A Year of Challenge, an Era of HopeBy Ehud Barak
(May 19) - A little over 10 months ago, I took office and, together with my government, stood at the crossroads of some of the most difficult and weighty decisions ever faced in the history of the state of Israel. One of the goals we set for ourselves was to "wave two flags:" the political-security flag and the social-economic flag.
The first represented long-term security for the state of Israel through peace agreements with any of our neighbors who were willing, and ending the tragedy of Lebanon by bringing our soldiers home.
The second meant closing social gaps and dealing with human and social distress by ensuring stable and viable economic growth, reducing unemployment, and creating 300,000 new jobs.
We see our two "flags" as having the same priority. Yet, since lack of progress on the diplomatic front leads to still more deaths, and since we do not control how fast the diplomatic clock ticks, we have no option but to place diplomatic and security issues first on our time line, ahead of other matters of no less importance.
We will not compromise on security. We fight constantly to strengthen it. As far as I am concerned, winning the war for peace is not only an aim in itself but also a way to strengthen Israel and create genuine opportunity in our society, in our economy, and for every young person growing up here.
Our wonderful young people are the future of the state, and their happiness and the opportunity for them to utilize their God-given potential are the purpose underlying everything we do.
During the past 10 months, we have completely turned around all peace-process issues. We have renewed talks with Syria, accelerated the Palestinian track, restored the faith of the region's Arab leaders in the Israeli government, and strengthened the country's international status. We have also mended relations with the US president.
I have often described the Syria situation as a "window of opportunity." I maintain that this is so because Syria is headed by an authoritative leader like Assad, and because President Clinton has invested so much energy and so many years in Middle East peace efforts.
But this is not enough. The desire to make peace is an essential element in any peace negotiations, and it is my impression that at the moment the Syrian desire to make peace is not yet fully developed.
We cannot force the Syrian leader to want peace. We are not closing the door on the possibility of renewing talks with Syria, but we see issues of water, sovereignty over the Kinneret, and control over the Jordan river north of the Kinneret as Israel's vital interests.
We also see early warning, security arrangements, normalization first, and changes in the atmosphere and style of the diplomatic and public dialogue between ourselves and the Syrian people as additional vital interests.
With regard to Lebanon: As we promised even before the elections, we are now, nearly a year after taking power, in the middle of redeploying the IDF to the international border. We base our actions on United Nations Security Council resolutions 425 and 426, with the full backing of the UN and the rest of the world.
The redeployment will be completed by July, in a way that enables us to defend all the northern settlements and the IDF, and to offer backup to the SLA, which has accompanied us for so many years.
Within this process, we have undertaken a national campaign to reinforce the security and the socio-economic situation of the northern settlements.
Obviously, it would be preferable if this redeployment was taking place within the framework of an agreement with Syria. The government has made many efforts, examined all options, and left no stone unturned in its effort to reach agreement with Syria.
The aim of the redeployment is to put an end to the tragedy that has continued since we entered Lebanon in 1982.
I will not, and do not intend to, accept the concept that Israel cannot disengage from Lebanon because of Syria, or the Hizbullah, or any other factor, and that it is better to stay in Lebanon, allow the bloodletting to continue, and continue to use Lebanon as leverage in the Syria issue.
We are disengaging. We are redeploying on the border, and from there we will defend Israel.
I do not recommend that anyone in Lebanon make any attempt to harm Israel's citizens or soldiers, directly or indirectly.
We will defend the state of Israel from Israel proper, without being in Lebanon, and our response will be more severe and more painful than our past response in Lebanon.
At the same time, the diplomatic process with the Palestinians is underway, and its aim is Israel's security. We are committed to moving ahead with a peace agreement that will be 1,000 times better than any other option. The nature of the reality that will result if we do not reach agreement is clear to us all.
We have an historic national responsibility to bring about a separation in the Land of Israel - between the Palestinians and ourselves.
Jerusalem will remain under our sovereignty, and united within its current municipal borders, in every future arrangement. It is the eternal capital of Israel.
