Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Speech at the Conference of Presidents of Major North American Jewish Organizations
Jerusalem, 16 February 2011
Thank you, Alan, and Malcolm, and all of you. I see here some old hands, practiced hands, loyal hands. You’ve always been steadfast, unequivocal and focused on one purpose – and that is to defend the State of Israel and assure the future of the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
Being focused, having clarity of vision, is abundant in this room, and it is much needed today. I’ve spoken in recent weeks about the shifting sands between India and Gibraltar, between Pakistan and Morocco. I’ve been through one or two sandstorms in my life, and I found being in a sandstorm, the two most important things that you need is not to lose sight of where you are and not to lose sight of where you are going. You have to maintain a clear sense of place and a clear sense of direction.
Two weeks ago, in a speech I gave in the Knesset, I said that everyone is watching this sandstorm. I said that leaders and policymakers in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin were voicing strong support for the protesters in Cairo.
But I also pointed out that, at the same time, these same protesters were supported in Tehran. Now, there is one thing I can assure you: the leaders in the West and the leaders in Tehran do not want the same future for Egypt. American and European leaders want an Egypt that is free, democratic, peaceful and prosperous. They want an Egypt that is looking forward and forward-looking into the 21st century. They want an Egypt that is at peace with its neighbors and that promotes stability throughout the region.
On the other hand, the leaders in Tehran: they want to see an Egypt that is ruled by that same iron despotism that has crushed human rights in Iran for the last three decades. They don’t want an Egypt that looks forward to the 21st century. They want an Egypt that looks back to the 9th century. They want an Egypt that will break the peace with Israel – that will join Iran in supporting terrorism and promoting bloodshed throughout the region and in many parts of the world.
So there is a question here. How can these two visions so diametrically opposed to one another both find hope in the protests in the streets and squares of Cairo? The answer to that is very simple: no one knows what the future in Egypt will bring. People in Washington don’t know. People in Tehran don’t know. Now this may be hard for some of you to believe – but even columnists for the New York Times don’t know.
Changing the status quo can definitely lead to a better outcome. This happened two decades ago in Berlin, in Prague and in Bucharest. In 1989, the great change in Eastern Europe we can now say for certain was definitely for the better.
But change can also lead to worse outcomes – worse for freedom, worse for human rights, worse for peace. In 1917 there was great change and great hope when three months of the Kerensky government were followed by 70-years of Soviet darkness.
In 1979, there was a genuine hope for democracy and progress in Iran, but a few months of the Bachtiar government gave way to 30 years of militant Islamic darkness. This is also happening in Lebanon today.
You remember that a few years ago, five years ago, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese poured into the squares of Beirut? That was close to, some reports said, about 800,000 people. That’s close to one fifth of that country’s population, equivalent to tens of millions of Egyptians. The calls for freedom that they chanted there, spearheaded by the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, were no less authentic than the calls for freedom that are now heard in Cairo.
Those protesters also had the support of the free world. They seem to herald a new day for Lebanon, a new dawn, a new beginning, new possibilities. This is what everybody in the democratic world, and even beyond the democratic world, dreamed for Lebanon. But this is not what Iran planned for Lebanon, and they worked very hard in these past five years to ensure that Lebanon has a different future.
Five years later, Hizbullah, a terror organization that respects no human rights, that crushes human rights into the dust, that brutalizes its own people, that spreads terror throughout the Middle East, that rockets Israel – five years later, after that great promise of the Cedar Revolution, five years later Lebanon has been taken over -de facto – by Hizbullah: a proxy of Iran. Just today, Hizbullah’s leader announced that he intends to conquer the Galilee. I have news for you: he won’t. The last thing anyone should have is any doubt about Israel’s determination and ability to defend itself and defend its people. I want to make this point clear in Hebrew as well:
Anyone hiding in the bunker should stay in the bunker. Let no one doubt Israel’s strength or our ability to defend ourselves. We have a determined government, a strong army and a united people. We seek peace with all our neighbors; however the IDF is prepared and ready to defend the State of Israel forcefully from all our enemies.
I commend you, Malcolm, for the number of Hebrew speakers in this audience, but I’m sure everyone got the message.
Israel wants Egypt to succeed in its quest for genuine and lasting democracy. If there is a gap between Israel and the rest of the democratic world, it is certainly not in our shared hopes that the calls for reform in Egypt will be met. I’m not just saying that today. I said this in my first speech in the Knesset after the events in Egypt two weeks ago, just a few days after the protests began. I assumed then that important newspapers have good research teams. Well, evidently, that is not always the case. So here’s what I said (politicians love to quote themselves):
“It is obvious that an Egypt that fully embraces the 21st century and that adopts those reforms would be a source of great hope for the entire world, for the region and for us. In Israel, we know the value of democratic institutions and the significance of liberty. We know the value of independent courts that protect the rights of individuals and the rule of law; we appreciate of the value of a free press, and of a parliamentary system with a coalition and opposition.
It is clear that an Egypt that rests on these institutions, an Egypt that is anchored in democratic values, would never be a threat to peace. On the contrary, if we have learned anything from modern history, it is that the stronger the foundations of democracy, the stronger are the foundations of peace. Peace among democracies is strong, and democracy strengthens peace.”
That’s what I said two weeks ago. Here’s what I say today: if there is a difference between Israel and others who share these hopes, it is that as Prime Minister of Israel, I am responsible for the security of over 7 million Israelis who live in the one and only Jewish state.
I cannot simply hope for the best. I must also prepare for the worst.
Part of that preparation is to alert the leaders and policymakers around the world to the possible dangers that may lie ahead – not because I want those dangers to materialize – I don’t – but because I have a responsibility to do whatever I can to increase the chances that they don’t materialize. As Jewish leaders, that is your responsibility as well. I know that you’ve shouldered it time and time again.
