Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Address to the 2013 URJ Biennial



[Editor's note: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered the following remarks via satellite at the 2013 URJ Biennial on Sunday, December 15th.]

Thank you very much, Rick [Jacobs]. I want to say that you’ve just spoken about my personal commitment and involvement. I want to speak about your personal commitment and involvement. It is as deep as you described it for all of you. I know it; I’ve encountered it; I embrace it. I think it’s absolutely essential that people everywhere understand the depth of this partnership, the depth of your commitment and the commitment of so many of you to the State of Israel, so it gives me a great pleasure, Rabbi Jacobs and Rabbis and friends, to send you greetings from a snow-covered Jerusalem.

I think you’re in San Diego, so I think you’re in warmer climates, but this is a warm climate, I mean warmth of the heart. I know you’ve seen the pictures of a snowy Jerusalem, but it’s really something to behold. And I really would like to commend you for being with us in all seasons of the year. I am proud to be the first sitting prime minister to address the URJ Biennial. I’m glad to have this opportunity to thank all of you for your efforts to strengthen the Jewish state and to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the United States and the state of Canada. Thank you for all of that.

I’d also like to congratulate again the Women of Reform Judaism on your 100th anniversary. And I wish to send the retiring Hebrew Union College President Rabbi David Ellenson all the best. I greatly appreciate Rabbi Ellenson’s commitment to the bond between Reform Jews and Israel.

Now you’ve spent the last five days tackling and discussing and debating many of the challenges facing the Jewish people. Today I’d like to talk to you specifically about the challenges of peace and the opportunities of peace in three crucial areas: First, achieving a peaceful end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program; second, making peace with our Palestinian neighbors; and third – it’s a third, it’s a different kind of peace, what we call in Hebrew shlom baying, peace among ourselves.

Let me begin first with Iran. There are two things that should be absolutely clear: First, Iran unquestionably is aggressively pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. That’s why a country awash in oil and gas has invested 40 billion dollars directly in its nuclear program. That’s why Iran has been willing to absorb another 100 billion dollars indirectly in lost revenues from the sanctions. So altogether about 140 billion dollars, some say as much as 170 billion dollars that Iran has been willing to invest, not for a peaceful nuclear program.

This is why Iran’s leaders insist on domestic uranium enrichment. Domestic uranium enrichment is unnecessary for civilian nuclear energy, but that’s what they insist on. That’s why Iran is building a heavy water reactor in Arak. It can produce plutonium as an additional source of nuclear weapons fuel. You don’t need plutonium unless you’re developing nuclear weapons. That’s why Iran is developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs. They’re not developing them to send medical isotopes to Iranian patients in outer space. They’re developing ICBMs for the one purpose you develop ICBMs for – to carry nuclear warheads.

So the first thing is Iran is bent on a nuclear weapons program. They want to have a nuclear weapons capability. What that translates, what that jargon means is they want to be in a position at any time to be able to lurch forward in a matter of months and take the capabilities that they have developed into nuclear warheads that are put on top of missiles that can be launched against Israel or against Europe or against the United States. And that’s something that we all must stop them.

So, the second point I want to make is that I agree with President Obama that our preference is to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully. That is, if we can resolve it – and by that I mean eliminating Iran’s military nuclear program, not merely to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons today, but as I just said and as Vice President Biden told you, to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability tomorrow. If we can do that peacefully, this is the best thing that we could hope for.

We all understand that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a danger not just to Israel but to the peace and security of the region and the entire world. So we would seek, if possible, a peaceful solution to this, but we cannot allow this regime to have nuclear weapons capability or nuclear weapons.

We shouldn’t have any illusions about the Iranian regime, even when they put up some charming front man. We saw the regime’s true face four years ago when it locked up the winner of Iran’s last election. You know, they fudged the numbers, stole millions of votes, and the leader who won is still under house arrest. I think he’s one of the lucky ones because others who have dared to oppose the regime languish in Iran’s infamous prisons. Still others disappear in the middle of the night, or are shot in the streets or hanged from construction cranes. They put them in the squares with construction cranes and hang them. Since President Rouhani took office in August, Iran reportedly has executed more than 300 people.

The Iranian regime’s behavior toward the rest of the world mirrors their behavior towards their own people and is no less dangerous. In the last three years, Iran has engaged in terrorism in 25 countries on five continents. That continues today after Rouhani’s election, right as we speak. Iran destabilizes countries throughout the Middle East. The only place that they’re not destabilizing the regime is in Syria, where Iran seeks to stabilize Assad’s grip on power by directly participating in the mass murder of Syrian civilians.

