I wish to use this podium to call upon the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Fuad Siniora, to meet with me directly, not through mediators, in order to make peace between us and Lebanon.
Madam Speaker, Dalia Itzik,
Members of Knesset,
Class of Ron Arad’s flying course – flying course number 87, who are here with us today,
Families of the abducted soldiers, Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev,
The Hever family,
I welcome the Knesset members and the distinguished guests who are participating in the deliberations of the opening of the Knesset winter session.
For many in this country today is a festive day for Israeli democracy.
This house is the venue of the legislative authority, where all ends of Israel’s political spectrum come together, and where decisions affecting the fate of the country and the quality of its citizens’ lives, are being made. The eyes of the entire nation are on the Knesset. Children and youth listen to the statements made by the elected representatives and learn the culture of speech and its ways of conduct. From this place many citizens expect to learn the meaning of supreme responsibility and to know that their fate is in the hands of worthy representatives. This place has known great and important moments, but it has also known low moments, which we would rather forget.
I have been a member of this house for three decades. Thousands of times I have attended the plenary hall, the committee chambers, the corridors and cafeteria – the political beating heart of the democratic State of Israel.
I have no doubt that in the course of this session we will experience many disagreements, often harsh ones. I am not suggesting that we should avoid them. At the same time – and I hope that these words fall on attentive ears – let us do our jobs in a respectable and worthy manner.
Let us show all those who look to us for equanimity, responsibility and respectability, that they have someone to rely on. Let us favor that which unites us over that which separates us. Let us have faith in that which strengthens us and not just in that which divides us and tears us apart. Let us pray that, with the help of God, we will carry the supreme responsibility which rests on our shoulders with dignity, humility and tremendous faith in this people and this country.
Ladies and gentlemen, Members of Knesset,
My government’s guidelines are known to all. There is no intention of changing them. Any faction in this House of Representatives which is willing to be a partner in the actual work, and not only in speeches delivered from the benches of the Opposition, is invited to be a partner. I am willing to expand the coalition base and include additional partners, in order to work together to advance the important issues on the national agenda.
During the winter session I will act to secure as wide a parliamentary consensus as possible, in order to bring about a change in the system of government in Israel, introduce a constitution for Israel and strengthen the stability of the political system. A situation of constant government instability, inability to govern and inability to generate long-term processes is intolerable. The Knesset must formulate a comprehensive consensus on an effective way of introducing a government system and a constitution which will stabilize the political system in Israel.
Ladies and gentlemen, Members of Knesset,
Considerable changes have recently taken place in the political arena. A Hamas government is currently ruling the Palestinian Authority. Unfortunately, this government does not fulfill the minimal preconditions outlined by the international community, which would enable it to become a possible partner for negotiations. As long as the Hamas government fails to recognize the State of Israel, accept and implement the agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and act to terminate violence and eradicate terrorism, including attacks on our southern communities, we cannot conduct dialogue with it. We, together with the international community, will not compromise on these conditions.
We have not forgotten our soldier Gilad Shalit for a moment. Gilad will return home. It is clear to us that the Palestinian people and its leadership are not made of the same mold. We are making a clear distinction between the Hamas government and the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who has accepted the three conditions agreed upon by the majority of world countries. Abu Mazen is a legitimate partner; we maintain ongoing contact with him and his people, and I am willing to meet with him immediately to discuss ways to move forward according to the sequence of the Roadmap and the phases therein.
The State of Israel has demonstrated many times its willingness to live in peace and good neighborly relations with the Palestinian people. We do not wish the Palestinian people to continue suffering. On the contrary. We prefer a thriving Palestinian society, free of humanitarian hardship – a society which enjoys economic welfare and which operates in cooperation with the State of Israel.
I believe with all my heart that this reality is possible. The Palestinian people must make a profound internal decision: should they seize the chance of becoming a healthy and strong society and overcome the grim reality in which they live. The responsibility for their situation is theirs alone, and the responsibility for their decision is theirs alone.
We have already made our decision. We have no desire and no intention to rule over the Palestinians forever. If the day comes when the Palestinian government accepts the preconditions which will make it a legitimate player, it will allow the opening of a comprehensive political horizon, which will change the reality in the region. However, even under the conditions existing today I pledge to act tirelessly to seize every opportunity, every opening, every possibility of negotiations which will generate real dialogue with responsible representatives of the Palestinian people.
Members of Knesset,
The campaign in Lebanon is over, and its results are reverberating throughout the entire region. We are learning the lessons and confronting the problems exposed during the fighting, and which have accumulated for many years without being properly addressed. It is important to make it clear to all: this was a necessary campaign. Israel’s firm response proved to the entire world that we would never again acquiesce to a blatant violation of our sovereignty.
