or security here, they come with this issue. I don’t think that there is demographic danger, and I speak about a democracy, not a situation where the Palestinians will be under our control but will not have citizenship. Thats not going to happen. That is not the plan.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, you have often been talking about painful concessions towards the Palestinians, also today. Can you be more specific, can you give us examples? PM Sharon: The areas that we speak about are areas in Samaria and Judea, or as you will refer to them as the West Bank. If you know the Bible, you do not need a guide book in this country, because you can hold the Bible and all the names, biblical names, are them. Jerusalem is Yerushalayim and the Jordan is Hayarden and Jericho is Jericho and Bethlehem is Bethlehem and Hebron is Hevron, whereas King David ruled Israel for seven years and six months. And Mount Carmel is Har Carmel and Mount Tabor is Har Tavor and there is Kever Rachel and Shilo that was the Jewish political and spiritual center for 369 years; and Beit-El – all those names kept for thousands of years. And how were they kept for thousands of years? Because first, they are in the Bible, and second: Jews never left this country. I believe that about 100 years before the Muslims arrived here, the number of Jews here was still close to half a million. So when you see all these things and you see all those names, then you understand why it’s painful.

For years we talked mostly about security. I think that this approach was a mistake. To emphasize on security, because for security you have that or other means. I think Israel made a mistake and I include myself in one of those not to speak about the Jewish rights over this country. It’s painful.

But in order to provide peace, we will have to take painful steps. The Palestinians could have seen it already, if they had started to negotiate. One cannot do these things unless your partners are coming. I invited Mr. Abu Ala whom I met many times before, I invited him to come and discuss. I saw him in the past and I saw him at home in the farm; I saw him in Jerusalem in the Prime Minister’s Residence here. The only thing is to come and negotiate. And then, of course, I believe that things could move. It would still be painful. We speak about the history of the Jewish people. And the Jewish people as Jews have existed for 4,000 years and never left this country. Therefore, it is painful, but painful steps will have to be taken.

Q: You have spoken of the need to dismantle or to move settlements, many of which or some of which you may have helped to create. And that indeed would be very painful. So I wonder if you would be prepared to concede today that it might have been a mistake to establish so many settlements all over the interior of the West Bank and Gaza. What did it achieve?

PM Sharon: I think that the decision then to build those Jewish communities in the area was the right thing to do. No doubt that those decisions were made by the governments since the Six Day War. Many things have changed since then. But still I believe that it was important, and I agree that some of them will have to be removed, but altogether, I think that that was the right thing to do. So many governments – Labor Governments, Likud Governments, National Unity Governments – all of them have done that. Now, when we approach a time when I believe that we can and should move forward, we will have to relocate some of them, and we will have to redeploy our forces in order to have more security for Israeli citizens, and I hope that we will do that. Altogether, with all the pain that it creates, I think that it was the right decision. I know that this decision was not liked by many countries, including the United States which never agreed to that. But all those governments with a number of prime ministers decided that and have done that.

In any case, thank you very much and I am looking forward to seeing you next year, and meanwhile, happy New Year to all of you.