Iran arms Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad with tens of thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli civilians. It calls for Israel’s annihilation. The regime’s hostility is on display for all to see and I think that it’s important to say this because there’s a tendency right now in the world to treat Iran as though it’s another country. It’s become part and parcel of the community of nations. No it hasn’t; it smiled, it gives PowerPoint presentations in English, it talks the talk but it walks the walk of death every day, every day.

Last month, the same day that negotiations resumed with the United States, Iran’s Supreme Leader addressed tens of thousands of regime supporters crying “Death to America!”. And of course, many of them chimed in with “Death to American and death to Israel”. Their representative in the United Nations said the other day there isn’t a country called Israel. We cannot let the world’s most dangerous regime get its hands on the world’s most dangerous weapons.

If this can be done peacefully, again I say this, there’s only one way to achieve that goal of a peaceful resolution and that’s by keeping up the pressure on Iran. Because the Iranian regime is not suddenly going to change course as an expression of good will. That’s not going to happen. They will agree to peacefully dismantle their military nuclear infrastructure only if they are compelled to do so. Therefore the sanctions must be maintained and increased until Iran takes the steps required of it by the UN Security Council. By the way, these are not my terms; these are Security Council terms that have been put forward by the P5+1, the leading powers of the world, for Iran in the United Nations just a few years ago and consistently have been repeated since. These are Security Council resolutions in effect.

Here’s what they say: Iran must cease all uranium enrichment; Iran must eliminate its enriched uranium stockpiles; Iran must dismantle its nuclear enrichment infrastructure by closing its underground nuclear facilities and getting rid of its centrifuges; Iran must dismantle its heavy water reactor that will allow plutonium production; in short, Iran’s quest for the ability to make nuclear weapons must come to an end. Period.

I believe that pressure, including a credible military threat, is what brought Iran to the negotiating table. And I believe that prematurely easing that pressure makes the peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue less likely, not more likely. So for the sake of the diplomatic solution we all hope to reach, we must keep the pressure on Iran.

That’s my first message to you and it’s an important one, and I think it should be shared across the board for everyone’s sake because if Iran goes nuclear, then other states here will go nuclear. We’ll be in jeopardy, but so will the rest of the world. And you could have the multiplication of several regimes that will seek to get nuclear weapons capability or nuclear weapons. You don’t want a nuclear tinderbox in the Middle East. That’s not a good idea for ensuring a peaceful future for any of us or for the world. And aside from anything else, we know that both America and Israel will be subjected to challenges that we have not faced in our histories.

So Iran can be stopped, must be stopped, and the effort to stop it must first go through the peaceful effort of extending and increasing as necessary, the pressures, the economic pressures on Iran.

Now, the second point I wish to make to you today concerns the negotiations with the Palestinians, and let me again say very clearly, unequivocally that achieving peace is a strategic goal of the State of Israel and of my government. I am ready for a historic peace agreement with the Palestinians, and I believe that this peace has to be based on the principle two states for two peoples – not just two states, two states for two peoples, for the Jewish people and the Palestinian people: a Jewish state or a nation-state of the Jewish people next to a Palestinian state, or a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people. And I believe that this principle, two states for two peoples can end the conflict once and for all. This would be a peace in which a secure and safe Israel lives next to a demilitarized Palestinian state, and it’s important for me to stress that in this end of conflict, the Palestinians would have no more claims against the one and only Jewish state.

Here’s what it means: it means that they get a state and they don’t continue the conflict from the state that they get. They don’t say, well, we still want to flood Israel with refugees; or we have irredentist claims through areas of the Galilee or the Negev or Jaffa. It means an end to all claims and to all Palestinian national claims on the Jewish state of Israel. It really means peace; that’s what we’re talking about. To reach such a historic peace I am ready to make difficult decisions. And I think if you look at my record, it demonstrates that. Four years ago, I stood before an audience at Bar-Ilan University – it’s an Orthodox university, as you may know – and I said that in the framework of peace and security Israel is ready for Palestinian statehood.

A few months later I agreed to a ten month freeze on new construction in the settlements, Secretary of State Clinton at the time acknowledged that this was an unprecedented decision. Now I made these decisions which were very tough politically and very costly. I made these decisions and I stood by them because I wanted to give negotiations a chance. And this past August, in the framework of understandings reached to facilitate the current talks, I agreed to release convicted terrorists, some guilty of the most heinous crimes against innocent civilians, our civilians, our people. I have to tell you that this was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made, and I’ve made some tough decisions. I can also tell you it was very unpopular. It’s still very unpopular.

