WASHINGTON D.C. - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday addressed thousands of North American Jews at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, where he urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to relaunch peace talks immediately.
Abbas announced last week that he would not run for another term in an election scheduled for January, citing deadlocked efforts to revive peace talks.
"We should not place preconditions for holding talks, such preconditions have never been set in 16 years," Netanyahu said, referring to the Palestinian demand that Israel completely halt construction in West Bank settlements before talks can resume.
"No Israeli government has been so willing to restrain settlement activity as part of an effort to relaunch peace talks," the prime minister added, addressing Abbas by name and saying "let us seize the moment, let us relaunch peace talks immediately."
"Peace between Israel and its neighbors could spare our children the horrors of war," he continued. "Peace could also usher in a new era of tremendous economic progress for the benefit of everyone in the Middle East."
"I think people are beginning to see that we are eager to achieve peace with our neighbors," he said, "especially the Palestinians."
"My goal is not negotiations for the sake of negotiations. My goal is to achieve a permanent peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians - and soon," Netanyahu declared.
Referring to the Palestinian demand in previous rounds of peace talks that Israel grant Palestinian refugees from around the world the right of return to the homes in Israel from which they were expelled, Netanyahu stressed that "they must abandon the fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees, give up irredentist claims to the Negev and Galilee, and declare unequivocally that the conflict is finally over."
"It will take years for the spirit of peace to permeate levels of Palestinian society," he added.
"We're willing to make great concessions for peace but there can be no concessions on Israel's security. We have to ensure that weapons do not flow into the Palestinian areas in the West Bank, which overlooks Tel Aviv and surrounds Jerusalem."
Netanyahu also addressed the issue of the recent vote at the United Nations General Assembly on a UN-sponsored report which accused Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza last winter. The Goldstone report was adopted by the 192-member General Assembly in by a vote of 114-18. Netanyahu thanks the U.S. for voting against the resolution that called for the Goldstone findings to be "credibly and independently" investigated. He thanked U.S. President Barack Obama for "resolutely opposing this twisted UN resolution."
The prime minister went on to applaud the U.S. Congress vote, which preceded the UN debate, for condemning the "biased report."
Netanyahu began his address by saying that the Jews had brought "at least three big ideas to civilization: monotheism, the belief that all people have innate rights that transcend the power of kings, and the vision of universal peace."
His speech was briefly interrupted by a female protester who yelled out urging a lifting of Israel's seige on Gaza. But the prime minister didn't break his stride and quickly resumed his address, saying "I was better received at the UN." The protester was escorted out of the hall.
The prime minister then addressed the Jewish communities outside Israel, saying that "strengthening Jewish identity can no longer be a task exclusively for the Diaspora.It is increasingly the responsibility of the Jewish State."
"Over a decade ago, I was proud to be the first Prime Minister to allocate state funds to bolster Jewish identity outside of Israel. And I assure you that in my second term, I intend to do even more," he continued.
In Israel, a last-minute scheduling of Netanyahu's White House meeting, after Israeli officials said over the past several weeks that Netanyahu hoped to see Obama, was widely seen as a sign of strained relations between the two leaders.
However, Netanyahu's media adviser Nir Hefetz said Monday following the address that "on our side there is no tension. Molcho, the prime minister's special envoy sat with [U.S. Middle East envoy] George Mitchell's team earlier today and they prepared the [Netanyahu-Obama] meeting. Naturally it will focus on the Palestinian issue and we hope that the meeting will strengthen and deepen the channel of communication between the prime minister and President Obama, and that it will prompt the resumption of peace talks."
For the full text of Netanyahu's speech click here
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