This is our position. At the same time, we must understand that there can be no agreement if Palestinian needs are not taken into account. We have no intention of ruling over another people; they must rule themselves. As a result, neighborly relations and cooperation will develop, and we will live alongside each other, separately, in peace.
Just as we have vital interests with regard to Syria, we also have such interests vis-ˆ-vis the Palestinians. An agreement needs to be achieved by both sides, and will come about only if both sides show flexibility. But the responsibility, the need to arrive at an agreement this year, and the opportunity to do so are pressing on the leadership of both sides.
Our essential demands with regard to the Palestinians are:
a) a united Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel, under Israeli sovereignty;
b) no return to 1967 borders;
c) no foreign military forces situated west of the Jordan river or north of the Kinneret;
d) the bulk of the Judea and Samaria settlers in settlement blocs remaining under our sovereignty; and
e) no return of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper.
I mentioned two "flags." The second of these, which stands for closing the country's social gaps, reducing suffering, and promoting fraternity and human sensitivity among us, is as precious to us as the first "flag" of peace and security - even when we are not dealing with them equally on a day-to-day basis.
We are just now emerging from the longest recession in this generation. The last three years have been very difficult for Israel - negative growth, rising unemployment, increased human distress, widening gaps between rich and poor, and the failure of groups in distressed neighborhoods and on the periphery to exploit the growth potential offered by economic progress.
It pains me to see so many citizens working so hard and still being unable to give their children a chance to move into the 21st century.
These children are entitled to such an opportunity. For this reason, we need tax reform that addresses the gaps between rich and poor which have greatly increased in the past 15 years. In order to reduce these gaps, we are acting to tax capital more, and labor less. This will result in a transfer of capital from the rich to those who work hard for their living.
It has been less than a year since we came to power. We have said that we will change the country's direction, and we have begun to do so.
As I noted, we found an economy in recession. We stopped this by cutting almost NIS 6 billion from security. We made no cuts in education; we added funds for health and welfare. Unemployment, which increased throughout the Netanyahu era, has now stabilized. We added 62,000 new jobs. Citizens have begun to sense the growth. Bank of Israel statistics show that in the first four months of 2000, a total of $500 million was spent on new cars and electrical appliances - 30 percent more than last year.
1999 saw $25 billion of foreign investment in Israel. These investors think Israel has a future.
The greatest enemy of the weaker strata in our economy is socio-economic populism and its call to "quickly split up whatever there is." For 10 months I have been under pressure to be just such a populist, allocating to all, in exchange for fleeting headlines.
Only responsible and well-thought-out leadership that extends a helping hand to those really in need can bring about the change that the Israeli economy, and Israeli society, require.
If it were that easy to open up the national wallet and distribute its contents, and to be well-liked by Israel's citizens, I would be the first to do so in order to ensure my own popular support, without giving a thought to long-term public responsibility.
But the prime minister must stop populist initiatives, and protect the public from its appointees. We must accept the facts: even the richest countries in the world cannot give people everything they want.
We take our commitments seriously. We passed the Public Housing Law, allowing citizens who have lived in Amidar and Amigur housing for years to purchase their apartments, with discounts of up to 90% for those who have been there for 30 years.
We passed the Veterans Law. We passed the Students Law. We established a committee to examine tuition reduction, so that financial straits or other obstacles will not prevent any Israeli boy or girl from achieving their potential in a college or university.
We are dealing with the disabled. We are advancing the 11 most distressed settlements in Israel with a comprehensive education, infrastructure, welfare, and employment package, in accordance with each settlement's needs.
We have exempted demobilized soldiers from paying income tax for two years, so they can stand on their own two feet, with the support of the state. We have direction, and we have hope.
I am determined to change Israel's situation from the very foundations. Obviously, this cannot be accomplished in one day. This process will take time and will sometimes even be painful, but the first measures have already been taken.
In the next few years, the budget will reflect total change in national priorities: more for infrastructure, more for health, more for welfare, and, above all, more for education, which is the real solution to society's ills.
I am optimistic. We promised a different style, and we delivered. Ten months have passed, and the whole style of public debate has changed. The volume is lower. We are carrying on a dialogue with every group and every sector, working constantly towards quiet reconciliation.