But I took that decision because I wanted to give peace negotiations a chance. And I am ready to make even tougher decisions to achieve a historic breakthrough. But the Palestinians also must be ready to make hard decisions as well, because peace is not a one-way street; it’s a two-way street and just as I am willing to recognize the legitimacy – you can applaud that, that’s fine, you should. I’m sort of on a slight delay, Rick, so I’m… forgive me for cuing this but I think this is important because I think peace is a two-way street. Everybody talks about Israeli concessions. Nobody talks about Palestinian concessions and they’re important. They’re just as important for peace and I would say that making unilateral Israeli concessions will actually undermine peace because you’ve got to have the two-way street. So just as I am willing to recognize the legitimacy of a nation-state for the Palestinian people, they must finally be willing to recognize the legitimacy of a nation-state for the Jewish people. I stand on this point because this is what this conflict is about.

You know, we had 50 years, well 46 years, between 1921 and 1967 when we had raging attacks on the Jewish community before the state was established and after the state was established. There wasn’t a single settlement; there wasn’t territories. It was the opposition to the very existence of a Jewish state. And then we went out of Gaza, gave up everything, tore up the settlements, made people at least temporarily refugees in their own state. Horrible thing. We did it. Very difficult things to do from a humanitarian point of view – hard, very hard. But we were willing to do it. We did it. And they kept firing on us rockets from Gaza.

And when you ask them, I said, “Well, why are you doing this? Is it to liberate the West Bank?” They said, “Yeah, sure, that too, but it’s to liberate Jaffa, Beersheba, Ashkelon” – they call it Majda. That’s the bad guys, the guys who use terror.

So we turn to the other guys, the guys who don’t use terror and I’m glad they don’t and I say, “Well how about you? Assuming you got what you wanted in the West Bank. Would you recognize the Jewish state?” They don’t answer. They say, “Well, we’ll recognize the State of Israel”.

I said, “I didn’t ask you that. I said would you recognize the legitimacy of a state for the Jewish people because that’s what you ask me to do for the Palestinian people,” and they don’t answer.

And the reason they don’t answer that is because they haven’t given the Beirzeit speech. They haven’t confronted their people, 80 years, 90 years after the conflict began, and said it’s going to be over; we’ll live side-by-side in two nation-states for two peoples and we’re not going to try to push or dissolve the State of Israel or flood it with refugees. It’s over. It’s over.

So I think this is the core of the conflict. I don’t think – I know it’s the core of the conflict and the question you have to ask yourself is not why I’m asking them to recognize the nation-state of the Jewish people; the real question you have to ask is, why do they persistently refuse to do that?

It’s not because the non-Jews in Israel lack civic rights; it’s the only place in the Middle East where they have actually civic rights, where there’s an Arab judge on the Supreme Court, where the Arab citizens are in the government, they’re in the Knesset – they’re everywhere. And they should be. This is not the point. The nation-state however of the Jewish people, that is with the flag and the symbols and the ability of any Jew to come here and any Palestinian can go there – that’s what we mean.

Why don’t you recognize that? Because you ask it for yourself. Why do you refuse it for us? Because that’s the core of the conflict. It was never about settlements at its heart, although that has to be resolved. It was never about territory or borders. It’s not even about security. It’s about – it wasn’t about the Palestinian state. It’s about the Jewish state; it always was and it still is. And it’s only when they recognize the Jewish state and accept it in this or that boundary, then we’ll have peace.

But to make the concessions, give them the state as they now have Gaza, and then have them refuse to live in peace with us and continue the battle against us from improved boundaries? I don’t think there’s anyone there among you who, if you think about that clearly, concisely, you know, with a laser beam on this issue – I don’t think we have any differences among us because I think you think exactly as I do because it happens to be the truth. And these truths come out.

You know for years, until two years ago, people said something else, that people accepted as truthful and I had resisted it for many years. They said the core of the conflict in the Middle East – always in the singular, the conflict – was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I thought that was preposterous. I mean, you can know see how preposterous it is. What is the implosion of Libya have to do with the Palestinian conflict? What is happening in Tunisia or in Egypt or in Syria have to do with the Palestinian conflict? What is happening in Yemen? What is happening in Iraq? And the answer: it’s got nothing to do with it.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is important to resolve for us. The question of territory, settlements are important to resolve for us. But this is not the central engine of the Middle Eastern conflict, yet people until recently repeated this again and again and again. It’s just been debunked by reality.

