This session gives me, as Prime Minister, an opportunity every month – although it’s been six weeks now, if I’m not mistaken – to hear what Members of Knesset have to say, and to respond and address things that have happened or that the Government has done in recent weeks.
It’s an important framework. Some parliaments do it differently. We’re all familiar with “Question Time” in the British parliament, and there are other, similar techniques. So this session is welcome and useful. I also think there’s room for criticism, pointed questions and even sharp comments. I don’t see anything wrong with it – but I do see a problem with abuse and personal insults.
I think the main problem lies with the Knesset. Our citizens expect discussions here to be pointed and even scathing, but still courteous without degenerating into verbal thuggery. I’m not asking my colleagues in the Opposition for any more than I asked myself and my colleagues when we served in the Opposition.
Now, I’m going to try and answer your questions and tell you what’s happened in five areas – security, diplomacy, economics, education and transportation – since our last Knesset session.
In the area of security, or rather security and diplomacy, the international community is moving toward sanctions. We’re involved in this process and held important meetings with two pivotal members of the Security Council – meetings that were fully transparent and coordinated with the United States.
The first one was in Russia and the second in China. In Russia, where I was joined by Minister Yuli Edelstein and MK Ze’ev Elkin, we met with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. It’s clear that Russia now understands the full significance of Iran’s nuclear program, even if it hasn’t been stated publicly and officially. In fact, I’m certain about this.
And the visit of Minister Ya’alon, Bank of Israel Governor Fischer and their colleagues to Beijing was also important, in terms of understanding Iran’s military, nuclear program. There’s been some progress in this regard and I’d say that the last six weeks have seen a better understanding among the international community – certainly among major countries – with respect to the nature of the program and the dangers it poses. I would even say that this is accepted by almost every country in the world, including the Arab countries of the Middle East.
But there’s a difference between understanding and action. There’s a gap. And this gap will start to close if the international community, by way of the Security Council, imposes sanctions on Iran now. Our position is that Iranian imports of petroleum products, of gas, have to be restricted because their ability to refine petroleum is extremely limited. Petroleum exports from Iran should also be restricted. I expressed this view in Moscow and it was also made clear in Beijing and in my conversations with world leaders, including Angela Merkel, Silvio Berlusconi, Nicolas Sarkozy, and of course President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The international community is moving toward lower-level sanctions, which are not unimportant, but may not be enough. The only ones proposing the kind of sanctions we’re talking about are the US Congress, and there’s a certain tension between the required force of the sanctions and the ability to obtain consensus support in the Security Council.
I’ve talked about the steps we’re taking to cooperate with the American and French efforts to win Security Council approval for the package of sanctions. But unless those sanctions have sharp enough teeth, it’s doubtful that Iran’s program will be stopped.
On the diplomatic front between us and the Palestinians, what I’ve said before is now happening in practice, as it appears that conditions may now be ripe to resume talks, proximity talks, between us and the Palestinian Authority. It hasn’t happened yet. Discussions are taking place right now, as you know, within the Arab League; they are encouraging renewed dialogue, but with all kinds of reservations.
I don’t want to talk about something that hasn’t happened yet, but personally, I think that conditions are ripe because the whole world understands that our government supports negotiations and has taken difficult steps to advance them – despite the criticism, which is understandable, expected and by no means surprising. We’ve made public statements and taken practical steps to this effect.
The world also realizes that the Palestinians refused, from the outset and without any justification or cause, to re-enter negotiations and that they made demands never heard before in sixteen years of political negotiations. Ultimately, everyone knows this to be true and that’s why fewer and fewer countries are willing to accept these preconditions.
The fact that these conditions are being gradually withdrawn is the reason I think we may be on the verge of talks – maybe even before our next meeting. We’ll see, but either way, Israel is not the obstacle.
I’ve said before that it takes two to tango in the Middle East. Sometimes, even three. And we may need to have some preliminary shuttle diplomacy. But the State of Israel is not, and has not been the obstacle. You can’t say: “Well, maybe you’re not the obstacle, but Israel still bears responsibility”.
The State of Israel does not bear responsibility for this impasse; we are not the obstacle. Anyone who looks at the situation rationally and honestly knows this – and should not legitimize unfounded and unjust criticism of the State of Israel or this government.
In the economic field, you probably noticed the news about the continued decline in unemployment. I’ll be talking about this when the Government meets tomorrow to devise a framework for government expenditures that will enable us to both meet various needs that arise and reduce the debt-product ratio. We’ve created an interesting formula for consideration and our final decision.
It’s going to have a definite impact on the budget discussions we’ll be holding over the coming weeks, in consultation with the Knesset. Our goal is to pass a two-year budget based on this new formula. We’re talking about some very interesting innovations here that are going to interest Members of Knesset and even a large number of other governments.
Regarding education and culture, we’ve done two things: made a decision about the Heritage Plan and allocated funds to make it a reality. I want to thank MK Shlomo Mula and MK Tzahi Hanegbi for championing the inclusion of both the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb. I expected as much from Tzahi Hanegbi, but Shlomo Mula – that was refreshing.
And it was perfectly correct. I’m not sure whether the Tomb of the Patriarchs is the earliest Heritage site, or whether it’s Tel-Sheba or Eshel Avraham. I can’t remember. Maybe Minister Begin can help me here because it turns out that he’s a Bible scholar. I’ll look it up on Shabbat.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs is one of Israel’s oldest Heritage sites – the tomb of our forebears: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Rebecca and Leah, and Rachel’s Tomb is nearby. These sites have been part of our heritage for almost 4,000 years. So the question was rightly asked. Many sites were not included in the plan, but how can we speak of Heritage sites and not include these two. Naturally, I agreed that they should be included on the official list.
