There will not be any humanitarian crisis in Gaza because we will not fall into the trap that they want us to fall in. That doesn’t mean that while tens of thousands of Israelis can’t live the normal pace of life, that they will continue their routine.

I’m very happy to have this opportunity once again and I promise to welcome you next year when you come. I understand that you have come from Georgia where you had a very interesting and exciting visit.  I can tell you we have good relations with Georgia and good relations with President Saakashvili who visited here and with whom I occasionally talk on the telephone as I try to do with many world leaders to maintain the friendly relations which we are trying to deal between Israel and the countries they meet. I just called him a while ago to congratulate him for his reelection. I think he’s a good friend of the State of Israel. He’s a good friend of America and I think that the relations between Israel and Georgia are developing in an appropriate way, very important and we have a lot of respect for the efforts that he is making in order to stabilize the country and to improve the quality of life of the people of Georgia and Israel will cooperate with Georgia in this respect. 

This is a very difficult time and very exciting. I know that everyone is curious how the Annapolis process is developing and I’ll share with you in a minute some of my observations and my hopes, however I’d like to take this opportunity to comment on what I read in the press at the weekend talking about the Israeli soldiers that were abducted in Lebanon and the headlines I saw today about Gilad Shalit in the south.

Unfortunately, I can’t share the optimism about Gilad Shalit and I’m not prepared to accept the judgment about the two abducted Israeli soldiers in the North. I act on the basis that they are alive because we have no other information or evidence that they are not alive and as long as we will not have this evidence, we will continue to act on the basis that they are alive and we are making efforts to bring back Gilad Shalit, serious efforts, but I’m certainly not prepared to share the headlines made in the last couple of days with this imminent every day. It will take time, unfortunately.

We’re dealing with very cruel and wicked people who are having an entirely different set of values than we do. It’s not easy to move forward with these guys. Most of the time they’re engaged in shooting Kassam rockets in the south part of Israel against Israeli citizens, certainly taking the joy of life from thousands of Israelis; children and their parents who live in the south part of the country, and their priorities are different than ours. For us, to return back one soldier is an enormous challenge that we are so anxious to achieve. For them, the possibility of killing as many Israelis as possible is the first priority and therefore what is natural for us is not natural for them. What is obvious for us is not obvious for them. What they want is not what we want and therefore, even though sometimes we are having hopes because we make efforts in this direction, we should still have patience and understand that it is more difficult than what sometimes the headlines in the media may suggest.

I want to say one word about Gaza. It is certainly intolerable. The continuous endless Kassam rocket shooting at the Israeli townships, Sderot and others in the Gaza area is absolutely unacceptable and there is fighting taking place in the South. I don’t want to draw comparisons, because I don’t think comparisons are valid when you are talking about such a population, but the fact remains that in this fighting that is taking place in the south part of the State of Israel, in the last couple of months, there were more than 200 terrorists killed by Israeli fighting which gives you a certain indication of how serious the response of Israel is. But of course we judge it not by the number of victims of people, terrorists killed in their side, but by the degree to which the Kassam shooting is disrupting the normal pace of life for many Israelis and as long as it will continue, we will continue to respond in a manner that will make life very difficult for the people in Gaza. 

We will refrain from any humanitarian crisis. There will not be any humanitarian crisis in Gaza because we will not fall into the trap that they want us to fall in – with the whole world will be able to accuse Israel of hitting uninvolved people, children in hospitals or in schools as they say. That doesn’t mean that while thousands of Israelis, tens of thousands of Israelis can’t live the normal pace of life, that they will continue their routine as if they don’t belong. This will not happen. We will use all the means that we have. We will reach out for everyone involved in perpetrating terror against Israelis and we will not hesitate to attack them in order to stop them.  And that applies to everyone, first and foremost Hamas. Hamas is in charge of Gaza. This is tragic for the Palestinians for this is reality now. Now they can’t be in charge of Gaza and not bear responsibility for everything that happens from Gaza regardless of whether it is done by Hamas, or by Jihad or by any of the other organizations. If it happens where they are in charge, they are responsible for it. And we have completely a free hand to respond, to reach out, and to attack everyone which is having any kind of responsibility on behalf of Hamas in the south part of our country. 

