Good morning everyone. Thank you very much.
Mr. Chairman, the almost outgoing Chairman of the Jewish Agency,
and the Distinguished members of the dais,
and the Members of the Board of Governors,
I am delighted to be here, this morning, once again, and meet with you, I thank you Zevik very much for your very gracious words, about the role that I was fulfilling for the last few years and for the friendship which we established so many years ago. In fact, I personally was very impressed with the movie. I saw the movie and I said, wow, Bielski really is a great guy. I didn’t believe how great he was until I watched this movie.
Zevik really proved himself in many different ways. He was one of the most outstanding mayors of Israel in Raanana and I don’t take the job of a mayor lightly. It’s a very important job. It’s one of the most interesting jobs there is. I think I know something about it, although I never was mayor of a city like Raanana, but I watched the growth in Raanana for years and I was always stunned by its rapid development and the care that Zevik gave to so many different areas of life which made the quality of life in Raanana one of the best in our country and particularly the education system in Raanana, one of the very best in our country – something that is always a source of concern for us. My government spent billions in order to improve and upgrade the education system, and I’m sure that in the next few years it will be seen and it will be manifested in the results that I’m sure the children of Israel will produce as a result of the new strategy of a new horizon which is the main new effort that we are making in our education system.
But Zevik proved himself all the way through. He went from the municipality of Raanana to the Jewish Agency, and he served here for a few years with distinction and finally, I want to give him credit. He made a very smart move when he not only entered into politics, but he entered into the right party in politics, which happens to be my party and he was successful enough and popular enough to be elected to the Knesset, so today it’s not only the meeting of the Board of Governors, but also the first sitting of the 18th Knesset and Zeev will be swanking as a new member of parliament. Unfortunately, he will be in the opposition. I wish there was an opportunity for him to be serving in an executive position in a government that will I’m sure serve the interests of the people of Israel and the Jewish people at large.
You came this time during very unusual circumstances. When I spoke to you last year about what I then called the new paradigm for the relations between the Jews of the Diaspora and the State of Israel, I was talking about normal circumstances, and then, at that time, circumstances looked much more normal and relaxed than they look now. If anything that I said was, I think timely then, I’m afraid that it’s even more timely now – that the urgency of some the issues that needed to look again at the paradigm of the relations, the sharing of responsibility between the Jews from the Diaspora and the State of Israel is becoming even more difficult, more complex, and more urgent as a result of the economic developments which took place in almost every corner of the world. We keep saying all the time with great pride that you don’t quite feel it here, although underneath you can start to feel the new developments of the world economic crisis. But, thanks to, I think, a responsible policy that we have managed over the last few years in the fantastic growth of the Israeli economy, over the last five years, the crisis hasn’t yet reached the heart of the Israeli life, but we can see some signs already; signs of recession, signs of growing unemployment. Only a few months ago, we took pride in the fact that the rate of employment in Israel was the highest in forty years and the unemployment rate was less than six percent which is far below the standard of the OECD countries. Everything looked bright and promising and we were expecting similar growth to that which we experienced over the last few years also in the year 2009. We ended 2008 with a growth which was higher than any western countries in the world: 4.1%. Even for the year 2009, the International Monetary Fund just published yesterday the estimated growth in Israel will be .5% positive. It’s a low growth because the annual growth of population in Israel is 1.7% so actually, for the average person this is a reduction from what we were used to. But when we compare ourselves to some of the countries where you come from where the estimates are for a much more dramatic negative growth of more than one, two or three or sometimes four and five percent, it seems that it sounds promising. But I mean, it shows the direction and it shows the difficulties.
It also shows why it is needed to re-examine not just the relations. I don’t think that what we need to do is to examine the relations between the Jews in the Diaspora and in the State of Israel. The relations were never better. We never felt at any time that you are not entirely, completely committed and dedicated to the wellbeing of the State of Israel. And I don’t think that any of you ever felt that there is a change in the basic attitude of warmth and support and friendship and partnership that comes from here to every Jewish community in the world. The question is how do we share the responsibilities that we have at this time in life between you and ourselves so that we will be able to achieve the objectives that we set forth for ourselves to ultimately make sure that all the important needs of the Jewish people across the world are met in an appropriate manner.
We appointed a special committee yesterday. It will be coordinated by Meir Kraus who is someone I have known personally for many years and I trust his wisdom, his judgment, his experience and his ability to look seriously into the different issues and to come up with recommendations that will then have to be examined by a special committee and then brought to the Board of Governors and to the Government of Israel and will have to be assessed, analyzed and hopefully with the necessary adjustments, if any, also adopted into a new pattern of relations between you and ourselves.
