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PM Netanyahu’s Annual Meeting with Members of the International Press in Israel

13 Jan

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to members of the foreign press in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011. Netanyahu insists that Iran will not stop its nuclear program unless economic sanctions are backed with a "credible military option." Netanyahu says the only time the Iranians stopped their nuclear development when they thought they were threatened with a military strike. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

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January 11 ( KATAKAMI / PRIME MINISTER’S OFFICE) —  Full transcript :

I would like to take your questions, but before I do that, I’d like to review the main events of last year.  We met a year ago when we spoke among other things, about the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and about my hope to advance the peace process. So before I take your questions, let me briefly take stock of these two issues.

2009 was a year in which Iran was unmasked and that unmasking continued in 2010.  People witnessed the brutal nature of this regime in the wake of its elections and Iran was caught red-handed building a nuclear facility, a secret nuclear facility in Qom.  And of course I think that in the parting year, people also understood the danger that such a regime would pose if it possessed nuclear weapons.  I think that’s become part of the international understanding of very broad segments of the world community.

Now 2010 was the year in which the international community began to take action based on this understanding.  The first significant action was the sanctions of the UN Security Council led by the United States and I think President Obama and Secretary Clinton should be congratulated for pushing this as well as advancing sanctions outside the United Nations – tougher sanctions – by the US, by the Europeans and by others.  And there’s no question that these questions have put real economic pressure on Iran.  They’ve put significant pressure on the banking system; they forced Iran to cut subsidies.  I can tell you, I cut subsidies as Finance Minister.  It’s not an easy thing to do.

And there’s no question that all these things have caused hardship, but they have not in any way altered Iran’s determination to pursue its nuclear program.  They’re determined to move ahead despite every difficulty, every obstacle, every setback to create nuclear weapons.  And since the purpose of the sanctions is to change that determination, those sanctions have not yet achieved their objective.  So I think they should be strictly enforced and I think they should be materially strengthened.

Now I said two months ago that the only chance that these sanctions would achieve their objectives would be to couple them with an understanding from Iran that no matter what, they’ll be followed – that is if they don’t achieve their goal they’ll be followed by a credible military option.  I said that because in the many years that I’ve been talking about this and that Iran has been pursuing its nuclear weapons program, there was only one respite, there was a momentary pause, in 2003 when Iran thought that there was a credible military option from the United States, it temporarily suspended its nuclear weapons program. I believe that today the same is true. They will only stop going through the hardship of economic pain and all the dislocations that the sanctions cause in Iran if they thought it was useless, if they thought that there would be this credible military option at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.

So I think this is a prerequisite to make it clear and the paradox is that if there is a credible military option, you won’t have to use it.

2010 was also the year of WikiLeaks, and you’ve heard about that. The WikiLeaks exposed the three main concerns of most, if not all, of the governments in this region. The first concern is Iran; the second concern is Iran; and the third concern is Iran. That’s not to say that they don’t want to see the advance in the peace process – they do; that they’re not concerned about the Arab-Israeli peace – they are. But they’re very much concerned that all of this would come to naught, and in fact their own interests (I’m speaking diplomatically now) would be tremendously jeopardized unless the Iranian nuclear program is stopped. Peace would be stopped and vital interests of just about every government in the region would be threatened.

So this information that came out, which wasn’t new to us, but I suppose was new to the world, refuted the conventional wisdom that the main concern of the governments in this region was the peace process. It certainly refuted the conventional wisdom that the only way to win backing for substantive, tough action against Iran from the governments in this region was to advance the peace process.

The peace process should be advanced for its own right. It should be advanced because we want to put an end to this conflict. It should be advanced because we owe it to our children and to the children of the Palestinians and others in this region to have peace. Anybody who’s been in the opposite of peace, in battle and in war, and knows the terrible suffering that we experience in war, understands and cherishes peace.

Peace should be pursued in its own right. But the pursuit of the peace process does not materially change people’s conception that Iran has to be stopped for the sake of peace and for the sake of vital interests of many governments in this area.

Now, about peace: I predict that the coming year will expose another central truth. Just as 2010 brought the truth about Iran and this region out to light, I think that 2011 will bring about another truth about who is seriously interested in peace in this region.