We have made substantial achievements in this campaign: militarily we have dealt Hizbullah a serious blow and succeeded in disrupting the intricate system built by this organization through the long arms of Iran and Syria. They were planning to activate that system against us under different circumstances, if and when other fronts were opened. Their plan was foiled at a heavy cost to us.
Politically the conditions were created for Resolution 1701, in the framework of which, after more than 30 years, the Lebanese army is deployed along the border with Israel. Moreover, a multi-national force, comprising European military units, is deployed and is designed to curb Hizbullah in the south of Lebanon and prevent it from returning to posts which it held and which threaten the security of the north of Israel. From our standpoint, and that of the entire world, Hizbullah ceased to exist as “a state within a state” in Lebanon. Resolution 1701 anchors the understanding that there is one address in Lebanon – the Government of Lebanon.
I wish to use this podium to call upon the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Fuad Siniora, to meet with me directly, not through mediators, in order to make peace between us and Lebanon. I know that he is in a difficult position: at home – an attempt to weaken Hizbullah, and outside – attempts by the Syrian government to overthrow him. Israel can be a natural and serious partner to a peace-seeking government in Lebanon.
The suffering caused to the residents of Lebanon, as well as that inflicted upon the citizens of Israel, compels us both – Prime Minister Siniora and myself – to overcome suspicion and prejudice and together find a direct channel of communication, in order to bring peace to our peoples.
We have not forgotten – and we will not forget – the kidnapped soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, and we will continue to work tirelessly to bring them home.
Twenty years have passed and the State of Israel has not succeeded in bringing Ron Arad home. Today, the Knesset marks twenty years since his abduction, and I want to assure you that we will never relinquish the effort to discover Ron Arad’s fate.
We have not forgotten and will not forget the remaining Israeli MIAs, and continue to make every effort to bring them home. Israel will continue to monitor closely the threats surrounding us. At the same time, the State of Israel is part of a large number of countries confronting these dangers.
The Lebanon campaign has accentuated the threat emanating from Iran and its nuclear plan to our region and the entire free world. Iran is deceiving the international community. It is dragging its feet and trying to buy time in order to complete its dangerous nuclear program. The Iranian threat is an existential threat to Israel; it is an existential threat to world peace. Israel is cooperating with the international community in order to foil this threat.
This is a historic crossroads for the entire international community, and it is incumbent upon it to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear capability. There are no questions or hesitations. There is only a decision: the world must make certain that Iran does not possess nuclear weapons. The recent events in North Korea illustrate the danger: irresponsible and reckless regimes acquire non-conventional weapons for the purpose of threatening world peace.
The international community must be determined, clear and unequivocal in its actions. There is no room for hesitancy, no room for compromise and no room for games. Determination and firmness is the only way to eradicate this danger to the world. Iran examines the way in which the international community responds to the conduct of North Korea, and draws the necessary conclusions.
Tomorrow I am leaving for an important visit to Russia, for a meeting with President Putin, and next month I am scheduled to meet President George W. Bush. These issues will be at the core of my talks with these leaders.
I hear responses of surprise that we are allegedly missing an opportunity in failing to respond to the calls of peace made by the President of Syria. Israel is interested in a peace agreement with Syria. However, one makes peace with those who eschew terrorism and not those who host the headquarters of terror organizations. You make peace with those who have made a strategic decision to advocate a moderate policy and not those who assist in the arming of a terror organization which threatens regional stability. We cannot make peace with those who are in alliance with a country which openly calls for the destruction of Israel and which denies its right to exist as a Jewish state.
Israel will consent to making peace with the President of Syria only if he makes a genuine strategic decision to renounce terrorism, and not with a leader who uses the language of peace as a tactic to divert the world’s attention from other issues.
There are, however, many in the Arab world who call for cooperation towards a political settlement. I am pleased at the creation of an axis of moderate Arab countries, which want to take part in curbing Iran’s negative influence over the region. The Iranian threat is not only a threat to Israel and the free world. It is also a threat to Arab states surrounding us. Terrorism threatens the Arab world no less than it does other countries. Several Arab countries understand this. They are willing to act to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and generate a more optimistic and positive reality in the region.
It is my intention to seize every opening of reason and common sense in the Arab world in order to give hope for the chances of regional peace and to reignite processes which will create a different reality in the region – a reality of life which will compensate for dozens of years of war, pain and loss, and generate hope, prosperity and cooperation in this region. This is an exceptionally positive and important development, which creates new prospects for the future.
