Israel Will Defend Itself, Vow Leaders on Memorial Day

Netanyahu: We have learned that the olive branch of peace will be achieved only if we remain strong.

Israel has learned that peace can only be achieved if it remains strong and prepared to defend itself, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday.

"Over the years, we have learned that the olive branch of peace will be achieved only if we remain strong, only if we are prepared to defend ourselves in the same way our fallen soldiers did at this site," he told a ceremony in honor of Memorial Day at Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill. "They attacked from this site and other hills not out of lust for war, but out of belief in the righteousness of the goal of defending the Jewish people's one and only country."

Netanyahu also stressed the importance of Jerusalem, saying, "Twice we have paid a heavy price to relieve the siege on Jerusalem - the first time during the War of Independence, and the second time when the city was bombarded during the Six-Day War. Jerusalem, which was then a withered, divided city, has returned to being a city full of life."

Since those wars, he added, not a day has passed on which Israel did not extend its hand in peace to its neighbors, "and our hand is still outstretched."

Netanyahu said that Memorial Day and Independence Day are inextricably linked. "We know that the first part is not possible without the second part," he said. "I wish it were different."

At 8 P.M. last night, Israel fell silent for one minute as sirens wailed across the country to mark the start of Memorial Day. President Shimon Peres then lit a memorial flame at the official ceremony at the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem and addressed Israel's bereaved families, saying that Israel seeks peace, but will defend itself in case of war.

"On this blessed occasion, I want to say in the name of the state of Israel at large: We do not seek war," Peres told the families. "We are a nation that yearns for peace, but knows, and will always know, how to defend itself."

Nothing, he told that families, can compensate for the loss of a loved one. "I am aware that nothing can compensate for the sound of your son's steps, which you expect to hear on the staircase, but have suddenly gone silent," Peres said. "Facing your tormented eyes, I am at a loss for words."

However, he added, "Israel's strength springs from the strength of its faith, and its greatness emanates from the heroism of its sons. Today we grieve for their loss and are blessed by their legacy."

Noting that Israel still faces threats, he warned those who seek to harm it not to "belittle our capabilities."

"There are still those who wish to annihilate us," Peres said. "At their head is the autocratic Iranian regime that seeks to impose its rule on the Middle East, silence it with lethal weapons and launch an anti-Israel incitement campaign to deflect Arab fears."

Though alone among the nations, he continued, "we had the good fortune to have sons that defended us with great courage. Alone we won seven wars, and emerged from them stronger and more determined.

"We are a democratic country, with many divisions and chasms, internal disagreements and wrangling, yet we are also a nation that knows how to stand united and put aside the bickering in times of need, to defend itself and inflict a resounding defeat on those who wish to destroy us."

He ended by thanking all those who have defended Israel and their families. "We want to express our gratitude, from the bottom of our hearts, to the youths who are no more, whom you raised and in whom you instilled the values that made them what they were until their last breath," he concluded. "It is their courage that gave our people the strength to face the challenges ahead - not to fear the enemy, not to cease building, not to lose faith in the peace to come. And it will come."

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi spoke after Peres, telling the families he understands their pain over having lost loved ones. He said every Israeli must ask himself if he has done enough for the country, and urged Israelis to foster unity and tolerance.

At other ceremonies throughout the country, such as Tel Aviv's annual "Singing in the Square," dozens of musicians and artists performed. There were also several alternative ceremonies commemorating both Arab and Jewish casualties.

Earlier yesterday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said a peace agreement establishing a Palestinian state is necessary to preserve Israel's Jewish majority.

"The challenge of our generation is to turn Israel in the coming decades into an exemplary society worthy of the dreams and sacrifices of our fallen ones," he told a Memorial Day ceremony at Tel Aviv University.

Israel, he continued, must defend itself uncompromisingly, but must also seek an agreement with the Palestinians. "Such an agreement is critical to national security, as only it will ensure a solid Jewish majority for generations, with clear borders and an end to the conflict," he said.

Today, a two-minute siren will sound at 11 A.M., to be followed by services in 43 military cemeteries. The 24-hour commemoration ends tonight, when Independence Day celebrations will begin throughout the country.