Now I know that these are not the most comfortable circumstances to carry on political negotiations. Of course life would be so much easier and nicer and simpler had Gaza been controlled by the Palestinian Authority, had this part of the territories that the Palestinians claim could have been entirely quiet. There would have been no terror, no terrorist organizations and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority would have been accepted by everyone among the Palestinians both in Gaza and the West Bank and we would be negotiating in a quiet, friendly and comfortable environment as maybe sometimes former enemies in other parts of the world do.

But this is not reality and the question is not whether these are not the best circumstances, these are not. The question is whether even under these circumstances we should make an effort to see how we can improve the situation, how we can establish a credible process that may lead one day to a reconciliation between us and the Palestinians and for the minimum can bring us closer to reaching an understanding that could be the basis of future peace between us and the Palestinians and the answer that I have is one very simple, very straight forward, but inevitable: I will do everything in my power and as long as I’m Prime Minister of the State of Israel, to continue the efforts to reach an understanding and eventual agreement between us and the Palestinians that will lead us towards peace.

This is essential, this is important. This has been the lifelong dream of the Jewish people and we’ll do every possible effort in order to achieve it. We will not trade the basic interest of the State of Israel for anything. But we will have to do what has been said once by Sharon, the former Prime Minister. We will have to compromise in a painful way, in order to achieve that which is so important and essential for the future of the State of Israel, which is peace with our neighbors. 

Now negotiations are taking place, serious, and all issues will be on the table. I know everyone is very sensitive and very curious about Jerusalem. Sometimes when I hear people talking to me about Jerusalem, I say, hey, excuse me, who, what exactly did you build in Jerusalem that you are preaching to me? Who built more in Jerusalem and did more in order to protect the unity of the city of Jerusalem than any of those who are wasting lots of energies and spending a lot of money in order to try and overswarm my position on behalf of interests of some political groups.

Jerusalem will be the last issue to be negotiated. It’s being agreed and being discussed and being accepted between me and the President of the Palestinian Authority. This is the most sensitive, the most complex, the most important issue. The others are quite important also, but this is the most sensitive issue and we will not start negotiations by starting with the most sensitive issue that may end up negotiations before they start. I don’t know if we will be able to reach an understanding with the Palestinians. I hope we will.  We will do everything in our power to, but we will not start with the issue which is the most difficult amongst all the items that are now on the agenda between us and the Palestinians. Therefore I suggested to Abu Mazen, and he accepted it. We will postpone dealing with Jerusalem to the last phase of negotiations. Hopefully we will be able to achieve understanding about the other issues. We will try everything and therefore, and I also say and this has been I think very clear from the outset to both our American friends and to our Palestinians friends.

When while it is true that we will not build new settlements as Israel was not building now for a few years, Jerusalem is in a different status; and in the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem realities on ground will not be the same a year from now as they are today. And also in the population centers in the West Bank, which were designated even, if one reads carefully what President Bush was writing to us on the 14th of April 2004. The realities on ground will not be frozen, they will change.

But on other areas, where we knew precisely what we were committed to by our commitment to the Roadmap, we will not build; we will not expropriate land for the sake of building; and we will negotiate in good faith with clean hands, in order to achieve an understanding that will lead to what I said before: To the framework, that is essential for peace between us and the Palestinians.

I don’t know if we can conclude it in the year 2008. I said in Annapolis, before and after, and the President of your country, that we will make an effort, and we will make an effort, a genuine effort, maybe what we can do in the year 2008 is to reach an understanding and to draft a document that we can sign, but implementation will still be subject completely to the implementation of the Roadmap. But as long as there will be terror, in every territory, and Gaza is part of this because one can’t say that he wants to eat the cake and have it at the same time; either Gaza is part of the Palestinian territories, that the Palestinian Authority claim to be part of their state, then it can be realized only if terror will stop completely from Gaza, or Gaza is not; if Gaza is not it’s a different ballgame, it’s a different story. But I don’t think that the Palestinian want to say that Gaza is not going to be part of a Palestinian state, if it is then all the commitments made in the Roadmap about ending terror completely should apply to Gaza as well.

This has been made clear from the outset, and it is part of the understanding between us and the Palestinians. Therefore we are talking about two phases; one phase is the negotiating process in an attempt to reach an understanding between us and the Palestinians on the basic principles referring to all the core issues with Jerusalem as the last issue to be negotiated; the other thing is the implementation which can take place only after the full complete implementation of the Roadmap commitments by both side, by the Palestinians and by the Israelis.

