SAN DIEGO - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rolled out a welcome mat for Reform Jews at the Western Wall on Sunday, in a speech delivered to the final plenary of the movement’s Biennial meeting in San Diego.
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"While the Wall may be in Israel," he told the gathering in a satellite address from Jerusalem, “it belongs to all of you, it belongs to you and to all the Jewish people, and I am committed to making sure that all Jews feel at home in our holiest site.”
Netanyahu thanked Union of Reform Judaism President Rick Jacobs for his efforts to help negotiate a compromise in the heated battle around the Women of the Wall: “No compromise is ever perfect,” Netanyahu said. ”But I am convinced that because of the work we are doing together we will ensure that the Kotel will be a place of unity, not division, unity, where all Jews feel at home."
The Western Wall, he said “is about what Israel has always stood for and what it has always stand for, that Israel is and must continue to be the homeland of the entire Jewish people. That's the place where all Jews, including Reform Jews, experience nothing less than ‘audacious hospitality’."
The audience chuckled at the use of the final catchphrase, which has been used frequently by Jacobs throughout the Biennial in relation to actively welcoming new members into Reform congregations.
Jacobs, meanwhile, thanked Netanyahu on Sunday for the “support that your government has given the Reform movement and our partners to change the way that Jews of all streams can pray and celebrate at the Kotel."
"To us it is a symbol of the day when those from the non-Orthodox streams will stand equal with the Orthodox rabbinate and community in the eyes of the state," added Jacobs. "It is a symbol of your efforts and ours to resist the attempts of those who would turn back the equality advances of women in Israel, before all those assembled here I want to acknowledge your personal role in achieving at the Kotel something that, when fulfilled will be a historic transformation.”
Jacobs emphasized the connection of Reform Jews to Israel and offered Netanyahu support despite the fact that “we know we have had respectful disagreements on some issues regarding the peace process on settlement expansion and the need to do even more for minorities in Israel.”
Netanyahu, who sent the crowd “greetings from a snow-covered Jerusalem” spent the majority of his speech hammering home strong messages on Iran and the negotiations with the Palestinians in remarks similar to those delivered another Diaspora audience last month at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations, he warned of the consequences of easing the sanctions on Iran without ensuring that they dismantle their nuclear capability.
Iran’s goal, he said, was to be “in a position at any time to be able to lurch forward in a matter of months and take the capabilities it develops to create nuclear missiles to put on top of warheads to be launched against Israel, against Europe or against the United States. That is something we all must stop.”
"I agree with President [Barack] Obama that our preference is to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully it would be the best thing," Netanyahu said.
But he coupled that with a warning “not to have any illusions” about what he believed to be the nature of the Iranian regime “even when they put up some charming front“ noting that since President [Hassan] Rohani took office in August, Iran reportedly has executed 300 people” and “is engaged in terrorism in 25 countries over five continents” and “directly participates in the murder of Syrian civilians.”
“There is a tendency to treat Iran like it is just another country, it’s become part and parcel of the community of nations," he said. "No it hasn’t. It smiles, it gives Power Point presentations in English, it talks the talk, but it walks the walk of death every day, every day,” Netanyahu said.
Regarding the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu said he was working in close coordination with Secretary of State John Kerry - hinting that the collaboration might be a little too close for his taste sometimes.
In a reference to their conversations in the speech Netanyahu said: “Secretary Kerry - John - whom I talk to - I was going to say every day, but I’ll amend that to every few hours… it's incredible, he goes on and on….” The throwaway remark triggered a major roar of laughter in the audience.
Netanyahu said achieving peace was Israel’s strategic goal and that he was “ready for a historic peace agreement” with the Palestinians “based on the idea of two states for two peoples” for which he was willing “to make difficult decisions” as long as it meant the Palestinians “would have no more claims against the one and only Jewish state.”
He told the North American audience that “it’s not about the settlements.” When rockets are fired from Gaza into Israel, he said “they aren’t fighting to liberate the West Bank, they are fighting to liberate Jaffa and Be'er Dheva.”
For real peace to happen, he said, “We have to get them [the Palestinians] to accept the Jewish state.” Palestinian leaders have to be willing to give what he has come to refer to as a “Bir Zeit speech” paralleling Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan declaration. The Palestinians must “confront their people," Netanyahu said, and tell them “it’s going to be over. We will live side by side in two nation states and we’re not going to try to dissolve the state of Israel or flood it with refugees. It’s over. It’s over.”
Until that happens he said, he was not willing to support a state in which they would ‘continue attacking Israel from improved boundaries.”
Netanyahu's speech from Jerusalem was the result of such last-minute negotiation that the event was not even printed in the event's formal program.
First, it was unclear whether or not the address - the first by a sitting Israeli prime minister to the gathering of the largest American Jewish organized body - would take place in person or via satellite.
For months, he had been billed as a speaker at the Biennial Event and the movement made much of the fact that it would be the first time that a sitting Israeli prime minister has spoken to the URJ Biennial. He then informed the movement that he would not travel to San Diego for the event.
Then it seemed uncertain whether Netanyahu would merely deliver a speech, or, as billed, field questions from Rabbi Jacobs, who has openly challenged the policies of the Israeli government on issues of religion and state, and was likely to try to pin down the prime minister on touchy question such as the restructuring of the Western Wall area.
The Prime Minister's Office said after announcing that Netanyahu would not be traveling to San Diego: "The Prime Minister accepted the invitation to address the delegates to the URJ biennial either in person or via satellite. At no stage was a commitment made to attend in person. The URJ leadership was informed in November that the PM would not be in the USA at the time of the conference and would therefore deliver his remarks via a satellite link."
Turnout at the final plenary session of the five-day event was relatively sparse, with less than a third in attendance than at previous plenary sessions. This was not because of any aversion to Netanyahu, however, but because many attendees wanted an early start to the airport to catch flights to the East Coast in the throes of winter weather.