Members of Knesset,
I have already mentioned that we have many reasons to feel security and hope and to be proud of who we are.
The state of the Israeli economy is a clear manifestation of this. It is the product of a responsible fiscal policy. This year, the Israeli economy is estimated to grow at an annual rate of at least 4.6%. It is a higher rate than that of Euro-currency countries and the United States. It is an achievement that we have reached despite the military campaign in Lebanon, and despite the forecasts predicting that the fighting would impede growth. Moreover, 2006 will yield a positive balance of some $6 billion export surplus over imports – an all time high.
Foreign investment in Israel has already reached $16 billon this year, which is also a record. This year we have also gained a “vote of confidence” from the world’s largest investor, Warren Buffet, and witnessed a substantial strengthening of the shekel in comparison with the dollar. Furthermore, the State deficit is expected to be less than 2% despite the considerable growth in security expenditure following the military campaign and the heavy costs involved in rehabilitating the north.
This reality will help us face the difficulties ahead. Only if we believe in the economic strength of the State of Israel can we do this successfully.
The rate of unemployment has been reduced, but it is still very high; the rate of participation in the labor market is less than desired, particularly among those with lower education; productivity in the traditional industries and the services sector – the largest employers in the economy – has stagnated and this does not foster further growth in employment and pay. The poverty rate has not been reduced, and there is still economic hardship among considerable portions of the population.
These are alarming symptoms, which compel us to address them from the core, rather than offering temporary relief. The government is determined to take full responsibility for formulating a comprehensive, long-term plan, which will guarantee that the entire population enjoys the fruits of growth, and which will also reduce social gaps in Israel. There is no “quick fix” in this campaign. It requires ongoing efforts, patience, learning lessons and changing direction, while advancing towards the target.
I have assigned the National Economic Council, which I recently established at the Prime Minister’s Office, headed by Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg, with the task of designing an operative program, with clear objectives, for the reduction of poverty and unemployment, increased participation in the labor market and increase in productivity in the traditional industries and the services sector. The program will include, inter alia, a proposal for a government policy on a number of central issues: introduction of negative income tax; acquisition of specific tools and skills for integration in employment; solutions for stemming poverty in the Haredi and minority sectors; equalization of costs for foreign and Israeli workers; and encouragement of ingenuity and research & development in the traditional industries.
The countries which succeeded in growing over the past decades and spreading the fruits of growth to wide circles of their population – countries such as Ireland, England, Finland and Denmark – succeeded not only thanks to being lucky. It was the result of detailed planning, long-term comprehensive strategy, innovative policies and adherence to the goal.
I have no doubt that we can also do it, and the responsibility not only rests with the Government, but also with the Knesset and each of its members.
The State budget which will be presented to you during the course of the current session is necessary for the achievement of these goals. Beyond the important plans for the future, the budget, as approved by the Government, achieves two objectives simultaneously: the social expenditure in this budget is higher by NIS 3.8 billion – a net supplement beyond the natural growth in relation to the year 2005. With the exception of one-time expenditures, the expenditure ceiling has increased from 1% to 1.7%.
The budget reflects the government’s new social policy. The budget determines that the minimum wage will continue to increase, the scope of the health basket will increase substantially, welfare budgets will increase, the State budget for day-care centers will increase, the nutrition project will be expanded, and the old-age pensions will be higher. The current Government views work as a fundamental value, which stands at the basis of the partnership of every citizen in Israeli society. The Government will act to assist employers in creating new jobs and preserving all the rights to which employees are entitled.
I hear the voices saying that we have not added enough and that we need to add more. We do not disagree, but we must act responsibly. An irresponsible addition to the State budget, regardless of State income, an increased tax burden and the introduction of a short-term populist policy will not only create a fa?ade of social policy, and will ultimately adversely affect the weaker sectors.
Members of Knesset,
The campaign in Lebanon was directed against the north of Israel. However, I am determined to transform this damage to a significant chance for and a meaningful change in the situation in the north. Government budgets of NIS 2.8 billion will be invested in the north by the end of 2007.
The Government investment will encompass a wide range of fields, including assistance to local authorities, considerable improvement of the education system in the north, the upgrading of industrial zones, assistance to exporters and employers for the purpose of increasing employment opportunities, massive marketing of tourism in the north, including the development of tourist infrastructures, investment in health, agriculture, transportation, environment protection and welfare budgets. We will create a “critical mass” of change. The program also includes Sderot and the Gaza envelope, which will be awarded government budgets similar to those provided to the northern residents.
Another objective which I have set as a result of the fighting is the issue of addressing the home front during times of emergency. We must act on the assumption that the Israeli home front will be threatened in the future. We will draw all the necessary lessons and prepare all the systems in order to guarantee the home front’s readiness for emergency situations.
