Address by PM Benjamin Netanyahu to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, New York
I had a very good meeting with President Obama yesterday. We discussed those issues that formed the common bond between Israel and the United States. I’m speaking now in the city of New York. New York was bombed several years ago. There were reactions that were different throughout the Middle East. In many places there were celebrations. In Israel people wept. They grieved because we view ourselves as part of that same civilization that the United States of America represents – a free, pluralistic, democratic society. America has no better friend, no better ally than the State of Israel.
The President and I discussed Iran, and he reiterated his determination to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. We discussed the sanctions of the Security Council that formed an international consensus about the lack of legitimacy of Iran’s pursuit to develop atomic bombs. That’s important. Equally important were the sanctions that were signed by the President the other day – they have teeth. It’s important that other countries follow suit with sanctions with teeth. That means that they bite into Iran’s energy sector.
I cannot tell you that this will stop Iran’s nuclear program. I think that it’s important to understand however, that it must be stopped and I welcome the determination and the clarity that this issue that I’ve been talking about for fifteen years and it was the first thing that I discussed in my first term as Prime Minister before a joint session of the U.S. Congress. I said that there is no greater threat to humanity than the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran and today the greatest threat is still that the world’s most dangerous regimes acquire the world’s most dangerous weapons. This must not be allowed to happen. Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.
We also discussed our quest for peace with the Palestinians. I outlined my vision of a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish State of Israel. Now let me be clear about the elements of this vision. I said a demilitarized Palestinian state. First of all, we don’t want to govern the Palestinians and we don’t want them to be either our subjects or citizens of the country. But we also want to make sure that they have their own independent dignified life, but that they don’t threaten the State of Israel.
Now this is not something that was fully clear when the peace process began in the Oslo Accords a decade and a half ago. This has been overshadowed by two events. And the first event is the rise of Iran and its proxies and the second event is the rise of missile warfare.
What we have learned in the intervening years is that territories that we have vacated for the sake of peace have been taken over by Iran’s proxies and have been used as staging ground for terrorist attacks against us. We have put up fences to prevent the terrorists, the suicide bombers from getting into our areas. But Iran’s proxies poured in rockets and missiles into these areas and flew over the fence and today the problem that we face is to make sure that this does not repeat itself.
Strike one was our withdrawal from Lebanon. Strike two was our withdrawal from Gaza. We cannot afford a strike three. We want to have peace with the Palestinians. We want to ensure that territories that we vacate as part of that peace do not get used as staging ground for rocket attacks against Israel. Because we’re not dealing with the distant past, because we’re dealing with twelve thousand rockets that were fired against us in recent years, this issue must be addressed and demilitarization means that we have not a piece of paper, but genuine security arrangements on the ground that can prevent this smuggling and penetration of territories that we vacate by Iranian weapons and by other means that are aimed to harm Israel’s civilians.
So the need for security, robust security arrangements, is absolutely vital as part of this peace and I had a good opportunity yesterday to discuss this at some length with the President and we shall continue to discuss this because security is not the enemy of peace, it’s the friend of peace. It makes peace possible. It makes a realistic peace take hold and endure in our part of the world which the President correctly called a very tough neighborhood.
The second pillar of a successful peace is the Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state. This means that Israel is the nation-state of the Jews. Jews can come to Israel, just as Palestinians can go to the Palestinian state. But Israel cannot solve the Palestinian problem within its borders. That has to be resolved outside Israel’s borders. This is a point of consensus in Israel, but it must be a point of consensus among the Palestinians as well for peace to take hold.
I believe that in addition the Palestinians have to do something that they so far have not done. And that is to do what Anwar Sadat did – to come forward and say, “It’s over. The conflict is over. There is no more war, there is no more bloodshed and there will be no more conflict.”
This second pillar of peace, the pillar of legitimacy, of an end to claims, an end to conflict, I think is as essential as the first, of security.
And the third is something that I think is happening anyway, and that is prosperity. We relieved or removed hundreds and hundreds of roadblocks, checkpoints and other barriers of movement and the Palestinian economy is prospering in the West Bank and that’s good. I think we could do more. I intend to do more, but in the context of peace we could do a lot more – for security, legitimacy and prosperity.
All of this requires one thing, it requires negotiation. There are all sorts of impediments in negotiations that have been put up; all sorts of preconditions; all sorts of excuses. I suggest we do away with them. You either put up excuses or you lead. I proposed to lead. I want to enter direct talks with the Palestinian leadership now. I call on President Mahmoud Abbas to meet me in the coming days to begin peace talks so that we can have and fashion a final peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors.
So we have before us the twin challenges of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and advancing a secure and prosperous peace between Israel and the Palestinian people – something I think we can achieve.