I’m not sure that at the time that these recommendations are adopted that I’ll be in the same position as I am today, although some people tell me that the political process in Israel is somewhat different from the political process in other countries and that the simple thing of forming a government doesn’t take that short a time in Israel as it takes in other countries, but I’m not trying to suggest anything. I hope that a new government in Israel will soon be approved by the Knesset and that a new Government of Israel will be committed to the same basic principles which have characterized all the Israeli governments from day one – mutual commitment, friendship and support. And I have no doubt about it.
There may sometimes be political differences amongst the parties. That’s why we go to elections and we choose governments. In the last 25 – 30 years in Israel, we adopted the patterns which were quite uncommon in Israel. For the first 30 years of the country that there is always one party in power, one power in the government and no changes. There are changes. The Israeli public opinion is very dynamic and is much less attached to the old political parties that they grew up with and they are prepared to re-examine them every four years, and change their positions and particularly change their positions in relation to the kind of issues that we have to deal with and the difficulties that we have to encounter. And the difficulties that we have to encounter today are not different from the basic difficulties that confronted the State of Israel, four, eight or twelve years ago with perhaps one exception and that is that sometimes the Israelis are losing part of their dreams that things can change more rapidly in the direction which all of us want. Don’t pay attention to what you read in the papers about divisions on the goals. The goals of all Israelis are the same. The ways to achieve these goals may be different. All Israelis want peace. There is not one single Israeli who doesn’t really genuinely want peace between us and our neighbors. There is not one serious Israeli who is not prepared to compromise for peace. There might be differences about the extent of compromise, but there is not one single Israeli who is not prepared to compromise in order to achieve peace between us and our neighbors, and there is not one Israeli who is not anxious that this peace will come together with security for every Israeli no matter which part of the country he lives in.
What we have experienced in the last few years, particularly in the southern part of the country, was entirely intolerable. The last thing that we like to do is to go into a fight. We really, really don’t like it. We are not afraid of it and if necessary, and if compelled by circumstances, we are prepared to do it, but we are not anxious to engage in violent confrontation with our neighbors. But when Israelis are attacked endlessly, for years, by rockets and missiles, in their homes, in schools, in streets, in restaurants, and shops, the way we were, there comes a time when a government, a responsible government has to say, there is no more that we are prepared to tolerate and if necessary we will retaliate and attack back and we will make sure that we reach out to everyone who is trying to shoot and kill some Israelis and make sure that he stops it. And we also know one thing which I’m sure you’re all familiar with, that as long as the Israelis are shot at, and Sderot, and Netivot and Beer Sheva and Ashkelon and Ashdod and are attacked, there is a lot of sympathy for Israel. Everyone feels for us. Everyone understands the suffering of the people of Israel who are exposed to these attacks, and the minute we decide to respond, all this is forgotten – instantly – overnight. No one remembers what preceded it. No one remembers how many years the children in Sderot grew up with the fears of the whistle of the Kassam rockets falling on their homes or near their homes, creating fear and anxiety that changes their lives, sometimes forever. What people know is that this brutal force of the State of Israel is now used against those innocent Palestinians living for years in the midst of these terrorist organizations, sometimes assisting them, most times tolerating them, to use their weapons against innocent Israelis, without doing anything to stop it. What we tried to do in the last few months was not to create a dramatic change in the entire Middle East, not to resolve all the problems that were facing us, just to change the security situation in the southern part of Israel so that children in the south will be able to live without fear, with greater security. Now I understand that there are all kinds of inquiries and complaints against Israelis and against the manner in which Israel fought in order to defend its citizens. I can promise you and I’m sure that you will be with us on this as well. We will stand behind the Government of Israel, the people of Israel will stand behind all our fighters without any reservations and will defend them against any attempt to raise questions about the morality of the fighting of the Israeli soldiers. We are no less moral than any of those who complain against us – on the contrary. The big difference between us and our enemies is that when they fire Kassam rockets and Grad Missiles into the Israeli cities, they have one purpose in mind, to kill innocent and uninvolved people. When we fight back, we fight back in order to reach those specifically who are in charge of shooting and killing. However, it’s not always so easy and so simple. In a crowded place, filled with millions, to spot precisely where the shooting comes from, and to make sure that you don’t hit any uninvolved person, is a lot more difficult and therefore you sometimes have unfortunately, against your better desires, to hit also uninvolved people, but we never do it on purpose. This is not the strategy, this is not the goal, this is not the idea and this is not the policy of the Israeli people. Recently, the Secretary General of the United Nations, a very decent and friendly person, Ban Ki-moon, was complaining to me about the fact that some UN buildings were hit by Israeli soldiers. And I asked him, Mr. Ki-moon, can you imagine me sitting in my office and giving orders to the Minister of Defense and through him to the Chief of Staff and through him to the Commander of the Southern Command and to the Commander of the Divisions and the Brigades that are fighting, "when you are fighting, make sure that you see a UN building and shoot at it". What do you think, I asked, do you think that this is our policy? Or what happens is that in most cases, there is a twenty-two year old boy standing in the middle of the street being shot at from all sides and trying to defend his life and the lives of his soldiers so that they will not be hit and unfortunately, as it happens, some of the shooting comes from buildings with a UN slogan or UN sign on it and in order to live they have to shoot back, and when they shoot back it hits a place which ultimately we afterwards find out is part of the UN institutes. So this is just one example. What we try to do is to bring quiet and security to the southern part of the State of Israel, and we don’t yet fully have it – even after the operation. They keep shooting and we will respond. And if they shoot more, we will respond with such vigor that it will again become a very, very unpleasant place to be in for the people who live on the other side. And we will not hesitate – we will not hesitate because we don’t want that the situation that existed until December to be repeated.