Israel has tremendous potential. There is tremendous energy, and this energy will be even more evident the moment there is peace.
We will continue to move forward, waving both our "flags." I am convinced that within seven or eight years we can bring Israel to the front ranks of the world's progressive countries, in quality of education, quality of life, standard of living, and wisdom.
© 2000 - The Jerusalem Post
The First Year - Last Time
By Binyamin Netanyahu
(May 19) - In its first year, my government was guided by two major tasks: restoring the security of Israel's citizens and halting the dwindling of the state to its 1967 borders; and speeding up Israel's transformation from a closed socialist economy to a free, competitive economy, with increased investment in education for the distressed sectors.
On the diplomatic front, I abolished the formula of "promoting peace as if there were no terror, and fighting terror as if there were no peace."
I initiated and inculcated the reciprocity principle, and demanded that the Palestinians honor the obligations outlined by the Oslo Accords, the first of which was fighting terror. When the Palestinian Authority gave the green light to two terrorist actions, my government halted the diplomatic process and prevented the transfer of funds to the PA for two months.
As a result, in our government's first year, the number of terror attacks and terror victims was reduced significantly.
We signed and executed the Hebron agreement. In exchange I demanded, and received, from the US a letter acknowledging Israel's right to determine the scope of its withdrawals under the Oslo Accords. This laid the foundation for my subsequent request that the Wye agreement include President Clinton's obligation to support Israel's decision to hand over only 1% in the third phase - a request that was granted.
By these moves, my government limited the scope of the three Oslo withdrawal phases to a total of 14%, placing the lion's share of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza - with no Arab population - in Israeli hands, while 99% of the Palestinian population moved to PA control.
I made no compromises on Jerusalem. My government closed six PA offices in east Jerusalem, and stopped the Orient House from serving as a Palestinian foreign ministry.
Despite Palestinian opposition and international criticism, we approved the construction on Har Homa. We doubled the number of Israeli police in east Jerusalem, and allocated record funds to Jerusalem's development.
Vis-a-vis Syria, we demanded, and received, a letter from the American secretary of state clarifying that the US viewed all previous Israeli government statements regarding withdrawal from the Golan as non-binding.
This step eliminated any possible pressure on Israel to leave the Golan and withdraw to June 4, 1967, lines.
In contrast with the "not one inch" policy, I was willing to reach cautious agreements in which Israel handed over a minimum and demanded reciprocity and security in return. This firm stance on Israeli interests moderated Arab expectations and allowed us to achieve, in Hebron and Wye, balanced agreements that protected our interests.
My policy also ran counter to the policy of "an agreement at any price," which unfortunately has been all too evident in recent months, and which has led to increased pressure on Israel to make concessions on all fronts, including Jerusalem.
On the economic front, we carried out an extensive reduction of the massive NIS 15 billion budget deficit that we inherited from our predecessors. My government cut the deficit from 4.7% to 2.5% of the GNP, and decreased inflation from 12% to 7% - without levying new taxes - largely through massive privatization of government companies, totaling NIS 8 billion in the first year alone.
We broke up monopolies and opened up markets to competition - including the international call market and the introduction of a third cellular carrier, and also introduced private mass transportation.
Unlike every previous government, we opened up the financial markets. We eliminated control of foreign currency, transformed the shekel into an international currency, and permitted Israeli citizens to hold foreign bank accounts. With these moves, we made Israel an integral part of the global economy. During our term, foreign investment increased significantly, particularly in hi-tech.
On the social front, my government initiated the country's first long school day, and free preschool education beginning with distressed areas. We promoted the "Computer for Every Child" project in these areas, and implemented a program for preventing domestic violence and helping children at risk.
My government arranged a NIS 1 billion recovery program with local authorities, and significantly increased the development budget for the minority sector, despite general budget cuts.
It is generally estimated that without my government's economic measures, the economic situation would have severely deteriorated following the Asian crisis one year later. The International Monetary Fund, the US government, and other bodies determined that our government made the greatest progress yet in transforming Israel into a free, competitive economy.
© 2000 - The Jerusalem Post