(Communicated by the GPO)

Following is a transcript of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s remarks at the annual GPO New Year’s reception, which was held on Tuesday, 15 February 2005, in Jerusalem.

I’m pleased to be here with you again, in an event, which has become a tradition. Since we met last year, Israel has overcome many obstacles and obtained many goals. We have seen great improvement in our security, in the economy and we stand today on the crossroads on the path to peace.

We are in an interesting period, a period of hope, a period that introduces new opportunities to advance security and stability in the Middle East. Last week the President of Egypt invited us to a summit in Sharm el-Sheikh with the participation of the King of Jordan and the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority. This important event symbolizes the new beginning we all want to see when violence and terror are eradicated and there is progress towards a settlement between us and the Palestinians.

I want to wish us all a happy year, a year of fulfillment of opportunities and I would like with your permission to open this gathering to questions and answers.”

Q. In the last few weeks we’ve seen the forces against disengagement gathering. There are petitions out there asking soldiers to disobey orders. Yesterday there was disobedience in the streets of the State of Israel coming from the right wing, coming from your natural core of supporters. Some of your colleagues in the Knesset and in the government are now disobeying your rules. Where are you going to go with this and how can you gather your natural core together again. And a supplemental to that, there is very real danger to you and to your ministers if some of the threats, which are, currently being issued are carried out. How do you feel about this threat coming from your own core of supporters?

A. I greatly cherish and esteem the residents of Judea, Samaria and Gaza and I remember that I was the one who sent some of them there. However, in order to progress in the overall process we needed to take painful steps. I will do everything in my power to prevent a rift in the nation. This may be one of the most difficult steps I have to take during my term as prime minister.

Regarding the threats the members of Knesset and the government are facing – my own personal safety does not affect me and doesn’t affect my plans. I’m not concerned and I’m determined to carry out the decisions of the government and the Knesset. The only thing that guides me is how to progress and not to delay. I view these threats very gravely. Such threats are intolerable. In my entire life I have never surrendered to threats and I have no intention of starting now. I conveyed this message to my fellow ministers and the Knesset members who are under pressure. The government will take every step necessary to ensure maximum security and we will soon hold discussions on this subject.

Q. Mr. Prime Minister, the second man in the Syrian regime today, Mr. Hadad, accused Israel today of the assassination of Mr. Hariri and I wonder what your reaction is to this matter, and how do you think that this development that a northern neighbor of Israel will impact Israel, regarding the northern borders.

A. Israel is a peace seeking country, which strives to achieve peace with all Arab countries, including Syria. Syria encourages terror activities against Israel. The headquarters of the Palestinian terror organizations are located in Damascus. Syria together with Iran encourages and finances terror activities by Palestinian terror organizations, as well as Hizbullah’s activities against Israel. Syria must expel the terror organizations headquarters from its territory and stop instigating terror against Israeli targets as well as foreign targets in Iraq. Syria must allow the Lebanese army to deploy its forces along the border with Israel. It must expel the Iranian revolutionary guards from Lebanon and end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in accordance with Security Council Resolution #1559.

Syria must take these steps before negotiations may be renewed. I think that it is unnecessary to respond to what has been said about Israeli participation and responsibility for what is going on in Lebanon. We don’t know yet who is responsible, but when we see the situation in Lebanon, which has become a center of terror, being under the full control of Syria, this only emphasizes the need to be very, very careful in our steps towards peace and I would say to do it in phases, stages, in order to be sure the developments move us towards peace.

Q. Several weeks ago it was published that Israel is very worried because Russia is going to sell several kinds of missiles to Syria. As we know, Russia is a member of the Middle East quartet.  From your point of view, how can the Russian deal with Syria influence the Russian role in peace process between Israelis and Palestinians?