I think we can defy the skeptics. I think there are a lot of doubters. There were a lot of doubters about Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat of Egypt and they forged a peace. There are a lot of stereotypes that govern the world’s perception of leaders and yet it is when these stereotypes are broken, as in the case of Gorbachev and Reagan or Nixon in China, or Begin and Sadat. That’s when history flows and it flows in a positive direction.
And this is a challenge I’m up to and I hope that President Abbas is up to and I know that President Obama looks forward to. It’s something that can happen. It requires Palestinian leadership. It has Israeli leadership. I’m sure it has American leadership.
But today I want to talk about a third challenge that we face. It has been mentioned by the speakers before me and that is the battle for our legitimacy. When you look at the battle that is being waged against us, and its one that has intensified greatly over the last decade, it really has two main lines of attack. The first line of attack is conducted by our enemies, quite overtly, and that is the denial of the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel.
The second line of attack unfortunately includes many who call themselves and consider themselves our friends. And this is the denial of our right to defend ourselves. Now, I know that one thing that unites all of us is that we all know that we are not foreign interlopers in the land of Israel.
I have a little display in my office. It was given to me by the Department of Antiquities. And I show it to every foreign dignitary who visit me. It’s a signet ring, it’s a seal, that was found next to where the present Western Wall is, the wall of the second Temple, but it predates the second Temple by about 700 years. It was found nearly 3000 years ago, in Jerusalem, and it has the name written in Hebrew of a Jewish official and the name is Netanyahu – Netanyahu ben Yoash, Netanyahu the son of Yoash. My first name, Benjamin, pre-dates that by about a thousand years to Benjamin the son of Jacob. They all roamed the same hills. So we have nearly a four thousand year connection to this land and the return of the Jewish people to Zion, the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in our ancestral homeland is not just one of the great events of modern times, it’s one of the greatest events of all time.
I have visited Uganda twice at the kind invitation of the President of Uganda, but for the Jews, Zion is not Uganda. Jerusalem is not Kampala. Zion is only one place – Israel – and the connection between our people and the land of Israel is as strong as enduring as any people’s connection to any place on earth.
The best thing that we can do fight the efforts to deny this connection is to educate ourselves and our children about our own history, and our own connection to this land. And I’ve been doing that with you, in two programs. One is our Heritage Program that we’ve launched to restore over one hundred sites in Israel: biblical sites and the sites of modern Zionism, and many other programs connected with public education, but also the Birthright and Masa programs which bring so many young Jews to Israel to acquaint them with our common heritage.
And I think we need to expand these programs because the best way to fight ignorance in others is to ensure that we ourselves are not ignorant. And I believe that that is gaining ground and I think we should invest in it – when I say invest, I actually put Israeli government money in programs to bring young Jews – we’ve done that. I began that as Prime Minister in my first term of office and we’re continuing that now and, believe it or not, the Israeli economy can afford it. It’s a very robust economy. And it’s the best investment we can make.
As for the denial of our right to defend ourselves, I see a disturbing pattern. All responsible countries say that Israel has a right to defend itself, but virtually every time we seek to exercise that right, we are nearly universally condemned. In 2002, when we finally launched Operation Defensive Shield – this followed a year and a half of terror attacks and the bloodiest suicide attacks in Israel’s history – after we did this operation, we were falsely condemned and falsely accused. We were condemned and falsely accused of massacres in Jenin and elsewhere. Time and fact cleared that up but this is how our defensive action was received.
In 2004, we put up a fence, a fence to prevent terrorist attacks and suicide bombers from crossing into our cities. And when we put up that fence to protect civilians from direct attacks, we were hauled before the International Court of Justice and we were told that we were doing something criminal and terrible.
In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, we responded with precision attacks to the unprovoked murder and kidnapping of our soldiers and to rocket attacks on our northern cities, and we were accused of using disproportionate force.
And finally, in 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, when we finally responded after a year of, years really, of rocket fire on our southern cities by Hamas, we received the Goldstone Report.
I said finally but that’s not true because it continues. One month ago when our soldiers boarded a ship to enforce a blockade designed to prevent weapons from going to Hamas and to defend themselves against a mob wielding knives and steel pipes, the whole world condemned us.
I was asked today by a journalist how we view this, and I said: "Well, how would you view it? Suppose a coastguard boarded a ship and the coastguard was beaten, clubbed and your people were put in danger of their lives and defended themselves, how would you feel?" And yet this analogy that people try to make about their own situation, so much of the world doesn’t do. So much of the world supports Israel’s right to defend itself in theory, but consistently condemns it in practice. And understand that a right that you cannot exercise eventually withers away. It is no right at all.
