The Palestinians can say that Israel doesn’t want peace, that this government doesn’t want peace, that this prime minister doesn’t want peace, and that only they want peace. But the truth is obvious to anyone who studies the facts.

 PM Netanyahu addresses the Eilat Journalism Conference


Photo: GPO

When I came to this conference last year, I promised to be back – so here I am. But let me start with an apology: I have to leave for Germany in another eleven and a half hours, so I’m going to be brief.

Last year, after we met here, there was a severe economic crisis. And I promised that, if I became prime minister, we would protect our country and take action on several tracks to extricate ourselves, including the passage of a two-year budget. Because of the steps that were taken from the start of this decade, from 2003 until today, and because of the measures taken over the past year, Israel has weathered this crisis better than almost any other country, even the developed ones. We’ve definitely overcome this crisis faster than the other developed countries. We can’t say that the crisis is entirely behind us – because, every so often, a “depth charge” explodes – but I honestly think that we are in good shape. By the way, we are officially a developed country now, and I hope we will soon join the OECD.

The main thing we have to do, aside from two other things that I will speak about shortly,  is develop our country. The north and south. The status quo where the periphery includes everything beyond the Hadera-Gadera axis and a small enclave around Jerusalem is simply absurd. There’s nothing like this in any other country.

There are European countries not much bigger than Israel which also had peripheral areas. They just built a network of highways and trains. They developed the land, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re doing three quick things. Pay attention to them. You’ll be able to track their progress in the years to come and watch the revolution. We’re going to tackle these three areas – rapid transit, land ownership and planning reform – together with full transparency and a decentralization of power, so there will no more delays or other complications.

We’re going to boost construction in Israel and connect the periphery to the center of the country. We’re going to build a highway network that stretches from up north to down south. And we’re going to simplify the construction process. We’ve already freed up public land. It was a struggle. When we reduced the stake of public ownership from 93% to 89%, people said that we gave away our land to strangers. North Korea owns more land that we do, but the regulated European countries own an average of only 30-40%.

We still have a long way to go. We made land available, we’re going to build highways and railroads from north to south and, right now – even though it’s still under the radar – we’re also reforming the planning and construction committees. We’re talking about the same magnitude as reforming the foreign currency regulations in 1988. Nobody remembers that, at the end of the 20th century, it was illegal to bring back more than a few dollars from abroad. If you did – and  didn’t report it – you were a criminal. That’s how it was here not too long ago. We changed that last time I was prime minister. Nobody remembers what it was like then because they can’t imagine it any other way. It’s the same with Highway 6. It’s impossible to remember how we got around before then.

It’s this combination of land, rapid transit and simplified bureaucracy  – so that it doesn’t take seven years to plan a highway, just 11 months including the time it takes to acquire the land. We can’t grow otherwise. And if we can’t grow, then we can’t fund welfare or the elderly or education, or above all, security.

We are coming out of this crisis in a better position than other countries, but what will propel us forward are the low-tech solutions I’ve outlined. High technology is a different matter, but I’m not here to talk about economics. We said that we would weather this crisis, and we have. Not only have we weathered it, but we plan to grow and the international markets understand this.

We have to make every possible effort to mobilize the international community so that real sanctions are imposed on Iran and they are prevented from continuing their nuclear weapons program. We are working tirelessly to convince the world that this is critical.

Last week, due to the efforts of many others – led by the United States and President Obama – the International Atomic Energy Agency finally passed a harsh resolution against Iran. I think this shows very important progress, but of course we have to wait and see how things develop. The most significant part of this decision is that it was supported not only by the United States and the major European countries, but also by Russia and China.

We need to continue these efforts to bring real pressure – meaningful sanctions against the Iranian regime. They are very vulnerable economically and, I think, also in terms of the legitimacy they have lost among the international community, or at least very important parts of it. We now have opportunity to impose effective sanctions, and I hope they will be. I discussed this with members of the Senate leadership during my recent visit to the United States, and also with President Obama and the leaders of almost all the major countries that supported the IAEA decision.

As far as the peace process, I promised that we would make every effort to advance peace, and we are. We removed an unprecedented number of roadblocks and checkpoints, which facilitated a marked improvement in the Palestinian economy – which is also to the credit of the Palestinian Authority whose efforts have allowed the economy to flourish. This kind of growth would be impossible if goods and people could not move about, and that’s why we’re seeing over 10% growth, which could increase with even closer cooperation. This is the first thing I did.