A. We are not pleased with the sales of weapons to Syria, particularly the sophisticated weapons that Russia intends to sell to Syria, weapons that may end up in the hands of terror organizations. I discussed this issue with President Putin, I think maybe more than two years ago, and I was promised then that the SA18 would not be sold to the Syrians, because it might find its way to the hands of terrorist organizations. Of course we cannot interfere in weapons that are sold by Russia to any country, but it can be a very dangerous thing, if they find their way into the hands of a terrorist organization. Therefore, I appealed to President Putin, I wrote to him. Today, I received an answer, from which I understand that they are going to sell this kind of weapon to the Syrians but that they will not get into the hands of the terrorist organizations. We of course worry about it, and we don’t think this should have happened. We are in constant contact with the Russians, in order to settle this issue in order to ensure that these weapons do not reach terrorist organizations located in Lebanon.

Lebanon is a center of terrorism and regional instability and we have all seen what happened yesterday in Lebanon in this regard. To say that we are happy about this answer, is no, we believe this should not have happened.

Q. When I speak to settlers and settler leaders, they tell me that they greatly respect what you have done in your career and they understand what you have done and how it’s helped the State of Israel, but they are completely baffled, they don’t understand how disengagement helps with "pikuach nefesh" (saving lives), how does it help the State of Israel to pull out of Gaza and get nothing in return.

A. As I said before, I know many of them, I always deeply appreciate them. They have developed and achieved tremendous achievements in maybe the most sophisticated and modern agricultural system. They have faced the danger of terror for many years. They paid a heavy price in casualties. When I used to travel in the area, I remember that one could not have ignored the fact that women were driving cars with babies and children there without any fear. I really greatly appreciate their achievements and what they have done over the years. We must also understand that in many places, they are already third generation there. Some were born there, some were removed from Sinai after we signed the peace agreement with Egypt. I know that it’s not an easy thing, it’s very hard, and I instructed that all the necessary steps be taken in order to ease the hardships. For me, it was a very hard decision. But I think that we have to look to the interests of the State of Israel and not having then any partner, I decided then to chose the unilateral disengagement plan.

I agree that it didn’t happen as a result of an agreement with the Palestinians, then. It was an agreement between myself and President Bush. I have deep appreciation for the Palestinians, but in those days when Arafat conducted his strategy of terror and murder for so many years, I trusted the arrangement with President Bush more than an agreement with Palestinians who were under the control of Yasser Arafat.

I don’t think we made that compromise without getting anything in return. On the contrary, in the agreement between President Bush and myself we had tremendous achievements that Israel never had since its establishment, like the issue of the Palestinian refugees who will only be able to return to a Palestinian state. Among other achievements, I would cite the issue of the population blocs which are heavily populated by Jews, that will be part of the Jewish state in the future; the right of self defense; the fact that no one will be able to impose any political plan on Israel. The only plan that may be in the future, is the road map. Today we are not in the road map. We are in a pre-road map phase and once the Palestinians stop terror, incitement and violence, when reforms will be completed there, then we’ll be able to start the road map. What we are doing now, I hope, is to pave the way to the road map. So I think it is a mistake to say that Israel didn’t get anything – Israel got many important things.

Now, when we have a new Palestinian leadership, that understands the danger of terror, and would like to stop terror, I believe we will be able to have more coordination in the field of security, and the disengagement plan. I would very much like to coordinate withdrawal from Gaza with the Palestinian Authority. I think it’s very important for us, because first I would like that the areas that we are leaving will not in the future be in the hands of Hamas or Islamic Jihad or any other radical terrorist organizations, rather in the hands of the Palestinian Authority. The second thing is, I would like disengagement to be carried out quietly, without Palestinian acts of terror and therefore we have already begun to coordinate our withdrawal from Gaza. In Sharm el-Sheikh I told Abu Mazen and the other Palestinian leaders, and to President Mubarak and to King Abdullah II, that they have to be very careful, because I don’t think that Israel will be able to implement disengagement from Gaza under fire, and if there will be fire, our reaction will have to be very, very harsh and hard. I warned them and therefore I would say these are the reasons I would like to coordinate disengagement with the Palestinians.

Q. Israeli security services have stated that there are forces or even states who are trying to destroy the positive atmosphere between Israelis and Palestinians. Do you see any linkage between these forces and the Hariri assassination?