We are not changing prayer arrangements or the status quo. In fact, the Muslim worship hall at the Tomb of the Patriarchs was recently renovated; they also have a connection to the Tomb. We laid a new floor and installed air conditioners. We restored and upgraded the Muslim worship hall there, and there have to be similar renovations on the Jewish side which is also dilapidated.
I think this program is appropriate and important. It lays a solid foundation for our national renaissance here. We’re not here by accident. We’re here because of our fundamental and profound ties to this land, and because of our deep roots here. These ties are nearly 4,000 years old.
We’re going to connect a new generation to this legacy in innovative ways. It’s vitally important. And I know it reflects the attitude of Israeli governments since the founding of the State. Especially David Ben-Gurion, but not just him; other governments and prime ministers believed the same thing.
We took all this and devised a plan with a budget. This should be something that crosses party lines and is embraced by the vast majority, if not all members of this House.
The last thing I want to mention is the national transportation plan. When we last met, I said that I would be presenting a Government resolution to construct a national transportation network that will connect all parts of the country. I call it “Connect-Israel” not “Cross-Israel”.
To date, Israel has been divided into three separate “states”: the Hadera-Gadera “state” with a Jerusalem enclave – which have received the bulk of investment – plus the Coastal Highway and Highway 6; the Galilee “state”, separate and distant, if not geographically then certainly in the time it takes to get to and from there, and; the Negev “state”, which is distant in both respects.
I think we can and need to change this. And that’s what the Government decided – to implement a program that will dramatically change the landscape over the next few years.
First, we’re going to lay new train tracks. We’re going to inaugurate a Acre-Karmiel train route. How long does it take to get from Karmiel to Tel Aviv? It takes three hours by bus today. We’re going to reduce that to an hour and 20 minutes. We’re going to connect the Galilee to the rest of the country – first, by a nation-wide train system – which will sprout a large number of communities.
Next, we’re going to build the Jordan Valley train network. Instead of taking two hours to get from Bet Shean to Haifa, it’s going to take only 40 minutes, which will make the entire Galilee area accessible.
We’re going to upgrade the tracks and buy new train car. Israel’s trains are inadequate for the 21st century. Look at what’s happening in Europe and China. I’m not talking about the speed at which the trains travel, just the cars themselves – which need to be safe and arrive on time. I want people from outlying areas to see the train as an accessible and speedy alternative.
There are 72 train cars in Israel. Slovenia, not a large country, has 168. Latvia has 200 , Holland has 275 and the Czech Republic – 2,400. We have very few, even relative to the length of track. We’re going to buy locomotives, train cars and other equipment. And we’re going to upgrade the tracks so we can modernize not only their routing, but also their efficiency and quality.
We’re also planning to complete the train network to Eilat and the rest of the north. Such precise planning has never been done and we’ve earmarked NIS 2.5 billion for this task; the Chinese government has already expressed interest in the section we’ve slated for planning.
And this hasn’t, and won’t change anything that we’ve already said. If our critics would read the Government decision, they would see that we spoke about these contours previously and also about the specific planning of a cross-country train network , including to Eilat.
One thing is clear: we don’t only talk, we act. In 2004, when I was Finance Minister and the budget contracted, we tripled the budget for trains. We are genuinely committed to this. It’s real and it’s going to happen.
This is a fundamental change, just like the Heritage Plan, and something else we’ll soon be moving forward. In another two or three weeks, between the two Knesset sessions, we’ll be starting work on the Southern Fence. This is going to happen too.
Besides the detailed plans for the train network, I want to mention two routes that might be significant internationally. I don’t want to commit to what is still being examined, but the Jordan Valley train can connect us to the Jordan River bridges and then to Irbid and other points east.
There is some international interest in this route because it can potentially connect Jordan to the Haifa coast. It used to be this way, and can be again. I think this can offer great support for peace in our region.
The train from Eilat to Ashdod is also interesting to a certain government I mentioned – China – because it would connect the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, with positive implications for Asian merchandise headed for Mediterranean ports.
We’re going to continue paving the Cross-Israel Highway through the Somech Junction and beyond that, we’re going to plan and pave the route from the Cabri Junction in the north to the Shoket Junction in the south. I can’t imagine what transportation in Israel would look like without Highway 6. There’s already a national consensus on this. It’s vital that this road stretches from the north through the south.
And we’re going to build two roads in the north, east of Yokneam, and we will upgrade Highways 65 and 85. This is the continuation of the accelerated development of roads in the region that will take place over the next several years. This means that we are opening up the Galilee, and I believe it will look completely different.
This was a summary of what we have accomplished between this last session and today. MK Gilon asked me about Gilad Shalit. We received offers from the mediator three months ago, meaning before several meetings of this forum. We responded to these offers. We said we were ready to go far in order to return Gilad home, but we said we wanted to prevent the released prisoners from murdering again.
This is not a theoretical question, MK Gilon, but a practical one. The question is practical because those released in the Jibril deal killed a great number of Israelis, and so did those released in the Tennenbaum deal. For example, the recent murder of the rabbi, the father of seven, was carried out by one of the people removed from the list of wanted men in the Tennenbaum deal.
We said we were willing to go far, but not as far as releasing prisoners that are likely to murder again either in Judea and Samaria or territory inside the Green Line. This was the essence of our response.
It has been three months since we passed on this answer and to date we have not received an official response. We hear a great many things being said and argued over on the other side, but we have not yet received a formal response.
Mr. Speaker, I have tried to provide up-to-date and accurate responses. I think that this government has done a great deal and is doing a great deal to renew the face of Israel – to enrich education, expand infrastructure and connect the country. It is doing a great deal that previous governments have not done, and despite the criticism, jeers, disruptions and cursing here, we will continue to do so.