Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a major Jewish gathering in Jerusalem on Sunday that Israel’s relations with Arab nations were “improving beyond imagination” and predicted that “this will ultimately help achieve peace with our Palestinians neighbors.”
Netanyahu was speaking to a crowd of more than 2,400 delegates from 26 different countries attending the American Jewish Committee Global Forum – an annual event held for the first time in the advocacy organization’s 112-year-history outside the United States.
The key message of the Israeli prime minister – who earned several rounds of loud applause during this speech, as well as a standing ovation at the end – was that times have never been better for Israel, economically or diplomatically.
He also reassured the delegates that Israel welcomes Jews of all denominations and proposed that they pay a visit to the egalitarian prayer area of the Western Wall during their stay in the country. “We’re enlarging it so that anyone can pray at the Western Wall,” he said.
Diaspora Jewish leaders were furious at Netanyahu a year ago when, under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, he reneged on his promise to allow Reform and Conservative Jews to participate in the administration of the egalitarian prayer space as well. Netanyahu also backed out of his commitment to create a single entrance for the gender-segregated and egalitarian prayer areas, which was to have served as a sign that the non-Orthodox movements enjoy equal status in Israel.
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“Before anything else, Israel is the home of all Jews,” he told the delegates. “Every Jew should feel at home in Israel. This is our goal, this is our policy. The unity of our people transcends daily politics, even if it’s not always amenable to daily politics.”
Netanyahu revealed that he had just received figures from the International Monetary Fund indicating that Israel had for the first time surpassed Japan in per capita income. The figures also showed, he said, that gaps between the rich and poor in the country were narrowing “steadily and dramatically.”
The prime minister attributed these positive developments to the growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab citizens of the country joining the workforce. He noted that his government had approved the investment of an unprecedented 15 billion shekels ($4.2 billion) in the Arab community.
Speaking two days after the annual gay pride parade in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu also boasted that Israel was the “only country in the Middle East that welcomes gays.” He made special mention of Amir Ohana, the first openly gay lawmaker from Likud, calling him a “rising star in our party.”
David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, had been scheduled to address the event, but a representative of the AJC notified participants that he was unable to attend because he had been summoned to Washington D.C. “on important business related to the administration’s forthcoming peace plan.”
Netanyahu told the audience that the reason Israelis and Palestinians had failed to reach a peace agreement thus far was only because the Palestinians refused to recognize the Jewish state. “And that’s the problem,” he said. “It’s never been about a Palestinian state.”
If the Palestinians were truly interested in peace, he said, “then recognize the Jewish state, for God’s sake – that will bring peace once and for all.”
Netanyahu addressed the dangers of a nuclear Iran, saying, “Iran has produced one good thing – it’s brought Israel and our neighbors closer together as never before.” He made no mention, however, of the ongoing clashes on Israel’s border with Gaza.
The Israeli leader used the opportunity to praise Charles Krauthammer, the American columnist and political commentators, who revealed in recent days that he has only a few weeks to live. Netanyahu said he had sent Krauthammer a letter “I hope he can read,” adding that Israel “had no greater friend.”
Also speaking at the opening session of the four-day event was a leader of one of the largest Muslim organizations in the world, Yahya Cholil Staquf, general secretary of the Nahdlatul Ulama Supreme Council, which has 50 million members. The Indonesian religious leader has spearheaded numerous interfaith initiatives. AJC leaders described his participation in the event as “historic.” Israel and Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, do not have diplomatic relations.