A. We don’t know yet who did it, I believe it will be known in the future, secrets nowadays are not kept. I think that the main danger that exists today is terrorism. We believe the overall wars are already behind us, but the danger that exists is terror. I don’t think we can compromise with terror.  We must fight terror. The free world should unite to fight terror, I can tell you for instance, and I say this very clearly to leaders from all around the world that Israel will never compromise with terror. We are ready to make painful compromises for genuine and durable peace. But we are not going to make any compromises with terror, not now and not in the future and I regard that as my historic responsibility to defend the citizens of Israel. I think that we should all join together.

I know that your countries understand it well, and President Bush understands this issue and I think more and more countries around the world understand the danger of terror. Not everyone is ready to act against it yet, but I think people do understand the danger of terror more and more. We have been facing terror here for over 120 years. Arab terror that later began to be called Palestinian terror, but it’s all the same terror, that we have been facing for over 120 years. We have learned that with all the problems that we have and with the terrible number of casualties and suffering, we managed while holding the sword in one hand, to accomplish tremendous things in this country. But Israel will not make any compromises with terror, not now and not in the future. I made it very clear. It is not only that Israel will not make compromise with terror, it is our responsibility and our role to decide the security means that Israel needs. I made it very clear and I’m not going to make any changes in that.

As long I serve as Prime Minister, and I hope it will still be for many years, and I hope that those who come after me will continue with this. We cannot take that danger, and we will not. Israel is a tiny country, with many talented and courageous people and it is the only place in the world where Jews have the right and capability to defend themselves by themselves. As a Jew, and for me I feel that that’s the most important thing, I feel that I carry this responsibility on my shoulders, and that’s what I’m doing now, and I’ll do it in the future.

Q. Bearing in mind that you just said that Israel is committed to non-violence and hopeful cessation of terror by the Palestinian Authority, my question is, why can’t we learn from our history, when we saw the release of Jews from the Soviet Union, when there was a linkage between economic connection to the Russians to let the Jews go.  Why can’t we simply say to the rest of the world, if you want to see a cessation of violence in the Middle East, that there would a connection between the giving of money to the Palestinian Authority, as Israel will stop violence as well, and that way there could be a very successful balance between the two communities and simple peace result.

A. As a matter of fact, first we have done it, and we are doing it now. We make every effort to talk to the world about it, to inform the World Bank, to the donors and to many other countries that we regard it as important to help the Palestinians financially. I don’t know if there is any direct connection between that and terror, but we believe that effort should be put into that. As a matter of fact I have discussed with every foreign leader, who has come here, and there are many visits here, this issue has been raised. Besides that, I have appointed Vice Premier Mr. Peres to deal and to concentrate on this issue, to try and apply to donors to apply to other countries and to make every effort to develop the Palestinian economy. I think Great Britain, after I spoke to Tony Blair on this issue when he was last here, has decided to have a conference in London which will deal with this issue.

Q. In your previous statement you said that President Bush promised that the big settlement blocs should stay in place. Did Mr. Bush give you such a promise?

A. I think the best thing is to look at President Bush’s letter. He said that one cannot ignore the realities in the area and what happened there since 1967. We know well that some of the places were Jewish villages before the War of Independence and were occupied by Palestinians, by Jordanians and by Iraqis, who also invaded Israel. Over the years, occupation has been related to Israel, but I think that it’s important to remember, that during the War of Independence, seven countries invaded Israel: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Old City of Jerusalem, where Jews were a majority, was occupied by the Jordanians. So when we speak about occupation it’s always related to Israel, but the first occupation was Arab occupation. But it was said very clearly there that we can’t ignore the realities that took place or developed, and when the day will come, and I hope it will come – of course it depends very much on the end of terror and full cessation of terror and hostilities and incitement and all the reforms that must take place – but when we will negotiate the final agreement, it will not be possible to ignore those realities that have developed and no doubt that will affect the final borders of Israel.  But I think the best thing is to read the letter, where it talks about it very clearly.

I would like to say that I hope that when I see you next year, we’ll be able to talk about developments and opportunities that exist and that we can see at least the beginning of the progress that all of us would like to end. You’ll be able to be eyewitnesses to those developments and achievements that we hope to achieve. I’m going to make every effort in order to move forward and to reach what all of us are dreaming of.

Thank you again.