All of you know the conventional wisdom. It goes like this: the Palestinian Authority wants peace, but they may be too weak or they lack the capacity to do so, but they want to reach a peace agreement; and Israel – this narrative goes – does not want peace. It falsely accuses my government, or myself, or even the Israeli public (I read that too) of not being seriously interested in peace.

You have 60,000 rockets pointed on your cities, on your house. You have a lot of chutzpa to say to people that the Israeli people don’t want peace. I don’t think there’s any people in the world that want peace more, pray for peace, yearn for peace, hope for peace more than the Israeli people. So this is the conventional wisdom.

I want to challenge it with some very concrete facts from this past year. Well, one before that year. When my government was established we did the following: first of all we immediately called for direct peace negotiations. Secondly, we removed hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints to facilitate the impressive growth of the Palestinian economy. Third, I gave the Bar Ilan Speech that called for a peace of two states for two peoples. Then we did a fourth thing, which was the unprecedented freeze of new construction in the settlements. No government did this before. And fifth, something you may not be aware of, some of you might know it but most of you don’t, we were willing to extend another three months and actually come to an agreement with the US about the conditions for such an extended freeze, another 90 days.

The reason it didn’t take place was not that we hadn’t come to an agreement with the United States. It’s that the United States decided – I think in a large part in good measure – that what would happen is we’d spend a lot of political capital to put forward this 90-day freeze. It’s not clear if they’d bring in the Palestinians and if they did, on day one of the 90 days they’d be discussing, the Palestinians, about their requirement for a freeze on day 91 and that would obviate all the serious discussion about the real issues of peace that are required.

So the United States chose not to move in this path, to go to another path. But it is a fact that we were willing to do these five things that I’ve just articulated, and some of them without precedent.

While we did these five things, this is what the Palestinians did: they refused to negotiate for the first time since the Oslo process began 18 years ago. They placed a settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations. They wasted nine months before coming to the talks and then they left the talks after three weeks and all of six hours of direct negotiations.

These are the facts. Some may distort them; some may ignore them, but they still remain the facts.

There are many skeptics maybe among you and among the Israeli public and even among my government from across the spectrum who doubt that the Palestinians want to reach an agreement. You know, I can understand that skepticism after the previous efforts of very generous governments in 2000 at Camp David, and in 2008, they walked away from these agreements and I suppose there’s reason for skepticism.

But here’s the important point. My coalition, in no way prevented me from making these unprecedented steps towards peace. They didn’t stop me, they joined me. It’s an important point to make that what is preventing the advent of peace negotiations is that the Palestinians are doing everything in their power to avoid them.

This is a simple truth. So, no matter what the conventional wisdom the truth is that I want peace, and despite all the difficulties I’m determined to pursue it.

Israel has a peculiar electoral system. It makes for, how should I say it, interesting governance. No-one’s smiling, even. But the policy is set by the prime minister. The concrete steps that we take are the steps brought by the prime minister, and approved by the cabinet.

I’ve made it clear and I’ll make it clear again today that no coalition considerations will prevent me from pursuing a peace that I believe in. I’ll tell you something else. I think that if I bring a peace agreement, which means that I believe in the agreement that I will sign, I think that I will bring the support of the Israeli public. I don’t think, I know that. So I think the Palestinians are missing out on something very important.

I hate to use clichés.  I try to avoid them as best as I can.  But this is a cliché that I have to use.  The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

They’re not going to get an imposed settlement from the outside.  It doesn’t work.  There is no short-cut to negotiations.  The only way you get peace is negotiating peace.  The only government that I believe that can actually deliver a peace agreement because it will be trusted by the Israeli people to provide the elements of security and recognition that are so required, are so central to have a real peace, the only government that can do that is my government.  And I think I’m the only prime minister who can deliver that.