I know that now international circumstances may be changing. By the way, I’m not so certain about it. I have many people in Israel and sometimes people who come from overseas ask me, what will the new administration in America do? And I say to them, listen, I can’t say that I know them as intimately as I knew the former administration because I worked with the former administration for years. But I know some of them quite well. They are very dedicated to the same ideals. They are absolutely opposed to the terrorist organizations. They are absolutely opposed to the use of violence against innocent people in Israel by the terrorist organizations and they will not make any move that would jeopardize the security of the people of Israel, and they will not extend their hand to anyone who wants to continue the firing of Kassam rockets against innocent Israelis. I have no doubt about it. And I fully trust the statement made by President Obama when he was here and he visited Sderot, and he was asked what would you do under similar circumstances and he said the most natural humane and spontaneous reaction that one could expect, he said, "Had my two daughters lived here, and someone was firing rockets in order to kill them, I would have used all the power in my position in order to defend them." And I don’t think that he has changed his position and his emotions and his sense of responsibility for the lives of his daughters or for the lives of the daughters who live in the southern part of Israel and who are exposed to this hatred and viciousness and brutality and murderous instincts of these extremist terrorist organizations which are in full control of Gaza. We will try to make every possible effort to prevent the smuggling of arms from Sinai into Gaza, we will try to deprive the terrorist organizations from weapons that they can use in order to shoot at the Israelis and we will continue with all the power that we have in order to bring the Israeli soldier Sergeant Gilad Shalit back home. We have been doing it for the last three years endlessly. We are doing it day and night now with all the power that we have, through all the contacts that we have. I wish that I could speak about it with the total lack of responsibility that some others do, but my position is different, I’m the Prime Minister and I can’t speak freely about the efforts that we are making and I can’t disclose the details of our efforts to the public because it might not be helpful to the efforts that we are making in order to bring him back to Israel. But there is nothing that I want more than to bring Gilad Shalit back to his family, to his people and to his country and I will not stop making these efforts with care, with sensitivity and with responsibility as we have been doing and I’m sure that there are some chances that it will move forward; how rapidly I don’t know and I don’t want to promise how fast it will come through, I think it’s dangerous to say and will even be irresponsible to say, but that we are making these efforts, I can promise you. That we are working hard through many different channels, some of them are unfortunately publicized by irresponsible people, some of them are not. We will continue to make these efforts and I’m sure that at the end we’ll come to the result that we so yearn for and wish for, which is to bring Gilad Shalit home, healthy and alive to his parents, to his family, to his friends and to the Israeli people.
I know now that this is a new political situation and I’m certain that there is a certain curiosity to hear what is going on. I decided that I’m not going to involve myself in this process this time. The people of Israel said what they prefer. The President of the State of Israel nominated a candidate to form a new government. I am obviously quite familiar with this candidate. We have served together in the same party, even in the same Government for years and I wish the nominee, Mr. Netanyahu success in his efforts to build a stable and strong government for the people of Israel; a government that will make every possible effort to achieve peace. And its not easy and its not simple and I can testify how difficult it is even when you are prepared to make dramatic concessions and compromises in order to achieve it. At the same time I wish him to be as resolved and as determined to protect the security of the people of Israel in the same spirit and in the same manner that we were trying to do it, and I know that he has been committed to throughout his career in different capacities over many years in the past.
