Opinion |

The Next Israeli Prime Minister’s First Speech to the Palestinians

A message to the young residents of Rawabi, the new West Bank city that embodies hope for a Palestinian-Israeli future of peace, cooperation and mutual prosperity

Shmuel Harlap
Shmuel Harlap
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A Palestinian man looking at a scale model of the new Palestinian city of Rawabi in the West Bank.
A Palestinian man looking at a scale model of the new Palestinian city of Rawabi in the West Bank.Credit: AFP
Shmuel Harlap
Shmuel Harlap

I come here today, a week after forming the new Israeli government, to try to start a new chapter in relations between our peoples. I have chosen to come here, as the newly elected prime minister, in order to speak to you directly since you are the future Palestinian generation, with your whole lives ahead of you.

Rivers of blood and tears have been shed in the bitter conflict between our peoples. The so-called diplomatic process hasn’t led to any diplomatic accord, and nor has the “peace process” brought peace.

I am not here to point fingers or explain why we haven’t been able to end the conflict until now. Speaking to you here today, I want to address the future, not the past. When I say the future, I refer to two possibilities: A future where there is a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians; and a future in which we do not attain a peace agreement. I wish to outline for you these two possibilities from the vantage point of the new government.

A peace agreement must resolve the issues of the past and sketch an outline of the future. In the Brexit negotiations, the European Union and the United Kingdom first resolved the issue of the past – the payment of Britain’s debt to the EU for leaving it. Only afterward did the sides turn to negotiations on a future trade agreement. This is how we ought to proceed as well: First we resolve the demands of the past, and only then do we begin to discuss a final diplomatic agreement.

Your basic claim concerning the past is the demand for the return of refugees. Therefore, the first item on the agenda is a solution to the refugee problem. My government’s position is that Israel cannot absorb Palestinian refugees. The reason is clear: The return of the refugees would mean the destruction of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. But our refusal to take in Palestinian refugees does not mean we intend to avoid responsibility for our part in creating the refugee problem.

In contrast to previous governments, the government I lead declares that Israel bears partial – and I stress, partial – responsibility for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians having left their homes in 1948-1949 and becoming refugees. Therefore, my government will act to do its part in resolving the refugee problem, both declaratively and materially.

My government will ensure that Nakba Day is commemorated along with Israeli Independence Day. Nakba Day will be marked on April 9, the date of the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948, and it will be a national memorial day for the Palestinian “catastrophe” for when Israel was formed. A government committee will work in conjunction with the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee to determine the content and ceremonies for this day.

Additionally, Israel will participate in financing an international fund for compensating the refugees and their descendants. The fund will be established under the auspices of the United Nations and will be managed transparently by a designated administration. The Palestinian refugees and their descendants will be able to choose their place of residence outside of Israel within the framework of a regional accord among Israel, Palestine and the Arab states.

Resolving the refugee issue in this way will put an end to the demands of the past. The issues that remain on the table are the core issues pertaining to the future: Jerusalem, security arrangements, land swaps and settlements.

My government is prepared to divide Jerusalem into two capital cities: West Jerusalem, the capital of Israel; and East Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine. The “Holy Basin” area featuring the Old City and adjacent areas will be under joint sovereignty and open to all faiths.

The security arrangements will be bilateral: Palestine will be a demilitarized state, without an army, but with a strong police force. Israel, if asked, will assist Palestine in maintaining law and order to the best of its ability. Israel will annex the settlement blocs, amounting to 4 percent of the West Bank. In return, it will transfer a similar amount of land to Palestine.

All the settlements outside the blocs will be evacuated. The Gaza Strip will be connected to the West Bank via a special tunnel or bridge built for this purpose, which will be under Palestinian sovereignty. The borders between Israel and Palestine will be open to the movement of people and goods under a reciprocal trade and customs agreement.

These are the main points of the accord my government is proposing. I am confident that the sections I listed cover the main issues of the conflict, and that the solutions I have proposed are fair and answer the key needs of both sides.

But the Palestinian Authority still sticks to its historical refusal to sign a declaration stating there are no more demands and to end the conflict. Hamas and Islamic Jihad refuse to recognize Israel. Today, there is no Palestinian partner for ending the conflict. In the absence of a peace agreement, I must describe the second possibility for the future – one in which the conflict between us continues.

Standing here on this stage, I want to tell you that Israel has no intention of waiting idly by until your leadership decides to talk to us. Israel is determined to shape its own fate, and my government will thereby take the following unilateral steps: First, I declare a total building freeze outside the settlement blocs. Israel has no territorial demands beyond these blocs (the government will propose an evacuation-compensation plan for families and individuals in settlements outside of the blocs).

Second, Israel will maintain full and exclusive security control in the West Bank, without limitation. As long as there is no peace agreement, my government’s policy will be to continue the occupation and halt settlement expansion. I want to stress to you that the continuation of the occupation is not in Israel’s interest. We have no desire to continue controlling the Palestinian people. The military occupation was imposed upon us due to security considerations, and we will maintain it for as long as the security need persists.

It should be clear that Israel has no intention of repeating the mistakes of the past and carrying out a unilateral withdrawal.

In the absence of a peace agreement along the lines I laid out, Israel will continue to maintain the security status quo. It will ease your lives as much as possible and will wait patiently for the day when the Palestinian people and its leadership obtain the right to a state within secure and recognized borders.

Young men and women of Rawabi, 100 years of conflict have not brought the Palestinian people security, well-being and happiness. On the contrary, the Palestinian people has suffered greatly under different generations of leaders and under the rule of foreign occupiers.

The Israeli people extends an olive branch to the Palestinian people. Let us be able to say to the next generations: “In Rawabi, we laid the cornerstone for peace.”

Dr. Shmuel Harlap is a businessman.

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