So it seems that, even after six decades, many around the world are still uncomfortable with the idea of Jewish sovereignty. Perhaps they have not internalized the fact that the Jews will no longer be passive victims of history. We are now actors on the stage of history. We now chart our own collective destiny and that requires Israel to have a secure and unchallenged right of self-defense that is accorded to other nations as well.
For 2000 years, the Jews were the perfect victims. And perfect victims may be perfectly moral but they’re still victims. The purpose of the Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives. And in that defense, the standard that must be applied to Israel is not perfection but a standard that is applied to any other country faced with similar circumstances. What other country is faced with similar circumstances? What other country has suffered thousands and thousands of rockets rained on its cities?
Well, we only have one example: a country I admire deeply and that’s Britain. And yet Israel’s response to the rocketing of its cities is a fraction, a fraction, perhaps a percent or less of the response in terms of casualties inflicted by Britain on those who attacked it. I’m not in any way castigating Britain or the British government or its leader, Churchill. I’m a great admirer of them but I think that when people talk about standards, how do you judge the standard? Only by similar examples.
Israel took great pains to target the racketeers. It did not engage in wholesale carpet bombing. It tried to do everything in its power to prevent civilian casualties on the other side. These are not my words – they’re actually the words of the British commander, the former British commander in Afghanistan who said them, General Richard Kemp, who said that never in the history of warfare, has any country gone to greater lengths than Israel to prevent civilian casualties on the other side.
So we have to ask when people say Israel has to conform to international standards, I say that international standards may take a page out of Israel’s book. And I believe, I believe that speaking this truth, saying it the way it is, is one of the most important challenges that the friends of Israel have today.
We face three great challenges in the coming months: to ensure that everyone keeps focus on preventing a nuclear Iran, to redouble our efforts to find a path to peace with the Palestinians – to begin those peace negotiations as soon as possible – and to unite against any effort to challenge Israel’s right to defend itself. I know that with the help of everyone here, we’ll be able to meet all three challenges.
Friends of Israel, my friends, I thank you for your support for the Jewish state and the Jewish people. I salute your clarity. I applaud your courage. I know that we’ll be able to count on you every step of the way. Thank you very, very much.
Malcom Hoenlein, Executive Vice-President: The Prime Minister agreed to answer two questions.
There were many questions – they dealt with Jerusalem, Israeli Arabs, but a number of them dealt with the direct talks and what you would expect the issues – the final-status issues and especially about Jerusalem, and second about your discussions with Ban Ki-moon and what your expectations are about the United Nations. And lastly, to the leaders of tomorrow, what’s your advice to pro-Israel students on campuses to make a difference?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: I think that the connection to the Jewish people of Jerusalem is part and parcel of our connection to our land, and I think it, you all know that there are Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that under any peace plan will remain where they are as part of Israel. I don’t think that is really contested and I think the last thing we should do is again pile on grievances and pre-conditions that prevent the joining of Israel’s leadership and the Palestinian leadership to resolve the problems.
There are basically six problems – the first I discussed here and that is our security, the second is the question of borders, the third is the question of settlements, the fourth, no less important, the question of refugees, the fifth is the, the dominating problem of water that is not being discussed but water has one advantage over land – you can create more of it. We need desperately to create more water sources for our peoples and for the sake of peace. What did I leave out? Well, territories obviously. It will all have to be discussed and these things are intermeshed – they affect one another and they probably need to be resolved together in order to get a realistic solution.
Now, this is going to be a very, very tough negotiation but I’m prepared to engage in it. I cannot engage with somebody who doesn’t come and sit down. I think there’s something anomalous in the fact that I sit in Jerusalem, ten minutes away in Ramallah sits President Abbas and George Mitchell, who I respect greatly, has to shuttle back and forth from the other side of the earth to pass messages between us. This is not my idea of peace. My idea of peace is that we live next to one another and that we talk to each other to achieve peace – the sooner the better. Direct negotiations must start right away and I hope they will and I believe there’s reason to think that they will very soon.
What would I say to the young supporters of Israel on the campuses? Well, I can tell you that I was a young supporter of Israel on a college campus 40 years ago – actually in 1973, I was studying at MIT and I went back to serve in the Yom Kippur War and when I came back, I slept for a week and then went up the steps of MIT and I saw a lot of stands in which anti-Israeli propaganda was being disseminated and I saw one stand in which supporters of Israel, Israeli students, were distributing material. And I went up to them and I said: "What are you doing?" And they said: "We’re defending Israel against libel. Would you join us?" And I said I would. And I think that defense is no less important than the physical defense of the country. So what I would say to young Jews and non-Jews on college campuses today is: "Defend Israel against libel and defend the truth. The battle that we are fighting is a battle for truth. And that is perhaps the single most important things you can do today in your lives to advance the cause of Israel and to advance the cause of peace.
Thank you very much.