The Palestinians are walking away from peace because they’re walking away from the negotiation.  You know, they’re flying out to the world: South America, Asia, the far corners of the world.  Save a lot of air fuel, a lot of gas by just going ten minutes, coming here.  You want to negotiate peace, sit down and negotiate.  You want to talk peace, sit down and talk.  You want to conclude peace, sit down and let the white smoke come out – get a negotiation and get a conclusion.  There is no other way to achieve peace.  And I hope that, I hope they’ll change their mind – not only their tactics, but their substantive position.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he addresses members of the foreign media during a reception in Jerusalem January 11, 2011. Only the convincing threat of military action headed by the United States will persuade Iran to drop plans to build an atomic bomb, Netanyahu said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

You know that at the Bar Ilan speech that I gave, I laid out the fundamental elements of a peace which is a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish nation-State of Israel.  But what I hear the PA say are the three no’s.  No to a Jewish State.  I think they said they wouldn’t recognize the Jewish State for a thousand years.  That is not a phrase that resonates with Jews, I can tell you.  And the second no was no to any compromise on refugees.  I recently read an interesting article in the Guardian by the Palestinian negotiator.

And the third no is no to any Israeli presence in the Jordon Valley for any reasonable period of time.  This is absolutely required for demilitarization to take place because you know we left Lebanon, Hezbollah came in.  We left Gaza, and there was an Egyptian army that was there and is still there, and Iran walked in.  And we need to have some safeguards that we don’t repeat this a third time, because obviously the security of the nation is at stake, and the security of our people, the security of peace, is at stake.  We can’t allow this to happen a third time and I believe that security arrangements can be modified over time.  They can be tested, but they must include the one force that will not walk away, and the one force that will do the job.

How we do it and what precise configuration is something to be negotiated.  But to say automatically that we cannot have an Israeli presence in the Jordon Valley, is to go against any possible, any realistic arrangement that can provide demilitarization and demilitarization and security arrangements are the key – the key to keep the peace, that’s obvious.  And it may not be obvious to some of you, because you hear all the time a contrary statement that says, “well, what will keep the peace is the peace.” What will keep the peace and what will give the security to the peace is the actual signing of the peace.  It’ll certainly contribute to that effect.  It doesn’t guarantee it.

There’s a country with which we had tremendously close relations.  We had the exchange of the leaderships; there were exchanges between our security forces; economic trade, and that country is called Iran.  And that changed overnight.  There’s another country with which we had flowering peaceful relations: meeting of leaders; joint military exercises; 400,000 Israeli tourists a year – that country is called Turkey.  And I still hope we can arrest the slide in the relationship between Turkey and Israel.  It wasn’t eroded by our choice.

The conclusion of a formal peace doesn’t guarantee the continuation of the peace. But the security arrangements that are there, they help buttress the peace and they also protect us in case peace unravels, in case Iran walks in or tries to walk in.

This is why the elements of security, alongside the elements of recognition, are absolutely essential to the achievement of peace.

This is what I hope to discuss with Abu Mazen, with President Abbas. I want to sit down with him. These are our concerns. I know he has his concerns. I’m prepared to discuss this, directly. We don’t have to go to another place. We can sit down right here. This is what people do if they actually want to make peace.

I’m not putting these issues as preconditions for negotiations. I have no preconditions for negotiations. The only precondition for negotiation is negotiation. It’s the only one.

So I hope the Palestinians are not putting these three no’s as a substantive opposition. I hope it’s a tactical move. But if they’re prepared to actually engage in substantive negotiation, if they’re prepared to negotiate, then I think that they will find that this government – my government, this prime minister – me, that I’m prepared and able to achieve an historic peace which they need, I believe, as much as we do.

In any case, I’ll tell you that in 2011, everyone, I believe, will come out of that year knowing who really wants peace. We’ll meet here in a year and I think you’ll see that I’m right.

If you have questions, ask them.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the annual meeting of the Foreign Press in Jerusalem January 11, 2011. (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Crispian Balmer, Reuters: Thank you. Going back to the question of Iran, do you agree with the assessment of the outgoing Mossad Chief that Iran now won’t or can’t get its nuclear bomb before 2015.  And then you were talking about the need for a credible military threat.  Don’t you think that this sort of comments that we’ve been hearing from senior Israeli security officials including the Mossad Chief who urged count cautioned against preemptive attacks, -don’t you think that makes such a threat from Israel evaporate basically? Thank you.