And as I said, I hope, that at least the negotiating part of the basic principals can be achieved still in the year 2008. I know that some people are restless when they hear that, and they say to me: why do we have to hurry? What is there for you to hurry about? And I say my dear friends, can anyone promise me that if I wait, the situation in the year 2009 or 2010 will improve? Will the Palestinian leadership then be a Palestinian leadership which is committed for peace as the Palestinian leadership today? Is there not a certain likelihood that if we wait by then the Palestinian leadership all over the place will be made of Hamas people, will it then be easier, simpler, for us to achieve understanding with them?

And also, I’m not of the part of the political process in America. One thing is obvious. The president of today will not be a year from now, because there are elections, and he can’t run for re-election. There will be a new President, a new administration. A new administration will have to learn, it will take time, it may take a certain time which will delay the process if we cannot move forward more rapidly this year and therefore not for any other reason, but because its in the interest of Israel, we are anxious to move on.

And I hope that we will achieve it. I promise you, I don’t know how many of you remain who still believe me, but I promise you that the Government under my leadership will not sell out any of the fundamental interests of Israel’s security and Israel’s future. And yet at the same time I’ve said it, I will not hesitate to make every painful compromise which is needed in order to achieve true and genuine peace that can bring security, that can bring stability that can offer a glimpse of hope for the people who live in this country who are fighting for so many years. I’ll do both things. I’ll do everything in my power to protect the security of this country. We’ve been doing certain things, not unsuccessful, I will not go into it, we will continue to do without any hesitation when it comes to the very security and lives of the people of Israel. But at the same time we will not hesitate to show generosity and flexibility and to be forthcoming and to offer a true and genuine peace for the Palestinians, particularly at this time when the official leadership in the West Bank, is a leadership which is committed to make peace with the people of Israel like no leadership before and most likely like no leadership after them, if they will fail to achieve it.

And finally, chairman Walken, and former chairman Tanner, and executive vice president Malcolm Hoenlein, and of course the conference. I want to thank you for your friendship to the State of Israel, I always knew, even before I had to experience it myself personally, that the leadership, that the friendship of the Jewish organizations in America is to the State of Israel and to the Jewish people not particularly to any certain leader at a particular time; that you are committed to the State of Israel, to the wellbeing of the State of Israel, and for this I am very grateful for you.

On behalf of the Government of Israel and on behalf of the people of Israel, your influence, your interests, your awareness, your involvement, your devotion, to the most fundamental needs of the people of Israel; your ability, and your readiness, to offer your opinions and to endure attitudes, not just to us which is acceptable of course – I always say I don’t need to agree with those who offer their opinion, but I’ll never cast a doubt about the right of American Jews to offer their opinions, because we ask you to offer your opinion most of the time, in the right direction. So even sometimes when you are wrong, you still have a right to it. And on behalf of the State of Israel, I want to thank you very much. All the best to you. 

QUESTION: When I breakfasted with you a few years ago, before you left Gaza, you mentioned that leaving Gaza would be a great gash in security, and I mentioned to you that your key generals and colonels were telling me that it would hurt Israeli national security, you mentioned to me that your generals were so stupid they did not understand. Do you think that leaving Gaza still is national security, and that your generals were stupid advising you to not to leave?

PM OLMERT: I never said to you or to anyone, anything about stupid generals. In order to emphasize your point, you don’t have to exaggerate. It’s still a valid question: was the disengagement from Gaza good or bad for Israel? My answer today, as it was three years ago, is that it was very good for the security of the State of Israel. God forbid, had we been now inside Gaza, with thousands of soldiers and thousands of civilians, how many more victims, how many more casualties, how many more fighting we had to carry on, on a daily basis had we been there.

The fact that we have this problem is a serious method that we have to deal with. And I didn’t avoid talking about it, and I said that we have to battle against it and we will battle against it. But I entirely disagree with the notion, that had we been inside Gaza, with thousands of Israelis and with thirty thousands Israeli soldiers only in order to protect the twelve thousand Israelis that were living there, that it could have been any better for the security of those people over the security of the State of Israel; or that they couldn’t shoot Kassam rockets at us, because they precisely did this already then.