The second thing was, at Bar-Ilan University, to articulate the national consensus concerning a practical solution: a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. I chose my words very carefully and precisely because they express the principles that will lead us to peace: recognition of the legitimacy of the State of Israel, acceptance of Israel’s right to exist, an end to irredentism and attempts to flood Israel with refugees, and consideration for our security needs.

The basic problem of safeguarding our security needs means guaranteeing that missiles and rockets do not overrun any territory that we have left. And the problem is not confined to our border with Hizbullah or with Hamas in Gaza, but extends to the border between Hizbullah and Syria and to the porous border between Lebanon and Syria. And the weapons smuggling across the 12 kilometer border between Gaza and Egypt. There are now 800 tunnels through which a huge number of weapons are constantly being smuggled, despite Egypt’s best efforts to stop this.

This means that the demilitarization problem is a real one, not an excuse, a piece of paper or something that can just be  forgotten. Only one other country has ever faced 12,000 missiles, but that was some 70 years ago and their response was different. And no one else has experienced anything similar since then. Our problems of recognition and demilitarization involve fundamental principles, and so they strike a chord because people understand their importance.

These are basic truths, and we can’t reach an agreement unless they are addressed. I think that an agreement can be achieved and we’ve advanced the cause by saying – just two days ago when our Cabinet met – that we will take unconventional and unprecedented steps beyond just calling on the Palestinians to begin negotiations without delay.

All this is clear to anyone who doesn’t work for the Foreign Ministry of Country X or the government of Country Y or the media in Country Z. It’s clear to anybody who examines the facts that Israel wants peace. We want to enter into a peace process and we want to see it succeed, based on the principles I’ve outlined.

I’m not interested in preconceived notions. We have three main goals to achieve. But I still don’t see the same willingness or determination on the Palestinian side yet. What I do see are other signs. I see all kinds of preconditions to talks that did not exist before,  And I’ve seen them from the outset. I see appeals to the International Court of Justice and the UN to advance the absurd Goldstone Report.

There are a numerous other difficulties, but there is one simple truth. You can’t complete talks if you don’t start them. You can’t achieve peace if you keep moving backward, clinging to stereotypes as the horizon becomes more and more distant.

The Palestinians can say that Israel doesn’t want peace, that this government doesn’t want peace, that this prime minister doesn’t want peace, and that only they want peace. But the truth is obvious to anyone who studies the facts.

I’m not interested in proving that we are right. I’m just telling the truth and it’s profound. This conflict cannot be resolved unless we sit around the negotiating table. There’s no other way. That’s the most profound truth. It’s going to be hard to achieve a peace agreement because it will take great courage from both leaders. And  neither side will be completely satisfied. This much is clear.

It will demand that we rise above and abandon tactical maneuvers. I’m not naïve. I know that negotiations require tactics, but in the end, the decision has to be a strategic one. Either we move forward or we don’t – and Israel has chosen to move forward. It’s not yet clear to me whether the Palestinian Authority and its leader are ready to move forward. I think they need to decide, and I think they should decide to start negotiations because, unless we start them, we can’t complete them. We’ve already seen  what unilateral steps – ours and those taken by others – are worth. They won’t lead to peace.

We have an opportunity, also because of the economic situation I talked about before. We’ve proven  that the region’s economy can grow in a very short time, certainly in our immediate vicinity and among our neighbors. And  an international coalition is beginning to take shape on the issue of Iran and its proxies. And I believe that Israelis and Palestinians are tired of this endless war. They want peace.

I hope the Palestinians do the right thing for the sake of peace and for their own sake. The alternative  will only serves Hamas, its Iranian patrons and their allies.

I’ll be leaving for Berlin in a few hours to meet with Chancellor Merkel, who has been very firm on Iran and the Goldstone Report. We are also cooperating  on environmental protection and in the search for alternative fuels. We can accomplish a great deal together when governments  join forces to promote ongoing research in the field of alternative energy. Most of the time, unfortunately, the research is impacted by the price of oil. And we’ll talk about important political affairs, things I already mentioned, and issues related to Israel’s security.