PM Netanyahu: Well, I think that intelligence estimates are exactly that, they’re estimates.  They range from best case to worst case possibilities and there’s quite a range there.  I think there’s room for some differing assessments.  But there’s no debate about three things.  First, that the goal of Iran is to develop nuclear weapons.  Not nuclear material, not isotopes for medical treatment.  The goal is to get nuclear weapons.

The second is that they’re amassing the material for that purpose.  They’ve amassed now the significant amount of LEU, low-enriched uranium, and they’re enriching to a higher level this material as well.

The third thing that there’s no question about is that they are a brutal regime and very dangerous.  So I think that the conclusion that is led is that you have to ratchet up the pressure.  And as I said, I don’t think that this pressure will be sufficient to change course, to have this regime change course without a credible military option that is put before them by the international community led by the United States.

Harriet Sherwood, the Guardian: Thank you, Prime Minister, Tzipi Livni yesterday said that there was an evil spirit sweeping across Israel.  Today she’s accused the government of trying to silence opposition, and said the government is hurting the State of Israel.  She’s largely referring to policies being pushed by your foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman and his party.  Are you comfortable with the policies of your key coalition partner and are you worried that he and his party are doing more to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the world than those who accuse us of doing the very same thing?

PM Netanyahu: Let me answer two parts of that question.  First is the assumption that Israel is moving towards a bad place.  You have to ask where is the government going because we are committed and I’m committed to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with its democratic values.  When I see, for example, some calls from a handful of individuals, in this case some rabbis who said don’t sell land or don’t sell property, real estate to Israel’s Arab citizens, I was outraged, I just spoke out directly and I attacked it.  And I think that shows it’s what the government does. It’s the values that we have that I think are important.

Now since you asked that question, I want to ask you a question.  Do you think it’s pertinent that ten minutes from here there’s a government decree that says that if you sell land to Jews that’s punishable by death.  Do you think that’s something worthy of reporting?  Can I ask you a question?  How many of you have reported that? Anyone can raise their hands?  Wow! I’m impressed.  Three, four, five. Five!  We’re doing well.  Can we reach 10%?

You think that’s worthy of reporting?  If you want to assume then ask the question where do you have a society in which the norms are democratic norms that respect the rights of all the citizens of any creed, of any faith, to equal treatment under the law and equal treatment beyond the law.  That’s here in Israel.  That’s the only place. And I give you this example of selling… This was one of the most egregious points. Selling land, or selling an apartment or a house to an Arab? Somebody says you shouldn’t do that even though they’re well within their rights.  Somebody is suggesting that and I as the Prime Minister of Israel forcefully attacked that, immediately.

Yet 10 minutes from here in the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, there is a law, a decree that says that if you sell land to Jews it’s punishable by death.  That’s worthy of your reporting.  It tells a lot about this asymmetry.  Israel is decried, Israel is attacked, Israel is criticized when it’s really a democratic country that upholds the rights of everyone, of all its citizens, of Jews and Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Druze, women, gays, minorities.  We stand up for those rights.  We have a legal system that upholds them and we have a governmental system that upholds them.

Yet right across here, there’s something else. It’s not as bad as Hamas, It’s not as bad as Iran, but it’s bad.  Because you have laws that say that you will sentence to death somebody who sells a piece of property to Jews.  I urge you to ask those questions in Ramallah, because I think you’ll be making a contribution for peace.

You asked me about the Foreign Minister.  As I said, we have a peculiar political system.  It’s coalition system.  So the Prime Minister is from the Likud, myself. The defense Minister is from Labor, the Foreign Minister is from Yisrael Beitaynu and we have different points of view.  We coalesce on the main policy actions.  We disagree on some things, we agree on others.  We have to agree in the end on the conduct of policy.  I can appreciate quite a few things that the foreign Minister has done, especially in opening up relations, broadening relations is the word I would use, with Eastern Europe, Russia, the Former Soviet Union, the Balkans and others.

But I don’t appreciate, and I told him this personally yesterday, I don’t appreciate his criticism of my colleagues, the Likud ministers.  Because I don’t think there’s anyone that can teach them patriotism, concern for Israel’s security or the standards of Israeli democracy.  The Likud is a national party and we’re committed to a democratic Israel, democratic values.  And I want to assure you the Likud will stay that way, and I also want to assure you that the government will stay that way. (*)

 
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