My Government intends to fight violence and crime in order to provide every citizen in Israel with personal security in their homes, neighborhoods, schools and places of recreation. We will fight crime from within with the same determination with which we fight terrorism. The battle against crime will focus on two major avenues. One will place the citizens in the center and improve their ability to receive services from the police, as well as the police’s ability to protect them. The second avenue will place the criminal at the center, and concentrate efforts on prevention, location and incarceration, with emphasis on the battle against road accidents and extreme manifestations of public corruption.
Currently, the honorable former Supreme Court Justice, Meir Shamgar, is heading a committee which I established immediately upon entering office, which is intended to formulate an ethical code for public representatives in Israel. I know those who speak high about eradicating evil from within. I believe that the Shamgar Committee will lead to actions on the ground and create a reality, which I have pledged to accept in full and anchor legally, in order to formulate clear and unequivocal rules regarding public conduct in Israel.
My ten years of service as Mayor of Jerusalem taught me how important and central the work of local authorities is and how essential the duty of the mayor is. We have many local authorities in Israel, as well as efficient, organized and orderly mayors. At the same time there are also inadequate authorities. Even before I was elected I made a commitment that we would act to strengthen the local government and achieve a renewed and more stable definition of the connection between the central and local government in Israel. I will remain personally involved in this issue and will guarantee the existence of dialogue and work programs for the purpose of bringing about the necessary changes.
Madam Speaker of the Knesset,
I wish to conclude by referring to a seminar which I held during the ten days of penitence with representatives of the religious-Zionist public at the Israeli Democracy Institute. For an entire day we conducted a series of deliberations, talks and consultations dealing with defining the role of the religious-Zionist public in Israel. It was a fascinating day, during which I felt how deeply committed each of the participants was to our country. The religious-Zionist public is a wonderful public; its contribution to the society and people of Israel is vastly substantial. This public must be involved in other endeavors in Israeli society, in addition to the value of settlement. At the same time, we must preserve the Jewish character of the State of Israel – not out of coercion but through dialogue and cooperation.
During the winter session, and through continued dialogue with representatives of the religious-Zionist public, we will act to make decisions in the field of conversion and the character of the Sabbath in Israel. We will make a supreme effort to minimize gaps in our relations with the Haredi sector. We will act to legally anchor the status of the Haredi education system, in order to guarantee its rights.
The Government of Israel is equally committed to creating a different basis for the relations with non-Jewish citizens, who are an inseparable part of the life of this country. We have been talking about this for years, but we have not done enough. The fighting in the north did not distinguish between Jews and Arabs, Druze, Circassians and Bedouins. They were all equally exposed to the same missiles and the same dangers. This equality cannot exist only in times of fighting. It must find expression in our day-to-day lives, in opportunities for quality of life, in development of infrastructures, education and employment. We will not evade our responsibility in this regard.
Madam Speaker, Members of Knesset,
I ask one more time, from this podium, to turn to you – you who have a decisive influence on the culture of public discourse and the pattern of social relations in our country. I know how easy it is to be tempted into an atmosphere of disagreement and rivalry which knows no bounds. So much is at stake. So much depends on us, on our abilities – to practice restraint, mutual respect, arguing with tolerance, to disagree while placing reasonable boundaries. Our people need, perhaps more than anything else, the example we can serve as – so that they can hold their heads high with pride, be proud of our country, its achievements, its wonderful legacy, its ability to overcome difficulties, failures and hardships which are also part of our lives. I pray that we will all be worth, each of us, of this hope and the faith we request.
As I conclude, I wish to use this opportunity, which perhaps will not reoccur in the coming weeks. Because of the special date of this opening of the session, to say words of farewell from someone who announced his intention to leave the Knesset, from MK Natan Sharansky. I wish to say in this house, but perhaps to the entire State of Israel – there is no one like him in this house. Few of those who served here played such an important and central role in the modern history of our people as this man, Natan Sharansky.
He knows that I have felt this way for many years, because I told him so, even in private meetings. The status to which Natan Sharansky rose in the Knesset led to him vowing an oath to become a minister of Israel at this podium years ago, and was one of the most emotional moments of my life as I thought of where he came from, what he symbolized and what he represented to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
Natan Sharansky announced his retirement from the Knesset, perhaps also from political life, and continues to serve as a man who symbolizes great pride and immense courage as a Jew and as a fighter for freedom. On behalf of the Government of Israel, at this time, before the people of Israel, I wish to thank you.
Madam Speaker, thank you as well.