And in between we will have to continue to build the State of Israel and I believe, I personally believe, that no matter what the differences are between the parties, we know, we genuinely know, whether we sometimes like to publicly admit it or not, that there are two areas for growth and development which are essential for the future of Israel. One is in the north in the Galilee, and one is in the south in the Negev. These are undisputed territories. While other territories are in dispute, while other territories are in the middle of this crisis or in this conflict and controversy of what their future will be, there is not one single person in this country or outside of this country (except for some Arab countries, Muslim states) who questions the right of Israel to develop these parts of the State of Israel, which are essential for our future. And there is a lot that can be done and a lot that ought to be done, and a lot that we should do in order to make Israel stronger and more powerful by building up those empty areas that are not filled with people, to have greater protection and it can make the life of this country look entirely different, certainly, particularly when we look in the southern part of the country. It looks like a desert. It is a desert, but it is a desert that can blossom into paradise and we have the capacity, we have the knowledge, we have the means, we have the technologies, we have everything in our capacity that can make the Negev look entirely different from what it is today. I know that there are thousands of Israelis, thousands of young Israelis that can look south and find in the south the place to build their future and it is incumbent upon us, the Israeli leadership and the Jewish leadership to make every possible effort in order to make it easier for them to go south, to build the Negev and to make the Negev into a flourishing and progressive part of the State of Israel. In my horizons, in my dreams, when I think of twenty years ahead, I can see hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in the southern part of Israel. I can see Beer Sheva not as the southern most city in the State of Israel, but as a city in the center of a country much larger, much bigger, with a much bigger university and research centers and industrial parks that will be the metropolitan center of a huge area of inhabited land which will be filled with young people and young families and military bases and whatnot, that can build up the southern part of the State of Israel. This ought to be one of the main targets of any future Government of Israel. And I’m certain that if we focus ourselves with all the power that we have, with all the entrepreneurship which so much characterizes the State of Israel and the people of Israel – with all the energies that we have, we can make the Negev into an integral dynamic part of the life of our country and the future of our state.
And we will come back to you in better times – and there will be better times – it’s just a matter of time, and it will not be so long. Sometimes when I read all the estimates and all the analyses and all the prophecies of all the experts, I said if they were so smart, how come they didn’t know that there would be such a crisis in the first place. They didn’t know it. So I say to you now, I’m not an expert, thank G-d. I’m just an ordinary human being. And we said that the determination of the international community with a sense of responsibility of the world leadership as manifested over the last few months in doing things which were entirely outside the scope of their ideologies for so many years, but when they sensed a danger and when they realized the difficulties they were prepared to do things that they never thought they would be doing. And they did it only because they understood that some extraordinary measures must be taken in order to change the crisis, the development that was unfolding in front of our eyes and were then endangering the stability of the world. So as they didn’t anticipate the crisis a year before it happened, a few months before it happened – I take it with a grain of salt – some of the prophecies, the analysis of people that are trying to convince us that, no, it will take years and years and years before we recover from this economic crisis. It will take some time, sure, but it will take less time if we focus on what needs to be done, and are determined to carry on these policies and particularly if we are smart enough to allocate here in Israel our limited means into the right places to build up the necessary infrastructure for the growth of the State of Israel for a very long time in the southern part of Israel. And the Negev and the Galilee are those places where we have to invest most of our energies, most of our means and most of our efforts in order to build so that it will be a different situation in a few years time and will be for the good of our people and for the strength of our country.
This is most likely my last speech to you – at least for a while in my position as Prime Minister of Israel. I want to thank you for your partnership and I want to thank you for your friendship and I want to thank you for the cooperation which you manifested over the years. We did sometimes have arguments; we did sometimes have differences of opinion about some of the issues, but the beauty of the relations I think was that we always sat down in my office, in the Cabinet room, in other places, overseas, and we talked about it in a serious manner with a shared sense of responsibility. And we have closed the gaps and we have come much closer to each other in relating to these issues – and we did it I think with a degree of success which should fill us with optimism about what lies ahead of us, forward, towards the future.
I want to thank all of you, I want to thank the leadership of the Jewish Agency and the leadership of the Board of Governors and again, the heads of all the major Jewish organizations which make the Jewish Agency, and I will not name them one by one, but they’re all here and you know it. I want to thank my friend Zevik Bielski and I want to thank my friend who in the meantime retired and went to Washington to be the Ambassador of the State of Israel in America, Sallai Meridor, who played a major role in the Jewish Agency in building up these relationships between the State of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. And I want to thank the staff that worked with me for all these years. I don’t see Rachael here, who was my point of contact for every one of you for so many years and who was so helpful and so gracious and so warm and so supportive of us and for you to be able to maintain our contact.
Thank you very much. I hope that the new paradigm will grow out of joint thinking and working together and that all of us will meet again soon, in a much more optimistic, dynamic atmosphere and with a feeling that we are moving towards a resolution of all outstanding problems that we still have to cope with in order to make the life of the Jewish people stronger, better and happier. Thank you very much.