All of us know one thing – that ultimately, the people of Egypt are those who will decide their own fate. But Israel cannot profess a neutrality as to the outcome. Because above all, we want the Egyptian government to remain committed to the peace with Israel. Every single Egyptian should know that the people of Israel are committed to peace, both with them and with all our other neighbors.
Nearly two-thirds of Egypt’s vast population, over 50 million Egyptians – they do not remember, because they never knew what life was like before Egypt and Israel made peace. But I remember, and many of you in this room do as well. We remember the wars, the terror, the fallen soldiers, the shattered families, and we remember that day when Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin shook hands here in Jerusalem, and history changed.
Overnight, our principle enemy became our first partner in peace. After much yearning and much suffering, the promise of peace was finally realized. That peace later expanded into a formal peace with Jordan, which was actually preceded by de facto peace from 1970 on.
While we have not yet achieved a final peace with the Palestinians, or with the Syrians or with the Lebanese, we have not lost hope. And we won’t lose hope. We remain committed to achieving peace with all our neighbors. All our neighbors should look at the value that the peace contributed to Egypt and Israel.
And I have no doubt that maintaining the peace and deepening peace is an interest of Egypt, and I hope that this will accompany the Egyptian effort to achieve a free and democratic society as they pursue their reforms. So while we wish the Egyptian people full success as they seek to forge a new future, we make no apologies for our fervent hope that they remain committed to peace, whatever course they take.
You know, my friends, a lot of conventional wisdoms have collapsed recently. What Wikileaks showed – well, some of us knew it before – but what it showed us is that the main concerns of regimes in this region is not the Israeli-Palestinian issue but the question of Iran.
What the protests in Tunisia, in Egypt and elsewhere have shown us in the Middle East is that the main concern of peoples in this region is not the Israeli-Palestinian issue but the policies of their regimes.
Yet there are still those for whom the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the region – and in fact to the world – is nothing less than an article of faith. There is no evidence that these true believers will not ignore. But many fair minded and objective observers are beginning to recognize reality.
Yet still there is one truth that has yet to emerge: that it is not Israel that doesn’t wish to advance negotiations to conclude a final peace with the Palestinians. It is the Palestinians. They don’t want to negotiate. I hope that changes. I hope that the Palestinians finally decide to sit down in a room with us and negotiate a peace settlement. They’re only ten minutes away. They could come here or we could go there. We’re ready to do so. They’re not.
As I said, I hope that changes, because peace cannot be imposed unilaterally or from the outside. It can only come through good faith negotiations between the parties. So I repeat my hope that President Abbas will come forward and negotiate. In these negotiations, I think people can understand today better what we’ve been saying: that security in this part of the world is the foundation of peace. Not merely because we have to protect the peace, but also because we have to protect ourselves in case peace unravels. A peace treaty, in itself, does not guarantee the peace.
We had peaceful relations with one country, not a formal peace but peaceful relations with one country – and that country changed overnight. It’s called Iran. We had formal, excellent peace relations with another country: meetings of leaders, robust trade, joint military maneuvers, and 400,000 tourists a year – I’m one of the few Israelis who didn’t visit that country: Turkey. But that too changed one day in Davos when Turkey’s leader confronted our President, Shimon Peres. We hope that we can bring back the relationship with Turkey, because we never chose to have it deterred. But it makes the point that I wish to make: a peace treaty in itself and the presence of peace doesn’t guarantee its continuity. We have to bolster it with prosperity, with legitimacy, but above all, we have to anchor it in security. And this certainly must be one of the main things that we have to negotiate about.
There are other things, but we cannot negotiate, we cannot conclude a negotiation if we do not begin it. We need to begin it; we need to engage in it; and we need to seek a realistic and secure peace. I think there are many fair-minded people around the world today who can understand better what I am saying.
As we seek to anchor the peace with Egypt and to expand the peace with others, we have to also have a clear sight of the main force that threatens peace in our region. There are many such forces. There is much turbulence. But there is one force that will guarantee that we won’t have peace in the region, and that is if Iran acquires nuclear weapons. This is what it seeks to do. It seeks not a nuclear program, not nuclear power, not a replacement for oil, not radioactive isotopes for medicine – it is seeking to build nuclear weapons, atomic bombs. If Iran, that wants a very different future for Egypt, that has overtaken Lebanon, that has overtaken half of Palestinian society, that calls openly for Israel’s destruction, that spreads terror everywhere – if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, this will be a formidable threat to peace. It will be a pivot of history. All those who seek peace, all those who seek stability, must join in the effort to prevent this from happening.
There has been some important work done. The international community, led by President Obama, adopted important sanctions at the UN, and they were followed by sanctions by like-minded states. There is no question these sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy. But they have not yet affected the regime’s deep determination to develop nuclear weapons.
The only way that will be affected is if the international community proves that it is no less determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The challenge that we face in the coming year, and the great events that are taking place between Pakistan and Gibraltar in the swirling sands, and the earthquake underneath – the greatest challenge that we face is not to lose sight of the true threats to peace.
We may hope for the best of all outcomes. But if our people’s history has shown us anything and has taught us anything, it is not to dismiss the threats we face. We must recognize those threats in time. And we must be always ready to defend ourselves.
One thing that gives our people that confidence is to know that we have learned these lessons of our history, and to know that the Jewish people everywhere stand by and with Israel in its efforts to secure its future.
You stand with us both in thwarting dangers and in seizing the opportunities.
I want to thank you all – Alan, Malcolm and each and every one of you – for standing with Israel, for your rock solid commitment to our common future, to the future of the Jewish people and to the future of the Jewish state.
Thank you, and it’s good to see you again in Jerusalem.