Jerusalem, April 25 - It is a great honor for me to address this group on behalf of The Israel Project. We are a non-partisan organization, independent of any government and privately funded, whose mission is to educate journalists, officials, diplomats and the general public about Israel and the Middle East. We do so by providing access to expert analysts, government and security officials and former officials, by organizing briefings, by taking reporters and diplomats on helicopter and other tours of Israel and by acting as a source for deep, accurate and credible facts, figures, historical information, background and context. We also provide free photos, videos, maps and graphics on key issues of concern. Like the government of Israel, we support a two-state solution where Israel and an independent Palestine will live in peace side-by-side as neighbors, with assured and guaranteed security and prosperity for both sides. We actively campaign for grassroots people-to-people peace through our Arabic-language website and two Arabic Facebook pages where we post articles addressing a wide range of subjects from civil, minority and women’s rights and Israel’s democratic political system to popular culture including sports, art, culture and music. As of April 10, 2012, our Arabic Facebook pages had garnered 476,232 ‘likes’ making them among the most popular in the entire Arab world. We believe in dialogue and in September 2010 organized a memorable evening with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and some 70 American Jewish leaders.
It is especially fitting for me to be speaking to you today because today is Israel’s annual Day of Remembrance when Israelis remember the many thousands victims of war and terrorism. Tonight, that sorrow will change to joy as Israel marks Independence Day and the 64th anniversary of its founding. That intersection of sorrow and joy is fitting because Israel was born in war and still faces serious and even existential threats. On May 15, one day after the creation of the State of Israel, the Arab armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon invaded the new Jewish state with the intention of destroying it. A tragic byproduct of this conflict was the Palestinian refugee problem, one of the issues that still needs to be resolved in peace negotiations. We should also note that some 850,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries, destroying communities that had existed in some cases for 2,500 years.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence pledged complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender. It promised to guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture and to safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.
Israel has kept this promise. Arabs, including some hostile to the existence of the state of Israel, have been represented in every single parliament. Israeli Arabs serve on the Supreme Court, play on the national soccer team and have won national beauty contests. Arab Israelis permeate every profession. I recently read a novel by Sayed Kashua about the lives of Arab professionals in Jerusalem. What was notable was that it was written in Hebrew to appeal to the widest possible audience.
And Israel has made an immense contribution to the whole world, including Africa, especially as a world leader and innovator in drip irrigation, desalinization, water preservation and arid region agriculture. Already in the 1950s, Israel began reaching out to the newly-independent nations of Africa and that outreach continues today. Just last week the USAID signed an agreement with the Israeli foreign aid organization MASHAV to work together on agricultural development in Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Rwanda. MASHAV has blossomed into an extensive program that promotes sustainable development, food production, public health programs, and equality throughout the developing world, in particular the African continent. One of Israel’s hallmark projects is the promotion of sustainable agriculture through the widespread use of low-pressure irrigation systems that enable small farmers to establish individual market gardens with their own water rationing facilities. Such innovations can help feed the world as our global population continues to rise.
Even before the 1949 armistice, while still in a state of war, Israel held its first democratic election, the first of 18. Voting was open to all Israelis regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or gender. Neither war nor terrorism nor national emergencies have ever interrupted the free flow of Israeli democracy.
I spoke previously about threats to Israeli security. One of the things our Jerusalem office does it to organize free helicopter trips for journalists and diplomats (and I believe that almost every ambassador resident in Israel has now taken the trip.) It dramatically highlights Israel’s security situation. The helicopter takes off from an airport just north of Tel Aviv near the Mediterranean Sea and within three or four minutes you have already crossed the 1967 line. Israel at this point is 9 miles across – that is just over 14 kilometers. The majority of Israelis live in the thin coastal plain while the West Bank is mountainous and looks down on them. That is why security is a paramount condition for Israelis in peace talks with the Palestinians.
Let’s remember that Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005 and since then over 7,000 rockets, mortars and missiles have been fired at Israeli civilians by terrorists armed and financed by Iran. Gaza is controlled by Hamas whose charter declares the aim of destroying Israel and killing Jews wherever possible. This year alone, some 347 rockets and missiles have been fired. And these weapons are becoming more and more deadly and sophisticated, smuggled into Gaza from Libya and elsewhere through the Sinai Desert which since the fall of President Mubarak has become a lawless region and increasingly a haven for criminals and terrorists. Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza used to target small towns and villages near the border. Now they fire on major cities like Beersheba with a population of almost 200,000 and Ashdod with some 206,000 residents. Fortunately Israel has developed the Iron Dome missile defense system that intercepts most of these missiles and protects human life.
On Israel’s northern border, Iranian proxy Hezbollah has amassed an arsenal of almost 50,000 rockets and missiles including many capable of hitting the main population center of Tel Aviv. Moreover, Iran and Hezbollah are both supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad whose regime has slaughtered up to 10,000 of its own citizens who have risen up demanding basic freedoms. The situation in Syria threatens to become a even more bloody civil war. We implore the international community to take tougher steps against the Assad regime to prevent the bloodbath that will otherwise ensue.
That brings me to the most dangerous threat: Iran. I have little new to add here. You all know the situation. Let me just say that unrelenting diplomatic and economic pressure is the best and only way to force the Islamic Republic to abandon its irresponsible, illegal and potentially catastrophic nuclear weapons program. Africa has an important role in this. Tehran’s leaders must know they are isolated and that the international community will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran.
I have spoken about our desire for a two-state solution but as you all know there have been no high-level negotiations between the parties since the fall of 2010. This is because the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the first time insisted on setting preconditions for the talks, notably a demand that Israel halt all construction beyond the 1967 lines.
Israel’s position is that settlements is an issue to be addressed in the talks – one of several including security, the fate of Jerusalem refugees, borders and sharing water resources. But neither side should set preconditions.
Because of this insistence on preconditions, 18 months have been wasted. Abbas spent many months in a fruitless and pointless quest for U.N. membership and has squandered a year negotiating a so-called unity pact with Hamas. The sides agreed a year ago to form a joint government and hold elections – but there is no government and there will be no elections. Hamas rules Gaza with an iron hand and permits no opposition political activity. Recently, Abbas had a letter delivered to Prime Minister Netanyahu stating his conditions for returning to the talks. The note was supposed to have been delivered by Prime Minister Fayyad, who to his credit refused to take part in such a masquerade.
We believe the international community has a role to play in urging Abbas to return to the negotiations immediately without preconditions. He claims not to trust Netanyahu but he has never put the Israeli leader to the test.
Let me close with a quotation from the Bible, Psalm 85:
Love and faithfulness meet together;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
and righteousness looks down from heaven.
The LORD will indeed give what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
Righteousness goes before him
and prepares the way for his steps.
Thank you for this opportunity. May God bless Africa, Israel, the United States and the entire world.