Well, here’s another point that will be, that people have to understand: it’s not about the settlements. There are no more settlements in Gaza and they’re not fighting to “liberate” the West Bank. They’re fighting to “liberate” Tel Aviv from Tel Aviv. They’re fighting for Jaffa. This was and remains the conflict. So the first thing we have to do is get them to accept the Jewish state.

The second point, which Secretary Kerry, John, who I talk to – I was going to say every day, but I’ll amend that to every few hours. He’s incredible; he just goes on and on, I mean, he’s great. The second point is that he has said and I have said is that an agreement must address Israel’s legitimate security concerns. In the Middle East, the only peace that will endure is a peace we can defend, not only because of what I’ve just said, that there has to be an acceptance of the State of Israel, but you don’t know whether it will percolate down after decades of incitement against us in Palestinian schools and their textbooks and in the mosques and in their life. And it’s not symmetrical. We don’t indoctrinate our people that way. We don’t have state-controlled media. State-controlled media, what an idea! We don’t strike that; we don’t have that, okay? But that’s what they teach in suicide kindergarten camps, so you can’t rely on the possibility that an agreement that we make with the Palestinian leadership will hold. We cannot be sure about it.

But for it to hold, we must be able to protect the peace and ensure the security because otherwise it will unravel. And we also have to protect the peace or protect our security in case the peace agreement doesn’t hold. Both for the peace to hold and both to protect ourselves if it unravels, we need very, very strong security arrangements on the ground. Now again, I repeat, I am prepared to make a historic compromise, but I will never gamble with the future of the Jewish state.

That’s something I will never do.

Israel is ready for peace. I am ready for peace. I hope the Palestinians are ready for peace. And these are the twin foundations of peace: mutual national recognition and very, very sound security arrangements where Israel can defend itself, by itself against any threats. So that’s my second point about Iran first, not first in time – Iran; second, Palestinians. We can work that simultaneously. I am not linking one to the other, but we do have two great missions here.

And we have still a third mission, and that’s what I wanted to talk to you about finally: the peace among ourselves, among the Jews of the world.

I begin with the place that is holiest to all of us, which is the Kotel, the Western Wall. It’s in Israel, but it belongs to all of you. It belongs to you and to me, to all of us. It belongs to all the Jewish people. And I am committed to making sure that all Jews feel at home at our holiest site. I appreciate the important work that has been done under the leadership of my good friend Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, and he’s been aided by my new Cabinet Secretary, Avichai Mandelblit.

There’s someone else who has helped out a lot, and that’s you, Rick, Rabbi Jacobs. I appreciate your contribution to finding a compromise. Now you know the nature of compromise: no compromise is ever perfect. But I am convinced that because of the work we’re doing together, we’ll ensure that the Kotel is a source of unity, not division, unity, a place where all Jews feel at home. For me, the question of the Kotel is about more than finding a modus vivendi at Judaism’s most sacred site. It’s about what Israel has always stood for and what it must always stand for. Israel is, and it must continue to be, the homeland of the entire Jewish people, the entire Jewish people. That’s the place where all Jews – including Reform Jews – experience nothing less than “audacious hospitality.” Rick, do you get that phrase? Audacious hospitality.

So I am committed to doing everything in my power to ensure that all Jews feel connected to Israel and to each other, which is why we – the Government of Israel and world Jewry – we’ve launched an important new initiative to strengthen the ties between Jews everywhere – in Israel and around the world, to strengthen Jewish identity to secure the Jewish future. And I want to thank the Reform Movement again for all your hard work to strengthen Jewish identity and to strengthen the connection between your communities and Israel. Thank you for that. And thank you too for NFTY’s terrific programs – what a name, NFTY – NFTY’s terrific programs in North America and here in Israel.

Friends, this is what we seek: a peaceful end to the Iranian nuclear program; a secure and enduring peace with the Palestinians; and peace among ourselves.

I am working to achieve these goals and you are my partners, our partners, in this effort. This is not something we do by ourselves for you. This is something we do together for both of us, for all of us.

Thank you again for your strong support for Israel, and thank you for working with me to secure the future of the Jewish people and the one and only Jewish state. Thank you and good luck. Behatzlaha.

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